ESPN ranked Gilas Pilipinas 20th out of 24 teams in its FIBA World Cup power rankings. Bleacher Report was even worse, ranking the Filipinos one notch down at 21st. But really, can we blame them if they're unfamiliar with the Philippines? A country spread around by 7,107 islands and populated by about 100 million Filipinos? A nation that considers basketball as a religion but couldn't translate it to success? It didn't help that our last appearance in an event of this magnitude is way back in 1978. That's 36 years ago, people. Almost four decades.
Heck, if not for Andray Blatche, a naturalized Filipino, they wouldn't even talk about us. So yes, they are forgiven.
***But after Gilas Pilipinas gave a heavily favored Croatia a scare before losing, 81-78, in overtime, the people who wrote us down are probably having second thoughts. I mean come on, we came one shot away and a big break away from stunning the Croatians and the world.
And Gilas even led several times in the end after trailing most of the way against the taller, bigger, more experienced Croatia. The first one was the sweetest. I was referring to Jeff Chan's three free throws off a Dario Saric foul that gave the Filipinos a 67-66 lead, our first since 1978 – the last year a Philippine basketball team made it this far.
***Croatia, in case you don't know, is a basketball powerhouse. They're ranked 16th in the world by FIBA standards. For ESPN, they're 10th and Bleacher Report graded them at 11th. If you're familiar with the late Drazen Petrovic of then the New Jersey Nets, that is Croatia. They have like five, six and maybe seven players who are NBA-ready. One of them is 20-year-old Dario Saric, plucked 12th overall by the Orlando Magic in lieu of Philadelphia in last June's NBA rookie draft.
Do I need to mention the others? Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets, Dmjan Rudez of the Indiana Pacers and Ante Tomic, whose rights is still officially owned by the Utah Jazz. Mario Hezonja has potential too.
And yet, Gilas nearly pulled the rug from under them? This is probably a dream? Imagine this moment we witnessed in our lifetime.
***We lost though.
But why do I get the feeling that Gilas Pilipinas is feeling more like winners than the Croatians? And why am I feeling happy instead of sad? This is probably the only loss that didn't feel like one. This Gilas-Croatia game reminded me of the David and Goliath story, with us Filipinos the Davids and them the Goliaths. Technically we lost, but we're still winners because the Philippines let the world know what our brand of basketball is. They'll probably know what "Puso" means now.
World, it means “heart”.
***Speaking of Blatche, he made a good account of himself in his first official game as a Filipino. He was all over the court, playing 41 of the possible 45 minutes and finishing with 28 points, including three triples, 12 rebounds and a steal. He has seven turnovers, yes. But he's exonerated by just showing up and wearing that Gilas uniform. And he played with a bum knee.
Blatche, who last played for the Brooklyn Nets, is still a free agent as we're writing this but should be attracting NBA teams after his spectacular effort recently. And he deserves the attention.