Gilas Pilipinas’ Asian Games gold medal win was a tale of redemption in more ways than one, and this is why we can’t stop talking about it.
It’s been almost a week since Gilas Pilipinas won the men’s basketball gold medal in the 19th Asian Games — the country’s first basketball gold since 1962. Many might say it’s been a long time coming. After all, the Philippines is full of basketball fans. On top of this, the Gilas men have faced their share of highs and lows throughout the last year — this is another deserved high they can add to their list, which already includes the SEA Games gold medal they won in May.
But this victory was not just about basketball, plain and simple. Gilas’ Asian Games gold tells a bigger, richer story.
Here are three narratives from Gilas Pilipinas’ triumph at the 19th Asian Games that made their gold medals shine even more brightly.
The pressure that Gilas Pilipinas faced heading into the Asian Games was lofty.
The team was fresh from the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where the Philippines’ played on their home courts in front of their adoring fans as hosts of the tournament — a unique privilege that should have been celebrated and used to its full advantage. However, a disappointing group stage run that eliminated Gilas broke the fans’ hearts. Though they salvaged their campaign with a win over China in their final World Cup game, the overall mood around Gilas was still relatively somber after this.
Given the Philippines’ world-renowned love of basketball, along with the amount of investments that continuously go into this sport, many expected the national team to perform better in global tournaments.
Thus, Gilas’ gold was a tale of redemption, and in more ways than one.
For one thing, this redeemed the team in the eyes of the public. Though the SEA Games gold medal from May this year was a huge victory for the year, the Asian Games gold seals Gilas Pilipinas’ spot as one of the best teams in Asia — a positive that fans really needed to feel after the World Cup.
For another thing, the Gilas men worked tooth and nail to reach the finals of the Asian Games basketball tournament, let alone win the gold. Facing China in the semifinals, the Philippines trailed by 18 points at halftime. But, in the third and fourth periods, Gilas rallied hard to cut the lead down little by little, until they managed to take a 77-76 win over the hosts and defending champions.
The victory, admittedly, already felt like we had won the gold medal. But, as this was Gilas Pilipinas’ first Asian Games finals appearance since 1990, this feeling was completely valid. And while fans celebrated the team as a whole, there was one figure who stood out.
Days after the Gilas Pilipinas men received their Asian Games crowns, fans were still singing praises for one player in particular.
In the semifinals of the men’s basketball tournament, China led the Philippines by 18 points at halftime and looked poised to advance to the finals. However, Justin Brownlee had something to say about this. In the second half of the game, the naturalized Filipino player went on a hot-handed run that saw him deal shot after shot. The deficit started to shrink, and after back-to-back three-pointers, he had done just enough to put Gilas in the lead with just over 23 seconds left.
In total, Brownlee finished the semifinals with 33 points, 17 of which he scored in the fourth quarter alone. Facing Jordan in the finals, he was again the team’s top-scorer, recording 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists for the gold medal.
On paper, sure, it may simply look like Justin Brownlee had the run of his career in the tournament that mattered so greatly. But, again, his side of the story tells more than just the double-digits he posted.
After Gilas Pilipinas’ run at the World Cup, there were many debates about which naturalized player would have led to a more successful campaign: the NBA rising star Jordan Clarkson or Justin Brownlee?
While having the NBA on his CV meant that Clarkson was a huge asset to Gilas’ squad (especially when he popped off against China) many fans shared the sentiment that perhaps the Philippines would have been better off with Brownlee, who’s been playing in the country for years. He understands the program and the style of play of Filipino basketball, and this kind of familiarity might have also been a huge asset to the World Cup run that would have been just as valuable as an NBA pedigree.
This side of the debate now has an additional piece of ammunition on its side.
With Brownlee’s incredible showing at the Asian Games, he has not only proven that he is a scoring machine but on top of this, that he has the ability to lead the team. Alfrancis Chua, Gilas’ team manager, expressed as much when he shared, “He’s not only a good player, Justin is capable of making his teammates better.”
Now, with this performance that led to an Asian Games gold, people cannot stop talking about Justin Brownlee. It will be a long time before anyone forgets about it, and maybe, a long time before someone else is chosen as the team’s naturalized player.
For the love of the game
There are many incentives that motivate athletes to perform in international competitions. One of the biggest incentives for winning is cash. But, in a press conference held a few days after the gold medal win in the Asian Games, Gilas’ management shared that the 12 players who represented the Philippines in the 19th Asian Games did not do it for the money.
“Not even one player asked how much they’re going to be paid,” team manager Chua said in Filipino. “They did not get anything extra just to play for the Asian Games.”
2023 has been a rollercoaster for Gilas Pilipinas, from a SEA Games victory to a disappointing basketball World Cup campaign. One more loss might have dampened the mood surrounding the team and the overall Gilas program further, and thus, the Asian Games mattered plenty in the eyes of both the fans and athletes. In theory, the least a player could receive for doing a job with this amount of pressure is cash.
But, as it turns out, the Gilas men did it for something greater: the country. Even without monetary incentives pushing them, they led themselves to the Philippines’ first gold medal since 1962.
These are the storylines that made Gilas Pilipinas’ triumph just that much sweeter. This isn’t just an Asian Games gold — it was a journey that combined narratives of redemption, proving oneself, and pure love of the game, making for an entire story that will not soon be forgotten.
Banner image from Philippine Sports Commission on Facebook.