HARD work, determination, and the huge crowd factor were no doubt the principal reasons why Gilas Pilipinas realized its cherished dream of qualifying to the 2014 Fiba-World Cup in Spain.
Throw in a little bit of luck as well.
The basketball gods smiled on us as a confluences of events, from becoming host of Asia’s biggest cage spectacle at the last minute to the ban on Lebanon to the stunning fall from grace of defending champion China, led to that glorious weekend when the Philippines got back on the world basketball map.
No wonder members of the national team agree that the country was destined for glory in the 27th Fiba-Asia Men’s Championship which came to a close on Sunday night.
“Yes, I do. Very much,” team manager Butch Antonio emphatically said to Spin.ph when asked if he believes in destiny and in Gilas Pilipinas being a 'destiny’s child.'
Sonny Barrios, the ever amiable executive director of Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) agreed.
“It is what life is like, pag oras mo na, oras mo na. This is our time.”
Hardly given a chance to fight for the gold, all the national team wished for was a top three finish in the 15-team tournament to earn an outright berth in the world championships in Spain next year.
Instead, there it was before a crowd of more than 19,000 including President Aquino and boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao at the Mall of Asia Arena on a rainy Sunday night, battling 7-foot-2 Hamed Hadadi and a tall, strong Iran side for the bragging rights as the basketball power in this side of the world.
The national team lost the match, 85-71, although the runner-up finish was more than what was expected of it. Other than earning a return trip back to the world championship after a 35-year absence, the silver medal was also the highest the country achieved in the Fiba-Asia since 1986 which marked the last time the Philippine team won the crown under legendary coach Ron Jacobs.
And to think 11 months ago, the world basketball championship qualifier wasn’t supposed to be staged here after the country lost the bidding rights for the event to Lebanon. But in the first of several twist that favored Gilas, security uncertainty forced Lebanon to give up the hosting, which eventually was awarded to the Philippines.
As host, the country had the privilege of choosing which group to join during the drawing of lots, and after carefully analyzing the potential repercussions of avoiding an early collision with powerhouse China, Iran, and South Korea – all bunched together in Group C – coach Chot Reyes and his staff settled for Group A in the company of Chinese-Taipei, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Later on, Lebanon would skip the tournament altogether after Fiba suspended the country following an internal dispute between local clubs and its basketball federation. That meant one less worry for Gilas Pilipinas since under the tournament format the team is bound to meet the Lebanese - considered among the top five contenders - come the second round of the preliminaries.
Lady Luck smiled on us again.
“The stars aligned to give us every opportunity to make it in the Top 3,” acknowledged Ryan Gregorio, the Meralco coach who served as Reyes’ scout for Gilas along with Nash Racela.
It didn’t help either that a diplomatic tension arose between the Philippine government and Taiwan, a major development that resulted in Gilas Pilipinas failing to defend its Jones Cup title as organizers decided to revoke its invitation to Gilas at the last minute.
Suddenly without a competitive tournament to play in two weeks before the Manila showpiece, the national team booked a 10-day trip to New Zealand and played a series of exhibition games, an opportunity that paved the way for coach Chot Reyes to hook up with New Zealand national mentor Tab Baldwin – who, it turned out, will play a crucial role as special consultant of the Philippine squad for the Fiba-Asia tilt.
Talk about a blessing in disguise.
A crucial loss to Chinese-Taipei at the end of the first round preliminary, 84-79 in a game that saw the national team yield a 13-point fourth-quarter lead, had Reyes already looking forward to a possible quarterfinal meeting with the talented but suddenly vulnerable Chinese squad.
But fate intervened.
Qatar, which Gilas routed, 80-70, bounced back and beat Chinese-Taipei, 71-68, to forge a three-way tie for the top seed in Group E among the three teams. Behind a higher quotient, Gilas claimed the No. 1 spot and a showdown with Group F No. 4 squad Kazakhstan in the knockout stage, while relegating the second seeded Taiwanese in a do-or-die tiff with reigning champion China.
The national team survived a highly-physical Kazakhstan side, 88-58, for a semifinal date with old nemesis Korea. But Chinese Taipei came through with the tournament’s biggest upset after a 96-78 triumph over China, ending whatever hopes Yi Jianlian and the Chinese had of landing one of three berths at stake here for the world basketball championship.
And so the country’s first of two shots at a Fiba-World Cup berth boiled down to the dreaded Koreans, the very same team that had dealt the basketball-loving Filipinos a series of heartbreaking losses in the past.
“Of course, good fortune does not always just drop from the heavens,” said Barrios. “Most of the time, hard work must be undertaken.”
And work hard, Gilas Pilipinas did.
With naturalized player Marcus Douthit re-injuring a hurting shin and failing to return for the entire second half, the nationals had to overcome the deadly outside shooting of Kim Mingoo behind the gritty performance of Marc Pingris, Ranidel de Ocampo, Jayson William, Jimmy Alapag, and Gabe Norwood, and the raucous cheering of the Filipino crowd to hack out a gutsy 86-79 win.
Tears were shed and emotions were high following one of the most stirring victories in Philippine basketball history. And while Iran still stood in the way as Gilas turned its sights on the gold medal, the team – and just about everybody - knew the battle had already been won.
“There was mountains of hard work behind this event that resulted in good fortune for all of us,” said Barrios as he proudly looked while the national players were being awarded their silver medals during the awarding ceremony that proceeded the title match.
Added Gregorio, “Luck and hard work are a lethal combination.”