#PUSO is nothing new in Philippine basketball. We know of it as our battle cry, but when did it all begin?
Some say it began when Gilas finally lifted the Korean curse in 2013. Others claim that it was self-imposed by the Gilas program when it started way back in 2011. While some say it just came along as soon as the infamous Gilas 2.0 built their team.
Whoever or whenever the idea came up, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is something that will always unite Filipinos, especially the hoops fanatics.
It screamed loudest, however, when Gilas Pilipinas booked a trip to Spain back in 2014 for the FIBA World Cup. It was the crème de la crème for Philippine basketball.
And in this edition of #TheRewind and with just days away before Gilas once again showcase their all heart play in the World Cup, we look back at the time Gilas Pilipinas seemingly did the impossible and captured its first ever win in the world basketball competition after 40 years.
Heartbreaks and high hopes
Entering the World Cup back then, everyone knew that Gilas Pilipinas’ chances of winning a single game was stacked against the odds. Getting grouped with powerhouse teams like Argentina, Puerto Rico, Croatia and Greece, most fans became skeptical for the team to even win a single game. Truth be told, I was one of them. Heck, I even expected them to get beat badly by opposing teams.
Yes, they did break the 40-year drought of Filipino basketball making an appearance in the international basketball scene. Yes, they have finally ended the Korean curse and almost conquered the whole of Asia. Yes, they achieved more than anyone could have ever imagined.
But to steal a win or even make a close game out of some of the best teams in the world?
Hell no. Not a chance.
I was skeptical. But in my defense, I was also being realistic. After all, at the time, the Gilas team had nothing left to prove. They had already captured the imagination of every Filipino basketball fans.
Besides, playing the all heart #PUSO basketball could only get you much against the elites. If anything, competing against the best of the best was just putting the cherry on the top of the sundae.
In short, “pang exp lang”, nothing more and nothing less.
Gilas, however, was not having any of it.
Their first two games against Croatia and Argentina, respectively, was the grand introduction to the world of what Filipino basketball is all about. The Croatia game will forever be remembered as The One That Got Away, losing in overtime. Then, there’s pushing Argentina, the then 3rd ranked team in the world, to their limits (and Gabe Norwood dunking over them). These two games promptly put the spotlight on Gilas and put the world on notice that they were for real.
Gilas may have lost both games but the message was clear.
It reminded us of the words that I have never thought I would whisper in my head back then – “kaya pala”. And cynics like me were fools for believing otherwise.
But just as Gilas were rolling with their thunder, reality check knocked on their door. In their third game versus Greece, the Greeks’ physical advantages proved unmatched for Gilas (It was worth noting that Giannis Antetokounmpo was, well, not yet the Giannis we know now. Just imagine the destruction current Giannis would have caused) while JJ Barea almost single handedly dissected the entire Gilas team for Puerto Rico during their penultimate game.
After four games and four defeats in their World Cup campaign, the hope of advancing through the next round eroded for Gilas. And the peak of my all heart fandom for Gilas came in full circle – my skepticism for the team turned into hope, hope turned into heartbreak and heartbreak fueled a glimmer of hope once again.
Because the road for Gilas in the World Cup may have come to a halt but the chance to claim its first World Cup victory still remained.
One last game and one last ride for Gilas Pilipinas to show the basketball world what we were capable of.
Moment of Glory
It was a still Thursday night. Sitting on our apartment together with my friends, with chips and drinks and all, we were pretty hyped to watch Gilas’ final game in the World Cup. Even though the team was already eliminated, we were still all in cheering for our national team.
And why wouldn’t we be?
For weeks, we have adjusted alarm clocks, waking up at three in the morning or staying late at night just to watch the games. All we knew was that we had to witness Gilas’ grand exit at the tournament.
At that point, there were no longer second thoughts on my part. No more doubts and no more angst of witnessing another grueling or tough loss.
For us, none of it really mattered anymore. We were just going to eat our chips, drink our beers, enjoy the game and raise a glass for the Philippine team at the sound of the buzzer.
Gilas’ final sendoff in the 2014 FIBA World Cup came at the expense of Senegal – a relatively strong African team led by Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng who had beaten Puerto Rico in an earlier matchup.
The tale of the tape was nothing unusual for Gilas. They had the speed advantage while Senegal held the edge in terms of height and athleticism. Three-point shooting was once again going to be a key factor. Entering the game, Senegal was only shooting 31 percent from as a team from behind the arc. Gilas was clipping 33 percent. Although relatively a small difference, making outside shots had always been vital for the Philippines.
In the first half of the game, Gilas did just that. After trailing 19-13 at the end of the first quarter, Team Pilipinas started throwing up three-point bombs led by Paul Lee and Jimmy Alapag. They finished the half on a scintillating 24-5 run.
Leading 37-24 at halftime, we were pretty confident that Gilas had this game at the bag. I remember us already celebrating an impending win for our country and at times, even mocking the Senegal team.
“Sure win na ‘to.”
“No match naman pala sa Gilas.”
“Mananalo na rin sa wakas.”
Finally, the long awaited win was within reach. Just twenty more minutes of basketball and Gilas will make history once again.
After four heartbreaking losses, no way they let this one slip away. No way.
But then, our immature celebration stopped.
As the second half began, Senegal mightily adjusted and used its stifling defense to disrupt the ball movement of Gilas that was effective for them in the first half. In the process of doing so, Gilas started missing three pointers while Senegal converted easy points off of fast breaks.
Slowly but surely, Gilas’ lead was slowly chipping away.
From 15 points to 8 points and finally at the 2:30 mark of the 4th period, Senegal captured the lead back on a fast break lay in after a forced turnover. After Gilas answered with back to back markers to go up by three, Senegal answered back with a three-pointer to tie the game.
LA Tenorio had a potential game winning floater in the end game but clanked and the game went into overtime.
Suddenly, flashbacks of the Croatia game crept in on us. The game was once again slipping in our hands.
“This is not happening again.”
We were dead silent. No words were spoken. No drinks were spilled. We just found ourselves again on the edge of our seats. Our mocking faces that were earlier filled with smiles and jubilation became faces that no piece of art would be subjected to.
Both teams started the overtime exchanging blows. Every possession felt like a scene from John Wick. Action packed, no nonsense basketball and you couldn’t help but hold your breath as both teams fought tooth and nail.
With under two minutes left in the game with the score tied, Andray Blacthe fouled out of the game. Gilas was forced to play without their best player. But not without their best attribute: PUSO.
Playing possibly the game of their lives, Gilas Pilipinas relied on the emergence of Junemar Fajardo who converted crucial baskets and made key defensive stops. Also present was the undeniable basketball wit of Ranidel De Ocampo who made critical passes and held the fort in place of Blatche. Of course, where would Gilas have been without the ever so calm and collected leadership of Jimmy Alapag who sunk 3 late free throws and seal the win.
The buzzer sounded and the game was over. After all their hardships, after all their losses and after all the drama, the Philippines finally won a game in the World Cup.
At that night, as head coach Chot Reyes emphatically pounded his chest in celebration, he was not alone. Because that night, every Filipino was also pounding theirs with him.
As for us, well, we did get drunk and we raised a toast for Gilas just as we intend to. After all, our nervous hearts were finally relieved. And in the end, it was all worth it.