Covering Gilas 3.0 remains to be one of the most memorable things that happened in my career not just because of the trips and the games I covered but more because of the brotherhood developed by that squad. They started in Estonia, became a team in Taiwan, developed a deeper bond in Cebu, and went out with guns blazing in Changsha.
This post, originally from the Laban Pilipinas microsite, was one of the last I wrote about that team.
Everyone deals with sadness differently. Jayson Castro drowned his with silence. He sat on one of the corners of the dugout wondering why his only subpar game of the competitions came at the worst time possible. Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Terrence Romeo covered their heads with towels as their eyes started to well. Calvin Abueva broke stuff and smiled. Gabe Norwood chose to stay positive, reminding everyone to build on whatever they achieved.
Gilas Pilipinas fell short against a mighty Chinese team playing in front of a raucous crowd but I’m not here to tell you how they lost, I’m here to tell you how they fought and how they’ll fight again.
“I’m already pissed off because I know what they’ll do tomorrow,” said coach Tab Baldwin the day before the championship game. The hosts proved him right two hours before the game when the bus dedicated to the Philippine team suddenly ran out of power which caused a delay.
“Remember this, guys, remember this during the game,” said assistant coach Alex Compton.
When Gilas got to the arena, the powers that be decided that they did not like how the net looked on the side where the Filipinos were shooting so they cut it off. China’s shootaround went on as planned.
At that point, Gilas had two choices: do nothing and accept what was being done to them or stand up and fight. Fed up with what was happening, Dondon Hontiveros walked towards the Chinese team and started taking shots at their rim.
It sent a message that Gilas will not be bullied but it didn’t mean the Chinese would stop trying. From the fans behind the Gilas bench harassing the players to the Chinese cameraman who cussed out Abueva, they did everything to break Gilas’ focus.
However, the severely outnumbered Filipino fans would not be silenced. At the risk of getting the ire of all the fans around them, they cheered their hearts out. When it got too heated, the Indian coach even asked the Filipinos to calm down because he was afraid they were going to be attacked. Nic Earnshaw, Sports5’s cameraman inside the venue, almost got into a fistfight as he told the Chinese cameraman to shut up and just do his job.
We fought back on the stands and on the floor but it was not enough. Gilas needed to play almost a perfect game against a gigantic Chinese squad but they fell short.
“Even in defeat, we come before you to give thanks and praise. May we never forget the feeling of today, Lord,” said JC Intal in their prayer inside the dugout.
“At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I really think we really did create something special. Maybe it was the mix of people in the room, maybe it’s the circumstances of how we built the team, maybe it was a little bit of both,” said Baldwin.
“I’m proud of you guys. We all wish for a better result but we didn’t get it done, they were a better team today. For whatever I didn’t accomplish with you guys, whatever my shortcomings were, I’ll do better. I’ll keep working at my craft and keep working at yours.
Nobody has to call very hard to convince me to do this again with you guys. God bless you all. Thank you very much.”
After Baldwin’s speech, members of the team consoled one another. Chot Reyes put his arm around Romeo. “Yung experience na makukuha mo dito, malaking tulong sa career mo,” he said. “Oo nga po coach. Babalik po ako sa Gilas. Babawi po tayo,” Romeo promised.
Romeo represented one side of the equation: the young and hopeful, the one who could still look forward future stints with the Philippine national team.
“Isang malakas, LABAN PILIPINAS!” shouted Abueva to end their last huddle. It will not be the last time The Beast says this line. “Iba talaga yung lumalaban para sa bayan,” he said. “Pakiramdam ko kanina kahit makipagpatayan kami sa court, okay lang.”
On the other side, there are those who know that this could very well be the last time they’ll wear the colors of the Philippines.
“Thanks, coach for changing my mind, ha?” Hontiveros told Compton. He was still recovering from a grueling PBA season for Alaska but his coach convinced him to do it. “Sulit di ba?” Compton replied. “Captain ka pa!”
Hontiveros, at least, had his moment against Japan. Asi Taulava didn’t get his. He sat on all of the three knockout games. He was the only Gilas player not to see action against China.
“I’m a soldier. I wanted to compete out there with my brothers. I wanted to go in there for 30 seconds, give out a flagrant foul, and get thrown out or something. I wanted to bleed for my country or get someone bloodied up,” Taulava said. “But I love this team so much I’d do whatever to help even if that’s cheering from the bench.”
When we were still in Taiwan for the Jones Cup, Taulava pulled me aside as we walked back to the hotel. “If I drop out of the team now, would you think that would help convince June Mar (Fajardo) to join?” he asked. Taulava was playing well in the tournament. It was his last shot at redemption as part of the national team but he was willing to give it all up for the sake of the team.
After the game and a thank you dinner arranged by SBP Chairman Manny V. Pangilinan, most of the members of the team including Andray Blatche stayed in Taualva’s room until the morning as they looked back on the road they all took to get here.
“Man, I feel like I’ve been with y’all for two years, not two months,” Taulava said. “You’d be 45 in two years so you better stop feeling that,” Blatche joked as the room exploded in laughter.
“You’d be 45 in two years so you better stop feeling that,” Blatche joked as the room exploded in laughter.
At least they were laughing now; they were inconsolable in the dugout. It was the same silver medal finish that the entire country cherished in 2013 but now the medal doesn’t appear to shine as much. It’s partly because back then, the second place finish meant heading on to Spain for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Now finishing second only brought along with it a spot in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, a tougher road to get to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The biggest reason for the drastic difference from 2013 to now was that the last Gilas team felt like it defied all odds to get there. Gilas 3.0, however, felt from the start that the gold should be theirs.
It’s an amazing feat if you look at it because our support for the program completely regressed. From giving them ample time to prepare for the FIBA Asia Championship, this team was only given two months to get it all done. The lineup was announced until after the PBA Governors’ Cup so the players who were called up did not have as much time to prepare their bodies.
With all the players that declined the invitation, the program to introduce a lot of new faces which means forging new relationships, learning new tendencies, and feeling out personalities, all of which took time.
The time they had in preparation was enough to beat Iran. It fell short of beating mighty China.
As the sun started to rise in Changsha, members of Gilas retired to their own rooms to sneak in a bit of sleep before flying home. Taulava tried his best to convince everyone not to leave. As his roommate Ranidel De Ocampo closed the blinds to their room, Taulava finally accepted that their time is up.
You can’t blame Taulava for holding on to these precious hours with the new brothers he has gained. In his mind, sleep was not important. There will be enough time for sleep when he gets home. Right now, all he wanted was one more story. One more memory. One more round. One for him. One for the road.
Right now, all he wanted was one more story. One more memory. One more round. One for him. One for the road.
But as De Ocampo finished closing the blinds and fixing his bed, Taulava finally realized that it was time to say goodbye to the team he already lost and the new family he found.