The 2019 FIBA World Cup in China was supposed to be a proud moment.
It was supposed to be the time when Filipinos around the world would stand united in celebration of Gilas Pilipinas’ brilliant display of basketball prowess in the international arena.
Back in 2014, the unthinkable happened.
The Philippines, long considered as a minnow in the international stage, pulled off a shocker when it made its first appearance in the FIBA World Championship after nearly four decades of absence.
The imagery of that miracle was too strong to ignore.
There was Gabe Norwood dunking over the outstretched arms of seasoned NBA campaigner Luis Scola, Jayson Castro outsprinting JJ Barea off a fastbreak and Andray Blatche swishing a trey from way downtown as if he was the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki.
In the end, the Filipinos lost all but one game in the prestigious tournament in the chilly Spanish town of Sevilla.
But for millions of basketball-crazy Filipinos, it hardly mattered.
The most important thing was that they refused to lose by wide margin and stood toe to toe against the best basketball players in the biggest, most prestigious stage of basketball.
Now comes a bigger problem.
In the Filipinos’ return in the world tourney, the rest of the world was no longer treating them as small-time players.
Italy gamely employed its full-court trap while Serbia and Angola engaged Gilas Pilipinas in a physical, bruising encounter. The old magic seemed gone and the super heroes of the previous World Championship were greatly reduced into mere mortals.
The outcome was not simply a loss: It was a massacre, an annihilation that was so embarrassing that players couldn’t help but shed tears as soon as the final buzzer of their campaign had sounded.
But beneath the embarrassment on the surface, there were beautiful lessons about humility, friendship, determination and faith.
And those are something that Kai Sotto, AJ Edu and the future stars of Gilas could use in their bid to conquer the world in the years to come.
Gilas head coach Yeng Guiao admitted that the setback had to happen if they want Philippine basketball to move forward and regain its once lofty spot in the world.
Guiao, who voluntarily stepped down shortly after the loss, said the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) could always revisit the China crisis when it formally lays down the foundation of the team that will see action in the FIBA World Cup in 2023.
Picking up lessons out of a flattening defeat is nothing new for Filipinos.
In 1989, the Philippines lost to Malaysia in the 15th Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.
The battle was only a classification match, but the 99-107 setback was so painful because the biennial meet, at that time, was only a single-round elimination with the gold medal being awarded to the team with the best record.
The Malaysians went on to sweep the four-game classification to knock the crown off the Filipinos’ heads.
But this loss served as a lesson — an eye-opener — for the Filipino dribblers, who went on to win the gold medal in the next 26 years.
Sixteen years after that setback, another debacle happened.
Bannered by starlets from the amateurs, the Philippine squad surrendered a humiliating loss to a team of celebrities cagers dubbed as Paranaque Jets in an exhibition match as part of its preparation for a Southeast Asian Basketball Association tourney and the SEA Games.
The revolting defeat was considered as a major blackeye in Philippine basketball that basketball stakeholders in the Philippine Basketball Association, Philippine Basketball League, University Athletic Association of the Philippines and National Collegiate Athletic Association banded to form Pilipinas Basketball (PB).
A long, messy and controversial merger between PB and the federation, Basketball Association of the Philippines, occurred that eventually led to the formation of the SBP with industrialist Manny Pangilinan as president.
Those two instances shaped Philippine basketball right now.
And if not for those painful defeats, Gilas Pilipinas wouldn’t be able to see action in a stage specially reserved for the best teams in the world.
Still, the bitter setback yielded some golden lessons.
Guiao said they realized the value of preparation and cooperation right after seeing and competing against the best teams in the world.
The Italians came prepared despite parading a star-studded core of Danilo Gallinari, Luigi Datome, Daniel Hackett and Marco Bellineli while the Serbians were at their best from start to finish with their eyes fixed on winning the crown.
Even the Angolans delivered in the clutch with their coach in Will Voigt admitting after their overtime win that he did his homework and he knows a thing or two about the Filipino brand of play.
“Nothing beats preparation,” Guiao said, admiring the work ethic and dedication of the Italians and the Serbians.
“For us, I don’t think three weeks are enough to make an impact in the world stage. We need at least one year to prepare for an important battle like the World Cup.”
Unity and cooperation among basketball stakeholders are also crucial in preparing the team.
“Everybody has to pull together,” said Guiao, who had to wait for the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Commissioner’s Cup to finish before coming up with a complete unit.
“The whole basketball community — the PBA, the board of governors and all the big corporations — they need to unite for this tournament.”
“If there’s one group or one faction that is not committed to our effort, that’s when we suffer a setback.”
Guiao said he tried his best to avert the disaster and be relegated into a mere footnote of Philippine basketball history.
But the setback was their destiny.
It was written in the stars.
And it would forever serve as painful reminder of what needs to be done in Philippine basketball.