There may be many words used to describe how basketball-crazy Philippines has not achieved success in the international basketball scene, especially after the fourth place finish of SMART-Gilas Pilipinas in the recently-concluded 22nd FIBA-Asia Champions Cup.
But it only takes two words to describe the international flavor of the FIBA game for Filipino fans who grew up watching local hoops: totally different.
Some say that the FIBA game is rougher, like Jeff Bisenio, a fan who watched the Champions Cup games live at the venue. “FIBA is more physical, because what’s at stake is the pride of the countries, so we must really exert effort to win,” he said.
Walid Al-Issa, coach of the Qatar junior basketball team, concurred: “It is a physical game, sometimes you get pushed, sometimes you fall down.”
But for some Filipinos who grew up watching the Philippine Basketball Association – especially those who witnessed old-school enforcer Oscar Rocha boxing his opponents on the court or even those who are familiar with Yeng Guiao’s rugged lineups – there’s nothing like local basketball when it comes to getting down and dirty.
“Mas magugulang ang mga Pilipino (Filipinos know more tricks),” said hoops fan Daryll Montalbo. “No blood, no foul.”
He added that fans get delighted when a PBA player gets bullied on the court, unlike in international basketball. “When one player falls on the court (in international basketball), he will even be helped by an opponent to get up. In the PBA, (players and fans) will just laugh at him,” he said.
Emman Gabulak, also a basketball fan, shared Montalbo’s thoughts. “International basketball is fast-paced and depends on speed and transition, that’s why there’s not much time for a physical game,” he said.
But Talk ‘N Text Chot Reyes, who mentored the Philippine team in 2007, thinks that there is really no difference between the two.
“Both are highly physical,” he said. “I can’t say which is more so because they play with different rules.”
But while both sides claim to have the rougher style of play, Al-Issa’s demand to his players mirrors the mentality of Filipino living legend Robert Jaworski, who was known for his physical – some would say dirty – basketball style. Said the Qatari coach: “If I knew a player in my team (who doesn’t) want to get contact or something, I tell them: ‘Go, play chess!’”
SMART-Gilas, for its part, is not new to the brand of physicality of the international games. Since its creation in 2008, the team has been traveling to different countries to gain familiarity with the FIBA game. In the Champions Cup, the nationals fought over screens, boxed out for position, and banged bodies with the opposition who were taller, bulkier, and stronger.
During the tournament, the team relied on its home court advantage, which comes with it the support of fans. Philippine basketball is largely unfamiliar with the concept of home crowd support, ever since the Metropolitan Basketball Association, a home-and-away league, folded in 2002. In the PBA, crowd darling Ginebra is the only team that can be said to enjoy this advantage.
For SMART-Gilas players, the fans were a big factor in their performance against the bigger club teams in Asia. “They gave us a big push,” said point guard JVee Casio. “They were cheering for us.”
Curiously, it took a while before Filipino fans began trooping to the PhilSports Arena to lend their support to the national team. Organizers even had to order fans to occupy seats which were visible to television cameras. Fans turned out most for SMART-Gilas’ semifinal loss to Mahram of Iran, when some 7,000 people showed up.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Throughout the tournament, a contingent of Iranian fans camped out at the arena consistently to support their team. They showed up with flag-painted faces, drums, and other noise-making paraphernalia, singing loud chants and screaming their lungs out to support their squad. In fact, despite being outnumbered by the Philippine crowd in the semifinals, the Iranian fans still made the most noise during the match.
“It’s pure nationalism,” said Iranian fan Ali Irani.
Best in Asia
The Champions Cup also allowed local fans to see in the flesh some of the best players in the continent. Veteran Fadi El-Khatib, who led Al-Riyadi of Lebanon to the championship, displayed an all-world game, from slashing to the basket to rifling the outside shot, that was too much to handle for opposing teams.
Despite losing to Lebanon in the finals, Mahram of Iran ran roughshod over the rest of the competition, routing teams by an average of 20 points per game in their victories, including a 37-point win over Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. Led by Iranian star Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, Mahram ended the Philippine team’s championship hopes.
Some Filipino fans, however, are still optimistic about the future of SMART-Gilas Pilipinas, despite coming up short in the Champions Cup. “We have a chance,” Ruiz said. “With hard work and more practice, Filipinos can do it.”
The appreciation for SMART-Gilas’ performance went beyond Filipino hoopheads whom they represent. Even players from other countries, such as Qatar’s Yasseen Musa, think that the future is bright for the Philippine squad.
“They really did well in this tournament,” Musa said. “They are the future of Asian basketball.”