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THE ROAD TO SPAIN: PART 10

Perfect basketball

By: - Sports Editor / @ftjochoaINQ
/ 05:49 PM September 09, 2014

fiba 2014 gilas pilipinas

The ghost of defeats past

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Lawyer Jomar Castillo was seated in a box suite, in the front row, directly facing  the Gilas Pilipinas bench. He had watched Marcus Douthit limp out of the court with five minutes left in the second quarter and with every second, the reality was setting in: Douthit wasn’t coming back. And now he was staring straight at Marc Pingris, the energetic, however undersized, forward who had the guts and game to battle the Korea frontline, as he sat on the bench, head bowed and obviously in pain.

Castillo no longer thought of the game in measurable basketball terms like rebounds, points, blocks or whatever. He wasn’t even thinking of game-related intangibles like hustle or hard work. His thoughts were filled with such phrases like “God’s will” and “Pinoy pride.”

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Bong Ruado, a political consultant, was at Patron B. He had spent close to P200,000 watching the entire Fiba Asia championship, including purchasing pricey courtside seats for two every game. For the Korea match, however, he swapped those two premium Patron A seats for cheaper Patron Bs so more friends could join him in watching Gilas Pilipinas try to book a berth to the Spain World Cup.

“Our Gilas players gave blood and sweat fighting for our country. I felt, being a passionate basketball fan, that I had the duty to support the team. [Every fan] could have stayed home and watched the games on TV, but we decided to battle traffic, rains and what-have-you to support our national team,” Ruado said.

At halftime of Day 10, Gilas Pilipinas needed that support badly.

Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president Manny Pangilinan, seated at courtside, sent someone to the Gilas Pilipinas locker room to check on Douthit. He knew beforehand what the rest of the nation would find out later: The native New Yorker, naturalized to boost the Philippines’ chances to make it to Spain, wasn’t coming back. He was done for the night.

The giant scoreboard read 39-36, Korea.

Ranidel de Ocampo also sensed Douthit wasn’t coming back. He knew what he and his teammates needed to do.

Kumbaga sa giyera, nawalan na kami ng tangke kaya tao-tao na lang ang labanan (If this were a war, we had lost our tank and we had to fight man-to-man),” De Ocampo said.

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Gilas Korea Pingris

Pingris, playing through the pain.

Pingris got the message. As the seconds ticked down to the start of the third period, he got up, still needing an extra boost to see him through the searing pain in his leg. Three berths to Spain at stake. Two more quarters to shoot for a berth. One long-tormenting foe to slay. Pingris needed help.

From their seats on the court, Ruado, Castillo, Pangilinan and the thousands of people who packed the Mall of Asia Arena gave Pingris what he needed. They gave every bit of themselves in every single cheer. “Puso (heart),” they chanted.  “Laban (fight),” they screamed. Pingris heard it all.

Wala lahat ng sakit (The pain disappeared),” said Pingris. “Para silang gamot. May sakit man o pagod, ang sarap ng feeling na sumisigaw sila ng ‘puso’ at ‘laban’ (The crowd was like medicine. You may be tired or hurting but it feels good once they start shouting ‘heart’ and ‘fight’).”

No more tanks for these final two quarters. Just soldiers. And Pingris knew they were ready.

Magpapakamatay na kami kung kailangan para sa bayan (we were ready to give our lives for the country),” he said.

When the third quarter opened, Jayson Castro was the first to spark Gilas Pilipinas—and the crowd. Using his trademark quickness, he tore up the Koreans’ interior defense with daredevil drives to the hoop. Pretty soon, the opponents started collapsing on him and Castro responded by setting up his teammates. All of a sudden, Gilas Pilipinas shots started falling. All of a sudden, the Philippines turned a three-point halftime deficit to a 65-56 edge entering the fourth.

The crowd went nuts. Pangilinan alternately pumped his fists and applauded furiously. Somewhere in the middle of that huge third quarter, Gilas Pilipinas even erected a 63-53 advantage. Not only was the offense humming, the defense was starting to fall into place too. Korea’s top scorer Cho Sung-min finished with just six points for the game. More importantly, none of those points came in the second half.

It seemed as if Douthit’s absence galvanized the squad.

Philippine Basketball Association commissioner Chito Salud, who was also in the arena, sensed the same thing. “These guys are pros. When things like this happen, when your best guy goes down in a crucial situation, I felt like they’re used to stepping up and filling the void.”

But the Philippines’ story in international basketball is littered with heartaches.

“We’ve come so close in the past, but it always seemed like we could never get over that hump,” said skipper Jimmy Alapag.

And Korea had authored some of the most painful defeats in modern Philippine basketball history.

In 1998, Tim Cone’s Centennial Team lost a classification game to Korea in the Bangkok Asian Games. That sent the team into a semifinal showdown against China, which the Filipinos lost. In 2002, a team coached by current Gilas assistant Jong Uichico dropped a heartbreaking semifinal loss to Korea after Olsen Racela missed two key free throws that allowed Lee Sang-min to win it with a triple at the buzzer. And in the 2011 Fiba Asia Championship, Gilas Pilipinas, under coach Rajko Toroman, lost a heartbreaker of a game in the battle for third.

“Against Korea, it wasn’t just the losses, but the type of losses. I was well aware of 2002. I was part of the team in Wuhan and we had Korea at the brink and the next thing you knew, we lost by two,” Alapag recalled.

Almost lost in the hype and excitement surrounding the semifinal duel was the fact that Gilas Pilipinas actually could have gotten one more shot at the Fiba World Cup even if it ended up losing. Three berths were up for grabs in the Fiba Asia championship. The finalists would get the first two and the winner of the playoff for third would nail the last ticket to Spain.

Pangilinan, in fact, was confident that had the Filipinos lost, they still would have won the third place playoff against Chinese Taipei and advanced to Spain anyway. “If we met Chinese-Taipei, I felt like the boys would kill themselves to exact revenge.”

But that was a slippery slope to take. Not only would the Philippines play against a team that had already beaten them in the tournament, it would also do so against a squad riding on a euphoric high after having beaten long-time tormentor and Asian powerhouse China.

Besides: “[The Korea game] was the one game we wanted to take us to the World Cup,” Reyes said. The team felt that way. The crowd felt that way.

Reyes did not have any bad memories with Korea. In fact, he is one of the rare national team coaches who have a solid record against Korea. Still, he was aware of the inescapable narrative of Day 10 and, despite his insistence on not dwelling on what had happened in the past, said “this is for Jong, for Olsen, for Rajko and for all those who had tough times against Korea.”

But just as things were starting to look good, the ghosts of past defeats began to surface.

This time, it took the form of a 6-foot-3 wingman named Kim Mingoo, who couldn’t seem to miss a shot.

The 6-foot-3 guard’s numbers for the night were huge: 27 points, five triples. But even bigger were the moments that he drained his baskets. First off, there were the two triples strung together to open the final quarter. Those buckets seemed to wash ice-cold water over the spirited atmosphere at MOA Arena. A four-point play with 4:40 left in the match gave the crowd and Gilas Pilipnas an uh-oh moment—Korea had crawled to within a point, 73-72.

And then came dread. Hyperactive forward Lee Seiung-jun stuffed a dunk and squeezed a split from the stripe. Two plays. That’s all it took for the Philippines to fall behind by a basket, 73-75, in the most important game of its campaign in the Fiba Asia championship.

Gilas Pilipinas needed one more push. The Nationals needed to gut it out one last time. Alapag, the team captain, took a look at his bench and at the crowd.

“Moments like this is when you find out a lot about yourself, about how much heart you have,” he said.

At that moment, Alapag, de Ocampo, Pingris and Norwood took over.

First, Alapag nailed a triple to push the Philippines back ahead, 76-75. The nailbiter continued with Kim Tae-suk knocking down a jumper that pushed the Koreans back on top. De Ocampo struck with a layup and dialed in a triple on opposite sides of a Korea turnover and Gilas Pilipinas again booked what looked like a comfortable cushion, 81-77, 1:31 to play.

But Korea refused to stay down. Yang Dong-geun hit two free throws and once again, the Koreans were within a basket of ruining the Filipinos’ dream victory. All Korea needed to do was make one more stop. And of all Korean national teams of late, this was one squad that knew how to make stops.

“They had a good pressure defense. They were good at man-to-man. And they had a very good 1-3-1 zone,” Reyes said. “They weren’t as offensively potent as any of the old Korean teams, but they played really good defense.”

Gilas Pilipinas needed one more shot to close this one out.

Once again, Alapag looked at the crowd. There was a sense of kill in the crowd at that moment.

“I don’t think 20,000 people were going to let Korea out with a win that night,” Alapag said.

Still, of those 20,000 people, there had to be one person who needed to deliver the closer.

Funny that guy had to be Jimmy.

 fiba 2014 gilas pilipinas

The right person at the right time

Imagine the universe as an infinite set of basketballs rushing in different dizzying directions, each one representing a possibility. Now imagine those balls colliding with each other, with every collision creating a specific circumstance in real life. Two balls collide and the earth was born. A thousand more collisions and suddenly, there was life. Specific balls crash into one another and the dinosaurs became extinct.

Imagine the exact number of specific basketball collisions then that it took for Jimmy Alapag to be at a certain spot on the floor of the Mall of Asia Arena on Day 10 of the 27th Fiba Asia championship.

Of the endless possibilities that those infinite zooming balls provided, it had to take an orchestrated combination of coincidences to put Alapag beyond the arc corner of the hardcourt with less than a minute to play in a tense semifinal match against Korea.

Two wrong balls collide and he would have never been discovered out of Cal State San Bernardino. Another wrong collision and any one of the nine teams that passed on him during the 2003 PBA Draft could have tabbed him, thereby rewriting his entire career arc. Heck, a wrong combination of cosmic basketballs colliding could have even convinced Chot Reyes to believe in concerned critics and leave Jimmy Alapag out of the squad that sought to return the Philippines to the World stage.

In fact, even SBP president Manny V. Pangilinan, the telecommunications magnate who bankrolls that national basketball program, was admitted he was skeptical about Alapag tabbing a roster spot in Gilas Pilipinas.

“Why Jimmy?” was Pangilinan’s initial reaction.

“I mean, I have utmost respect for the guy but I felt that in international competition, he is too small,” Pangilinan said.

Reyes laughed at the recollection. “He’s going to give his comments. But he lets the people he puts in charge make the decisions. Besides, it wasn’t just MVP (Pangilinan). A lot of concerned people were wondering if Jimmy should be on the team.”

“But it was plain coach’s instinct,” Reyes added. “Coaches should know what kind of players they need and they should be able to stand up to people who question those choices. When it came to MVP, though, I simply told him: ‘No, boss, we need him.’”

You can concoct a billion brilliant basketball strategies and yet a single defeat will have people calling you stupid. Or you can pull off one decision riding on gut feel and it would turn out to be pure genius.

“In the end, Chot was right,” Panglinan said.

The universe, for all you know, could be an infinite number of basketballs moving in different, dizzying directions, but on the 10th day of the Fiba Asia championship, there was just one ball—more concrete than cosmic—and it was in the hands of the right person at the right time.

Imagine that.

Perfect basketball

MARC Pingris had fought as hard as his injured leg could fight. He battled for loose balls. He defended the paint. He scrambled for rebounds. Ranidel de Ocampo had shouldered the offense that went with Marcus Douthit to the locker room and Pingris felt he needed to exert himself more in the clutch. The pain in his leg? The one he had prayed during the halftime break would go away? It was finally chased away by the crowd.

Kanina, pagod na ako at may nararamdaman akong sakit. Pero pagnaririnig ko sila, iniisip ko na kakayod ako para sa kanila (I felt tired and I felt pain. But every time I heard the crowd, I always told myself I’d work hard for them).”

Gabe Norwood, meanwhile, struggled with his shot all night. He finished the game with just two points, making just one out of six attempts from the field.

They would be two of three players who would conspire to lower the hammer in the stretch and finally slay the Korea ghost.

The third player? Jimmy Alapag.

The clock was down to its final minute. Alapag crossed the halfcourt mark. National coach Chot Reyes sensed something. The way Jimmy moved, the look on his face. Reyes had seen it before. A lot.

“It’s a play we prepared for because I’d seen that a lot of times,” said Reyes, who also coached Alapag with Talk ‘N Text in the Philippine Basketball Association. “[Korea] was staying home on our shooters. I knew Jimmy was going to take over.”

Pingris rushed to Alapag, and set a pick for the playmaker.

“It was a great pick set by Ping,” said Alapag.

Alapag used the pick wisely, brushing his defender close to Pingris and creating just enough separation to square himself up for an attempt. He picked up his dribble and let the ball fly.

Sitting in a dimly lit gym in Quezon City, barely two weeks after Day 10, Alapag could still point to the spot where he released the shot at MOA Arena. And he could remember the things running through his mind.

“I just wanted to hold the flow-through long enough,” Alapag said. Later, chuckling, he made a Space Jam-Michael Jordan reference. “I really wished my arms could stretch 21 feet, nine inches so I could guide the ball to the net.”

He didn’t need to.

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the ball and its arc. Political analyst Bong Ruado, in his Patron B seat, watched the trajectory. A fan of the San Miguel Beer franchise in the PBA, Ruado had watched Alapag burn his team with shots like the one he had just taken. Lawyer Jomar Castillo sat tensely in what he called was his lucky seat during the Fiba Asia championship. Also watching the shot was basketball federation president and tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan.

“At that point, I was like everyone else. I was a spectator,” Pangilinan said.

The shot hit the mark.

All of a sudden, an entire arena erupted. Gilas Pilipinas was up, 84-79.

Ruado screamed, fished for his cellphone and hurriedly typed in a tweet. “Money,” he called Alapag. Castillo screamed “yes,” high-fived a close friend and hugged his wife, Marica. Pangilinan applauded wildly and shook his fists. “I was ecstatic,” he said.

A rock anthem blared from the coliseum speakers. “I sang along as loud as I could,” said Castillo.

Alapag, meanwhile, numbed out the celebration that shook the arena.

“I couldn’t react just yet because the game wasn’t over,” Alapag said. There were 54 seconds left to play. Korea had a timeout to burn. And they had a certain Kim Mingoo, who had turned the second half into target practice from beyond the arc.

But even as Alapag calmed himself down, internally, he was going crazy, and understandably so. “Inside me, I was jumping up and down and screaming. It was, by far, the biggest shot I ever made in my career.”

Off the timeout, Korea ran Kim through screens to free him behind the three-point line. Norwood, the Philippines’ go-to guy when it needed someone to shut down someone on the wings, anticipated the play.

“I was shooting the ball poorly and I had to do something,” Norwood said.

Chasing Kim through a screen, Norwood tracked the streaky shooter right down to the moment he received the ball. Kim faked once, getting Norwood off his feet, but not enough to shake the pesky swingman off. Kim tried to take advantage of Norwood’s bite and put a shot up.

But Norwood recovered in time to make a second leap and a legitimate challenge. “I had to do something to contribute in the end. [Kim] was on fire. I had to find a way to stop him,” Norwood said.

Norwood found a way. He blocked Kim’s shot, managed to recover the ball and tap it to Ranidel de Ocampo. On a clearout, Jayson Castro drove to the hoop. He missed his shot, but Pingris again hustled to collect the rebound and put the shot in.

The scoreboard read Gilas Pilipinas 86, Korea 79, with 20 seconds to play. Everything was a blur after that. A missed shot on one end, a rebound and then the buzzer gloriously exploding. On the bench, Chot Reyes, who was so stoic, so even-keeled throughout the tournament, broke down.

“It was a pure emotional release. The pressure I kept inside me, I let it out. I [had been] keeping myself from being too happy, too sad the whole tournament. [When the buzzer sounded], that was the only time I allowed myself to be overcome completely by emotion. [I allowed] myself to not think and feel it and take it all in,” Reyes said.

An entire coliseum broke down.

“When Gabe got that block, we realized, this is the moment,” Alapag said.

The demon had been slayed.

“We were going to Spain,” Reyes said.

“My God, this is history,” Pangilinan said. “[I was] happy for the team, happy for the country.”

Gilas Pilipinas Korea

Sweet victory.

On the court, players were crying, hugging each other and celebrating. In the press room, Pingris and de Ocampo needed time to quiet the sobs before they were able to say anything at all.

“Puso lang talaga (Really, it was all heart),” Pingris said.

Later, when the screams died down, when the lights were turned off, Alapag walked out of the locker room and surveyed the empty arena.

“It’s a proud, proud moment to be a Filipino,” Alapag said softly.

“[We felt] like a bunch of little kids who won their first game ever,” Norwood said. “It was like that, but instead of just your parents watching the game, we had like 20,000 [people] in here like they were our parents. It felt like our family was out here to support us.”

It was the perfect basketball evening for Gilas Pilipinas. It was the perfect basketball evening for an entire nation.

Long after midnight tucked Day 10 inside the dreams of millions of Filipinos who went to sleep with a smile on their faces, the roars that accompanied that victory over South Korea would continue to echo. And it will continue to echo because it will go down as one of those basketball stories people will never get tired of telling.

Gilas trips Korea

Pingris, like a warrior

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