(This is inspired by that beautiful INTERAKSYON Editorial: We ARE Team Pilipinas)

NOTE: The past few weeks have been one of pride. The Philippine Basketball team GILAS PILIPINAS came back to the world stage with aplomb by becoming part of the 16 best teams in the world to compete in the FIBA World Championships. This is about how they fought and lost. This is about how they won, even if they lost.

We deserved a win.

Not because winning is our birthright. But because winning makes sense of the fights we were ever in, of the struggles we ever had to go through. Winning is vindication. Winning makes it worthwhile.

I am not talking about winning the way we think winning should be however.

A friend of mine ran in inter-school meets and represented our university in college. He ran for four years and I’ve never seen him run before but during his last run, on his last year of competition as a student athlete, he asked if we wanted to see him. He said it would mean so much to him. So we went. I remember it was early Sunday morning when we took a cab together.

And then he explained rather sheepishly, “Ok, I’m going to run competitively for the last time in my life. And I have to tell you something. I’ve never won. In fact, I’ve always finished last or second to the last. I’m not as gifted as everyone else right there on the field, but I know I train as hard as everyone else. And so I decided to invite you because I wanted you to see. I will not win this, but I want it to matter.” And so with that, we were fired up to cheer our friend in the last 800 meters he will run competitively in his life.

At the 100 meter point, he was head to head with everyone else. At around the 200 meter mark, he slowed down a bit (or was it everyone else who became much faster?), and he was probably # of 8. By the 300 mark, he was #7.

Then something happened.

By the halfway mark, he started picking up and was toe to toe with #. At this point, we were shouting ourselves hoarse, and shouting our school’s name and his. By the 500 and 600 meter point he overtook him. And at the end of the longest 800 meters of my life, my friend ended up #5 of 8 runners who were more supposed to be more gifted than him.

Afterwards, we went to Jollibee and ate the best burger we ever tasted in our life.

It’s not a victory that will get written about in books or earn medals. But it’s a victory nonetheless. Victories like this one are more life-changing than getting medals. Winning over other people gives you a sense of fulfilment. Winning over yourself however makes you a man.

Which is the whole point of Gilas Basketball. It is the collective breakthrough of a nation that has languished in the love of the game that has not loved back, until . It’s a one way love affair (which is always an unhealthy love affair).

We dabbled in football and the Azkals, thinking perhaps that we are more genetically engineered to be soccer players than basketbolistas. But basketball flows through our veins. A few days after typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, people started playing basketball again like it’s our therapy against pain and loss. Well, IT IS our therapy against pain and loss. I think it is symbolic of our love of the game that Manny Pacquiao fights are almost always broadcasted in basketball courts in the provinces. I think it is symbolic of our love of the game that Manny Pacquiao HIMSELF is playing coach of a PBA team!

But as the proverbial hirit would put it, “I love music, music doesn’t love me.” We love basketball, but basketball has not returned the favour. We have a league that is pure entertainment and excitement in our own terms (think Crispa and Toyota, think Ginebra and Alaska, think Ateneo and La Salle), but cannot compete in the world stage. We are almost like Americans in our love of statistics and fantasy leagues, but we are still outside just looking in.

Then Gilas happened. Then #PUSO happened.

We lost our games except the last one. But how we lost! It’s one of those rare times when losing brings as much pride as winning. It reminds me of my friend running the greatest 800 meters of his life. We ran with the best of ‘em. We stood— of our 5’8” Jimmy Alapag selves— with the giants. We fought the titans. And we believed.

We believed we could win. The problem with the other Asian teams is that they’ve always gone to the Round of 16, and they’ve always lost. Losing has become a habit for them.

We do not have that habit yet. We played as if we belonged. We faced Argentina—#3 in the world—and gave them a hell of a fight. We fought Croatia—with an AVERAGE HEIGHT of ’8” (which is the height of just one of our tallest players)—and gave them hell. We played Puerto Rico like we were not upstarts in our first World FIBA tournament in decades. We showed them no respect. At the rate we were going, we would have made Team USA bleed. We played as if FIBA was our birthright.

All of a sudden, Ginebra-ball belonged in the world stage. All of a sudden, we were one barangay waiting with bated breath for a Pido Jarencio type shot, or a Big J “thou shalt not pass” type play. All of a sudden, Andray Blatche knew what it meant to play like a Filipino because that is the only way a Filipino can play. We leave everything on the court. We play as if our lives are on the line.

We played our hearts out. We cheered our voices hoarse. We bet our houses and the kitchen sink.

We ran the greatest 800 meters of our lives.

And we won.

[by Eric Santillan]

eric santillanAbout Eric Santillan
AngPeregrino lives with his wife in Shenzhen, China. He is currently on sabbatical to think about his next big step, knowing that he’s in a country of mind boggling opportunities. Before that, he was a management consultant specializing in sustainable business, competitiveness and culture management; and did counselling. He remains to be a writer for The Mindanao Current, and a retreat giver.

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