Gilas Pilipinas with another silver medal finish in the FIBA Asia Championship. | FIBA.com

The road to basketball's world stage is about learning

Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, contributor

Editor's note: This article was originally published in The Filipino Connection and has been published with permission.

MANILA, Philippines - Philippine basketball returned to the global radar screen on Aug. 15, 2014. In the eyes of the world at that time, the Philippines is unknown.

Against then FIBA Europe champions France at the start of the four-nation Antibes International Basketball Tournament, the small cagers from Asia do not know how they can fare against a Tony Parker-less French squad.

France got surprised: with some six minutes left in the game, a Gary David getaway and a Jimmy Alapag triple put the Philippines ahead 60-55. Not surprisingly, the French used their height and their experience in international play to survive the gritty Filipinos, 75-68.

Until that meet in the French city of Antibes, never had a Philippine team joined an international pocket tournament. (The last one was 2002, in Sondrio, Italy.) The wall of mystery that is global basketball's intimidation unto the Filipino player tumbled.

The 2014 FIBA World Cup a month after Antibes then affirmed a place for the Philippines in world basketball. Losing to Latino powerhouses Argentina and Puerto Rico were not without positing double-digit leads at first. And just when Argentina and Croatia thought their double-digit leads over the Philippines were safe, the Filipinos clawed back and almost scored upsets.

It took the country more than three decades for players to achieve such global stature, and for fans to realize the level of Filipino play doesn't pale with the rest of the world.

The Philippines' loss to China in this year's FIBA Asia Championship remains part of the learning curve to get back to world-level play. After all, China is 14th in the world; prior to the finals in Changsha, the Philippines did the unthinkable and upset world no. 17 and three-time Asian titlists Iran.

The Antibes experience and the FIBA World Cup breakthroughs brought the Philippines there. Never mind if Iran and China had faced American and Spanish Olympic and World Cup teams, and the Philippines isn't there yet. But for genetically small players to put a shock to global powers, especially Argentina in 2014, speaks of the leaps and bounds of Philippine basketball.

In Asia, two straight silver medals are leaps of faith, of heart (puso).

The Philippines is a passionate basketball country. Its players are fond of the American style of play despite Filipino players' size. The Philippines' "football" (in terms of fanaticism) is even a subject of conflicts in the national basketball federation previously, or in the local professional league currently.

Basketball is so crazy a pop culture phenomenon here that there's a dedicated cable channel for the sport; there's an enduring professional league whose overall profits are not as big as the salary of a role player in the NBA; there's 365 days of basketball news in newspapers; and there are sidewalks -even portions of a sidewalk- that are the Filipino hoops fans' arena. The ring and the basketball are small for such evening sidewalk play, but not too small to reflect a national passion.

All these, over-30 years hence, have brought back -finally- the Philippines to a level of world play that, fans hope, will see the "three stars and a sun" up there for long. A top 20 world ranking will be forthcoming.

That is, if the Philippines continues to play and learn from the best.

Losing is a part of the learning. Like in Antibes, France, in Sevilla, Spain, and more recently in Changsha, China.

Losing to top-caliber countries, be it in the FIBA competitions or in pocket tournaments, made China and Iran what they are today. So Asia is China's (and once Iran's) cakewalk. Soon, the continent can be the Philippines' fort once again.

The silver medal finish in Changsha brings the Philippines to participate in one of three Olympic qualifying tournaments this July 5-11, 2016. The second-to-fourth placers in Africa and Asia, the third-to-fifth placers in the Americas, the third-to-seventh placers in Europe and the runner-up in Oceania will be scattered into three tournaments where champions there get the final three slots to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

With higher stakes, it is a chance to meet the top European teams like 2014 FIBA World Cup silver medalist Serbia, again France, Greece and Italy; former FIBA Africa champion Angola; and FIBA Americas champions Mexico. No pocket tournament offers such a stake: an Olympic berth, a higher level of play that not even the annual Jones Cup can provide.

Whether or not the Philippines miraculously tops one Olympic qualifying tournament and qualifies for Rio, that is not the end goal. It is about getting back the form that made the Philippines, amid the height of its players, a global force during the old days. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James' eras after, the world wants to watch more of these Filipino guards slashing in the land of the giants. More of Jimmy Alapag's bold threes from the parking lot, of Jayson William Castro's court generalship and scoring, of Ranidel de Ocampo's role playing, of Calvin Abueva's defensive energy, of Terrence Romeo's or Paul Dalistan Lee's outside sniping, of Jordan Clarkson's slashing moves, and more.

The Philippines almost made a top five team, Argentina, cry -a feat not even China or Iran did in either the Olympics or the World Cup. But a nation and its fans would cry if their national basketball team stops learning, be it from losing, from hanging it there, or better yet from pulling upsets.

Asia-Pacific (now with the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand starting 2017) can be the Philippines' cakewalk in the future. The world? Top basketball pundits may be surprised a nation with a diehard basketball culture - especially if the Philippines will learn more lessons the hard way through pocket meets and soon the Olympic Qualifying Tournament - had emerged and will give highlight reels that only a small nation can provide.

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