Gabe Norwood paused. Visibly emotional, the Gilas Pilipinas captain gazed at the crowd trying to look for answers.
“I’m usually good with words. But I’m at a loss for words.” Norwood said as he desperately tried to gather his thoughts for media men inside the Mall of Asia arena press room.
The Philippines just lost to the New Zealand Tall Blacks, 89-80, effectively eliminating them from the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. It also means that the Philippines’ Olympic basketball dream will, again, be just a dream, at least for now.
From the joys of winning silver at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships to shocking the world at the 2014 FIBA World Cup then winning against China in the FIBA Asia cup in 2014 to the disappointment of finishing 7th at the 2014 Asian Games and then bouncing back to capture the silver medal at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship to this. All the excitement and all the preparation ended up with Gilas, in front of their home crowd, being the first team eliminated in the tournament. A heartbreaking ending for the all-heart national team. Heartbreak.
“We didn’t expect to be in this situation.”
“It pains me to be in this situation. I speak for the whole team and it’s tough to process.” Norwood said.
The thing with heartbreak is, whether expected or unexpected, no matter how big the joys were in the past, pain is the only sure thing. Every memory, every moment together and even every joy, will forever be tainted with pain.
“We have a lot of respect for one another, on and off the court. I think that’s what makes things even more tougher– when you are that close, when you are that type of unit, (when) we got a special group of players, (when) we got a special experience.” he added.
Compared to the other teams in the tournament, this is a team that’s been given no luxuries in their preparation period. It’s been known for years that the Gilas Pilipinas national team has been the battleground for two rival monopolies from the PBA. With the national team funded by a known mega-corporation, it’s rival corporation– whose teams possess some of the best basketball talents in the country– has been known to be frugal in the lending of personnel. This has led to sorely needed players begging off or citing various reasons to not join the team.
“This program is in its own world in a way. We’re always battling a lot of things internally and we’re also trying to battle externally as well trying to lift our level and trying to lift our standard,” said Gilas head coach Tab Baldwin.
The time period for the team’s preparation, too, has been less ideal. Compared to the 1-year preparation period of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships, the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers– a tournament with better competition, lesser room for error and bigger achievements at stake– had a preparation time of two months as the PBA Commissioner’s Cup ended only last May.
“When you look at these other teams, when you look at New Zealand’s buildup, they had either 10 or 12 matches as preparation. We had five, not counting the Iran (exhibition) games. You look at the European teams, this is their life; they play at this level all the time. So we need more of this.” Baldwin said.
“It’s about figuring out how we get personnel, how we get the experience because it’s very difficult on these guys to play at this level and only play so few games a year,” the Gilas mentor added.
“We have to sit back, we have to analyze why (things) didn’t happen and we have to try to fix it.” Baldwin confided.
A team born out of hurried preparations, a team born out of disarray and molded to whatever resources were available seemed to be like the perfect Cinderella team– a team poised to go on a fairy-tale run. The perfect underdog story to root for. It felt like that way. The last time Gilas played in a tournament in front of their home crowd, they booked a ticket to the World Cup in Spain– something the country desperately wanted. With Gilas playing again in Manila, it felt like they were poised to get what they wanted again. The players knew it, too, causing them to work doubly as hard.
“We know the effort we put in as well– that’s the thing that probably hurts the most.” Norwood said.
It felt special in their game versus France wherein Gilas controlled the match early on and led by double digits. The World 28th-ranked Philippines and their local players led against 5th-ranked powerhouse France with Tony Parker and their cast of international basketball superstars but, in the end, the star was just too bright for Gilas to hold. In the matchup against New Zealand, with their backs against the wall, it felt like it was enough.
“We just didn’t have any answers tonight at a time where we really need them. It hurts.” Norwood said of the loss.
“I know that guys played extremely hard. They gave it their best shot. They tried but we didn’t manage to be the better team on either day.” Baldwin said.
“Whether you win or lose, there’s always mistakes that you make. There’s second guessing on player rotations, there’s second guessing on defensive schemes and offensive schemes you used.” Baldwin, who’s had an illustrious coaching career before joining the Philippine team, bared on what adjustments the coaching staff could have made.
“It’s the same story, there’s coaches and players. Every decision we make on the floor in the game is the one we believe would be the right decision at that moment.
“It’s very easy to second guess. I’ll leave that to the fans and the media and the management. We do what we do at the best of our ability at every minute of every single game.” Baldwin said.
“I just told them to be proud. You can’t stop being proud. You wear that flag on your chest, as badly as it hurts.” Norwood bared on what he said to his Gilas teammates.
“We were competitive and that’s a positive. There was probably a time where we probably wouldn’t be competitive at this level. We’ve shown that not just this year, we’ve shown that in 2014.” Baldwin said, trying to find a silver lining and referring to the time when the Philippines, in the the times when the Gilas program was not yet founded, struggled to compete even just in Asia.
“If you put this into context the program, it’s a positive that we get this competitive experience for Philippine basketball players but it’s also an eye-opener to understand that we need a lot more if we want to be successful at this level.
“This is the pathway– and trust me there is no other pathway. If we want to start winning at this level, we got to take a bunch more beatings at this level to learn how to win at this level.” Baldwin added.
“So Gilas will have to live and fight another day. That’s where we at right now.”
“That’s a memory we’ll keep with us forever. We didn’t like the outcome, but the experience was incredible.” Baldwin said.
“We got a special experience. It’s hopefully one of those things we look back on and say this was the beginning of something great.” Norwood said, trying to move on.
The thing with heartbreak is, you don’t need to look for answers anywhere or from anyone; the answers you are looking for are all within you. It’s just a matter of moving forward after the emotional temporary pause.