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Gilas’ Loss to Iran in Perspective

Chot Reyes, in the post-match interview after Smart Gilas’ anti-climactic performance in the final last night against tournament favourite Iran, put his team’s runner-up finish in perspective by admitting in all candor that the previous night’s victory over Korea was more because of the emotional wave of an entire nation.

That was euphemism for we got lucky against Korea. Indeed, those who sneaked a look at the third place play-off between the Koreans and Chinese-Taipei would have quickly gotten Chot Reyes’ drift. The Koreans trod all over the Taiwanese to comfortably clinch the last available berth for next year’s World Championships in Spain.

While the outpouring of emotions after our cardiac arrest victory over Korea was perfectly understandable – and, indeed, the Koreans had been such a pest all those barren years – my immediate concern going into the final was that the sense of catharsis would leave nothing for the game against Iran.

The emotional wave, admittedly, could spill over to the final. There was, however, one itty-bitty problem; and its name was Marcus Douthit. The naturalized Filipino’s injury ruled him out for the final and this meant that Gilas would be handicapped from the opening tip-off.

By handicapped, I mean severely handicapped. In Hamed Haddadi, Iran has a bona fide NBA player. At 7’ 2”, he could have been perfectly cast in the recent Hollywood blockbuster ‘Jack the Giant Slayer,’ and not as one of the king’s men.

Next to him, even Douthit and Japhet Aguilar look adolescent.

The wonder of it all, when you come to think about it, was that Iran could not blow us away as it did everyone else in the tournament; and especially as conditions were right for Iran to do so. That speaks a lot about the character of this Gilas team.

Even the sell-out crowd was not necessarily to Gilas’ advantage. The Filipino crowd is arguably always a reactive one. That is, it comes alive when its team gives it something to shout about.

It is seldom one to pick its team up when things are not going well on the court, and prefers to sit biting its nails in anxiety. In contrast, the small Iranian contingent in the gallery chanted incessantly; and not just last night.

Small wonder then that all the three-point shots that rained down on the MOA like the proverbial monsoon in earlier matches were suddenly few and far between. Some of Gilas’ shooters were feeling the weight of expectations on their shoulders; and the anxiety of the crowd did not help.

As Freddie Webb pointed out in the post-game analysis, Douthit aside, the other important factor that led to our loss to Iran last night that our team’s shooting was not quite as it best. On the other hand, Iran had been there before. This was our first meaningful final in recent history.

For all the disappointment that the loss gave all who supported Gilas in the past fortnight, it was still part and parcel of this current team’s learning curve. Booking a place in the World Championships next year in Spain is no laughing matter, either.

In fact, next year’s reverse expedition to Spain is probably what gives me the most satisfaction about Gilas’ bridesmaid finish in the FIBA Asia Championship. We will probably struggle to compete against the behemoths of Europe and the Americas; but it will be comforting to know that both China and Chinese-Taipei can only watch by satellite feed.

Both nations, as all Filipinos know, have been more than just a little annoying in the geo-political scene. Sport, as always, can be the great equaliser. I wish the players of both nations happy watching.

That said, there is also something about the loss to Iran that annoys me; something, perhaps, that younger fans of the national basketball team will not understand. I am old enough to remember our championship winning run in the seventies when the likes of Robert Jaworski and Ramon Fernandez were still spring chickens.

Korea, Chinese-Taipei and Japan were the perennial enemies. China was still in sporting exile. A loss to Iran – and any Middle Eastern country, for that matter – was unthinkable; and a 40-point margin was still relatively merciful.

For a nation that thinks of itself as basketball country, the shoe is well and truly on the other foot – and that’s annoying. Doubly so one considers that Iran is not even a basketball country but one where football is king.

Acknowledgment: Photo from http://www.interaksyon.com.

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