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Sunday, April 21, 2024

10 factors that led to Gilas Pilipinas’ gold

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One night in February last year while I was relaxing in a coffee shop in Mandaluyong City, a guy on an electric scooter came in to order and take out something. You could tell from his physique that he is some athlete, yet nothing in his demeanor implied that he is actually a bonafide star. I eventually realized he is Justin Brownlee so I went to him and we had a small talk about, well, basketball.

For everything he has done for crowd drawer Barangay Ginebra, and the Philippine Basketball Association for that matter, right up to that moment, I felt he could just dribble out the remaining days of his career and still end up as the greatest PBA import.

Thus, coach Tim Cone was masterful in motivating him in a certain tone in the just concluded 19th Asian Games. He encouraged the premium naturalized player to do something “unforgettable” or beyond “awesome” as he did for Ginebra several times. Justin delivered and came to play big in a tournament where Gilas Pilipinas overachieved (yes, that’s the right word!). They took home the gold 61 years after the Philippines last did it in the Asiad.

Brownlee must top this list of things that happened en route to Gilas Pilipinas lording it over Asian opponents right after the Philippines hosted The World Cup. Items 2 to 10 may come in the order you like.

The Gilas Pilipinas team celebrates its Asian Games’ title conquest.

1. Justin Brownlee playing a la Jordan

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Gilas Pilipinas beat Jordan in the gold medal match partly because they had a Michael Jordan-like figure in their midst. No pun intended. Justin’s heroics against China is now being compared to that of Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds outburst for the Houston Rockets during a regular season match against the San Antonio Spurs. His impact for the Gilas throughout the tournament, however, is Jordanesque. He could drive strong, hit from the outside, and most especially, delivered when the game was on the line. That he was able to hit a couple of unbelievable shots essentially bigger in scale than when he powered the popular Barangay Ginebra to a PBA throne with a buzzer-beater should prove the point.

2. Tim Cone agreeing to coach

With just a couple of weeks’ preparation, Coach Tim did a Robert Jaworski who took the responsibility in the 1990 Beijing joust on a rush. He did it in a more spectacular fashion, of course. Looking back, The Big J had PBA’s “dream team” even before the labeling Dream Team was popularized by a bunch of NBA stars. Cone, who even surpassed the bronze finish of his famed 1998 Centennial Team, had to make do with who were available in the pool in light of some players not being allowed to join due to technicality.

3. Chot Reyes stepping aside

For some reason it’s not perfect to say Coach Chot resigned because in these times people are entitled to say things the way they want it to sound or be identified as something they would rather prefer. Nobody wants to be in the shoes of a former national team coach who witnessed his replacement win everything just a month after relinquishing his post amid calls for his resignation. The beleaguered tactician often criticized for his strategies and suits did what he had to do and it opened the path to a gold.

4. Last-minute replacements

Turned out to be a blessing in disguise to have guys like CJ Perez and Kevin Alas when rules won’t allow explosive players Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva to jump in. Both players promptly showed up and made valuable contributions that helped clear the path for main star JB to win it for them. Even Chris Ross sparkled on the bench as he was seen often stirring up the whole team.

5. Team play over Iso

Watching the ball stay in one’s hands until a forced shot was made became an eye sore linked to the team that fought in the recent World Cup. Seeing this group pass the ball around like the Alaska dynasty of the 1990s was a kind of poetry in motion. There is no “I” (read: Isolation) in Team, right?

6. “Rivalry” versus China

Back in classic PBA, the rivalry between Crispa and Toyota were so fierce they’d rather lose to “weaker” or less-popular ball clubs than be on the losing end of their every face-off. That was at stake when Gilas Pilipinas met the Chinese five in front of a hostile away crowd in Hangzhou. It felt like these athletes were settling the political issue on the West Philippine Sea. It was also a sort of grudge match after China beat the Philippines in the finals of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship in their home turf and then the Philippines routing China in last month’s World Cup right inside the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

7. Forgettable World Cup

Let’s admit it. The 2023 World Cup result was a disappointment as Gilas won just once in five games despite the support of a passionate home crowd. It was different back in 2014 when the underdog Gilas Pilipinas nearly shocked the world by almost beating obviously tougher opponents like Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Croatia. That also happened after the Philippines apparently broke the Korean curse by beating South Korea in a tight semis match that sealed their return to the World Cup after decades of absence. Tim Cone’s boys had a mission to make their Asian Games campaign something worth remembering.

8. PBA MVPs powering the starting five

Justin “Noypi” still needed ample support even if he was displaying a one-man showcase for the ages. Six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo reminded everyone that he has more trophies than legends Ramon Fernandez and Alvin Patrimonio, making his presence felt each time he’s on the court and doing just enough damage to opposing teams. Same goes with Scottie Thompson, the player who stopped Fajardo’s MVP rampage and who was bashed for not contributing much during the World Cup run. Under Coach Tim, he performed exactly the kind of player that made him a fan-favorite. He hustled, hit the long ball, and dived for loose balls.

9. Facing tougher teams

Jordan had to go through Saudi Arabia and Chinese Taipei in the knockout matches before facing the Philippines. In comparison, Gilas had to survive Iran’s onslaught in the quarterfinal tussle after they charged back from 21 points down. Then in the final four, they needed to bounce back in time after trailing by 20 points versus China. History informs both China and Iran are heavyweights in Asian basketball. Gilas went into the championship battle oozing with confidence and toughened to the hilt. They won having to face three of the four top-ranked teams in the group stage.

10. Solid PBA

Having the likes of Dwight Ramos and Rhenz Abando is a welcome addition to the cause of Philippine basketball. And yes, Ange Kouame suited up as a key cog in the Asian Games tilt. But it can’t be denied that there is something significantly solid in a team of PBA players. The country’s top professional league has proven itself as home to the brightest players in the Philippines, and it still exists despite criticisms over its style of play or dwindling crowd attendance. Small wonder that the 1990 and 1998 national team editions sent to the Asian Games bagged medals, while the original Smart Gilas program lineup somewhat underachieved. In fact, many from that Gilas pool eventually became PBA stars, including Marcio Lassiter who at the last minute made it to the lineup of this roster to remember.

(Editor’s note: Yugel Losorata is Filipino journalist-musician and basketball fan who followed the Gilas Pilipinas run in the 19th Asian Games watching from California, USA.)

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