Hail to the fans

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The Philippines has received FIBA’s first-ever Most Valuable Fan Best Country Award. The country earned the plaudits from the governing body of world basketball, thanks to the Filipino fans’ huge presence in the social media.

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“This ultimate and innovative digital experience provided basketball fans from around the world with a platform on which they could express their passion for their national team and where they made history while competing against other fans,” FIBA said.

But it is not only in Facebook, Twitter or Instagram where the fans poured out their rabid support for Gilas Pilipinas. It was in full display during the team’s five games in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Seville, Spain. Hundreds of wildly cheering, flag-waving, blue-shirted Pinoys, followed the Philippines’ historic and emotional return to the basketball world stage after almost four decades. And our players, swept up by the massive show of support, lifted their game to almost heroic levels.

We have been described as a basketball-crazy country. Maybe it’s because we embrace the sport with the same passion that a Brazilian or a Briton would bestow on football. Go to the most ramshackle neighborhood and chances are there will be a basketball court standing in some cleared-out space. The goals may be just rusty, netless rings nailed to warped, unpainted backboards, and the court may be tamped-down earth. But make no mistake: it is hallowed ground for some barefooted kid dreaming big basketball dreams.

Or drop by the Araneta Coliseum during a PBA championship game or an Ateneo-La Salle grudge match and feel the energy surge from the packed stands and descend on the court below.

Why has basketball fever gripped us for so long? Think Carlos Loyzaga. Think Lauro Mumar, Sonny Jaworski, Atoy Co, Mon Fernandez, Alvin Patrimonio. The Philippine pantheon of basketball heroes is imposing. Long before China and Iran became lords of the Asian hoops, we were the rulers of the realm. We owned Asian basketball. Japan, South Korea and Taipei were the pretenders to our throne.

We began to lose the mantle as basketball became a game not only of height but of heft as well. China had the luxury of a big pool—several million players—from which to choose the best and the biggest. The Iranians, who picked up the game from the Europeans, soon found themselves unchallenged in the region.

Despite the setback, the Filipino fans persevered, stood by their heroes, clung on to the hope that one day, the glory will return.

They sensed it last year, when Gilas Pilipinas outclassed South Korea to earn a ticket to the 2014 World Cup in Spain. The country erupted in celebration. We were back in the big league again.

In Seville, Gilas Pilipinas grabbed everyone’s attention. Here was a bunch of undersized players who were tirelessly running up and down the court, were ferociously accurate in three-point shooting and were never intimidated by their taller, bigger opponents. Just look at the highlight film of Gabe Norwood making a spectacular dunk against Argentine’s Luis Scola.

Then there’s the fans, who were screaming their hearts out, never letting their team down. “Puso! Puso!” they chanted.

The Filipinos showed heart, in the gallery, on court.

Back at home, families were jumping in front of the TV as the Philippines conquered Senegal. It was a no-bearing game. We were out of the tournament. But the victory was precious, for the fans, for the entire country. It was redemption.

Take it from the great UCLA coach, John Wooden. “Winning games, titles and championships isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he said, “but getting there, the journey, is a lot more than it’s cracked up to be.”

Filipino fans know this all too well.

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