Gilas Pilipinas’ performance at the 2023 FIBA World Cup disappointed their fans while playing at home. How can we move forward from here?
The sound of footsteps as the crowd disappointedly emptied the Araneta Coliseum was like the weak, faint beats of a dying heart — a dying PUSO.
The word puso directly translates to ‘heart.’ But as far as Gilas Pilipinas and Philippine basketball are concerned, it’s used in a figurative sense that’s open to anyone’s interpretation. To me, it’s the unwavering belief and the unbending spirit of the underdog; that we will find a way to prevail no matter how much the odds are stacked against us.
Much like how our proud ancestors bravely fought cannons and guns with bolos, spears, and wooden shields, it didn’t matter who we were fighting. The only thing that mattered was that we were there to fight and that we were fighting to win.
For a while now, #PUSO has been the Philippine National Men’s Basketball Team’s battle cry. And it has been truly fitting to our team’s persona as a band of undersized, ragtag warriors that would willingly enter battle despite almost always coming in as the heavy underdogs.
But are we really still those guys? I’m afraid what follows is a lose-lose scenario.
On the one hand, if we say that we are, then that means that after about a decade (and a few billion pesos) into this heavily supported program, we have not made progress.
On the other, if we say we aren’t those guys anymore and we claim to have grown by leaps and bounds, then why are we met with the disappointment and exasperation of not even meeting minimum expectations?
To me, it’s the latter. The Gilas program has produced progress. The evidence is all around us, from the improvements in the previously neglected youth and women’s teams to assembling the current seniors’ squad and everything that comes together with it.
This is great and we credit those remarkable developments. But if we just strictly confine the discussion to that of the Gilas men’s seniors team, the question to ask is: Are we where we believe we are supposed to be? Whether you ask the public or those involved in the program, the answer should be the same: far from it.
And this is why I believe that the #PUSO era needs to be brought to a halt. It’s one that has flatlined several times but was artificially resuscitated. But maybe we shouldn’t anymore.
Am I suggesting that the Philippines abandon basketball? Of course not. That would be counter-productive and downright wrong. However, there needs to be a dramatic shift if we hope to maintain our basketball religion.
So what do we do? I’m not going to sit here and pretend I have all the answers. But to me, it’s pretty obvious where we can start.
Candidly speaking, Coach Chot Reyes has become a meme, a public enemy, a pariah all while in his quest to serve the country the best way he knows how. While I genuinely believe that he is doing his best to put Philippine basketball on the map, in the same breath, I can also respectfully say that he is no longer the right man for the job.
Let’s not go into detail nor choose to go down memory lane as I’m well aware that many can point to several examples of where this is highlighted. This is being written to move forward so let’s focus all our energy there.
Why not just do everyone a favor and put an end to this miserable situation? I mean, Coach Chot has publicly stated that he wants out more than once already. It’s time.
Reprogram the program
While coaching is a start, it’s not the end all be all of our shortcomings. Further, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that the game of basketball has been growing worldwide. With that comes the improvement of the level of play by all participating countries.
Like mine, I’m sure your social media feeds have been visited by Coach Tab’s “tactically immature” comment from years back and Coach Yeng Guiao’s more recent “Iwan na iwan na tayo”.
It points back to the bigger picture which is the whole Philippine basketball program — from scouting, player development, team strategy formulation, and so on.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The powers that be have already developed and put forth a laudable and holistic Gilas program backed by private funding, widely supported by the government, and almost blindly adored by the general public. (Note, there still lies the question of sustainability despite having all that, but let’s work with what we have for now.)
Speaking of powers that be, imagine your current state of frustration and heart-brokenness. Now multiply that by the biggest number you can think of and then again another time. Now, you might have an idea of what it is like to be in the shoes of Gilas Pilipinas’s biggest patron, Mr. Manny V. Pangilinan, more commonly known to most as MVP.
From putting the program together and supporting it in whatever way you can think of to making sure that we won the bid to be the host county for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, and everything else in between, no other individual has worked harder and given more to the Gilas program and the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas than this man.
And yet, despite all that, we already established we do not have much to show for it.
As a sports fan, I have long been grateful to the MVP group for bringing world-class sports experiences to our shores. So by no means is this being written with the intention of having him pull his support from the country’s unofficial national sport. It’s just a statement of fact about what the current system has produced as output.
You know how they say “If something ain’t broke don’t fix it”? Well, the Gilas Seniors program needs fixing.
The underdog card is played out
The Philippines has qualified for the last three editions of the FIBA World Cup (2014, 2019, and 2023). This fact alone is enough to establish that we belong at the world level.
The underdog mindset is a good one to have. But the attitude of how we’re hiding behind it is a losing one. More importantly, it no longer rings true. Coach Chot recently said in a press conference that “we have to punch above our weight” and while I empathize with his sentiments when he said this, it just felt ‘convenient’ (for lack of a better term) and as expected, it raised a lot of eyebrows in the process.
Coach Rajko Toroman was recently quoted saying that this Gilas team “is the most talented squad ever assembled”. And this is true. Man-for-man, you can take our current Gilas squad and say that our current roster stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of talent, capability, and potential.
Naturally, with that talent, we will no longer be perceived as underdogs but as a legitimate threat. Which means opposing teams expect you to have a good chance at beating them and that the fans also expect to win.
Losing is very much a part of the game. But when making this statement, we have to be careful to not forget that winning is a part of it too.
The recent victories of ‘underdog countries’ like Japan, South Sudan, and Cape Verde in the same tournament speak volumes to echo this point.
The Philippines will not magically stop becoming underdogs because of a shift in thinking. To use Coach Chot’s narrative, we focus on what we can control. And there are a lot of things that we have control over that can get us “unstuck from the mud”. We just have to do it.
As an optimist, I have full trust that this rude awakening will inspire us to band together. Heck, I’m sure there are many like me who will still be cheering my heart out against the Italians tonight — if not even harder!
Pinoys and our love for basketball will never die. But to me, the #PUSO era has had its day. It’s time for the dawn of a new one; one that’s more suited to the current state of our unofficial national sport; one that fills our heart with pride as a nation as it once did.
Banner image by Vyn Radovan.