Is it simply because he plays for Filipino favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers?
In the buildup to the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Filipino basketball fans were paying attention to the roster updates of two particular national teams, perhaps more than the rest of the 32 participating countries. The first is, of course, Gilas Pilipinas. But the second definitely has to be Team USA. As a country filled with NBA fans, everyone was excited to find out which of the league’s stars would be coming to the Philippines to play at the World Cup.
So, when Team USA finally took the court for their first game of the 2023 World Cup, the crowd was ecstatic. But there was one player who raised the volume of the crowd noticeably higher than the rest: Austin Reaves.
The crowds roared for the 25-year-old. If you were a spectator with bad vision watching from the highest seat in the stadium, you might have mistaken him for some other NBA veteran. But Austin Reaves has only played two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers so far, and already, he has become a fan favorite all the way in the Philippines.
Filipinos love the Lakers
It’s no secret that Filipinos love the Los Angeles Lakers. This may be difficult to quantify, but the Facebook page called ‘Lakers Nation Philippines’ has over half a million followers, and — that alone should tell you a lot. And even Austin Reaves knew this fact as well.
“I’ve heard that they’re big Laker fans which I love, obviously,” he said in a FIBA World Cup video before even leaving for Manila. Upon arrival, he was proven right.
After Team USA’s first game where they faced New Zealand (and where he got his huge crowd ovation), Austin Reaves commented on the warm reception he’s been given in the Philippines. “I’m from a super small town obviously, not a lot of people expected me to be here, representing our country. For them to accept me the way they accept me, it means a lot to me,” he said.
Perhaps driven by the adoring crowd, Reaves scored 12 points against New Zealand. Following this, he tallied 15 points, six assists, and five rebounds in just 17 minutes when the USA faced Greece and became just the second Team USA player to record a 15/5/5 stat line since LeBron James in 1994.
It’s no wonder a fan showed up to one of their World Cup games holding up a sign that read, “Austin Reaves > LeBron James”.
He’s an underdog
Despite being one of Team USA’s most impressive players at the World Cup, Austin Reaves is whom many might refer to as an underdog. Underrated, even, as he went undrafted in the 2021 NBA Draft. But, he later signed a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Lakers and after proving himself, he was offered a two-year contract.
In his rookie season with the Lakers, he started 19 games and played in 61, averaging 7.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists — nothing too fancy, but playing his role and performing well in that first stint has made him the Lakers’ third choice behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Later in his second season in the NBA, he became a familiar face on the court.
Steve Kerr said it himself, “This guy kicked our butt in the NBA Playoffs a few months ago. He may be young, but we’ve got guys who can play, who have proven it in the NBA and the NBA Playoffs, they are fearless.”
Now, Reaves is kicking up the world stage with high numbers, dunks, and bounce-backs and is quickly getting the credit he deserves.
Fans resonate with him
Austin Reaves’ tale, from being undrafted to becoming a mainstay in one of the biggest sports franchises in the world, is not the only reason he is an underdog.
Reaves comes from the outskirts of Newark, Arkansas; a town with a population of just over 1,000 people. He shared that early on, he already knew that if he wanted an opportunity to play basketball in college, let alone the NBA, he needed to work twice as hard to get noticed.
He has always been a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and grew up watching Team USA in the World Cup and the Olympics. For him to now look in the mirror and tell himself that he’s made both these dreams come true — to play for the Lakers and for his country — is something that he does not take for granted.
This is, perhaps, what makes Austin Reaves such a compelling character that basketball fans in the Philippines resonate with. Although basketball is the top sport in the country, Filipinos are still widely considered as underdogs, especially internationally, and this definitely came to show in the Philippines’ performance in the World Cup. Thus, to see someone who defied the odds to reach his dreams is something that fellow underdogs can take inspiration from.
Austin Reaves is not only a Filipino fan favorite. He is also a huge inspiration to the hopefuls who have been watching him take on the best players in the world at the FIBA World Cup.
Banner image from FIBA Communications.