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Their Dinner With Andray

What in the world is Andray Blatche doing on the Philippine national team?

Nineteen stories above downtown Miami, behind a glass wall that looks out on lounge chairs and cabanas surrounding a glimmering pool, inside an NBA-approved gymnasium where LeBron James once filmed a commercial, Andray Blatche stroked his first jump shots as a member of the Philippine national basketball team. Blatche, a nine-year NBA veteran who has played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets, wore brand-new Nike practice gear: a dark gray shirt with PILIPINAS across his chest and shorts a shade of royal blue that evoked the Philippine flag. It was a balmy South Florida evening in late July; Blatche had been a naturalized Filipino citizen for just more than six weeks.

As shooting drills go, this one was nothing special. Blatche would jog to the international 3-point line, catch a pass from a teammate stationed beneath the basket, and rise for his jumper. But as the makes piled up — five in a row, seven in a row, 12 out of 13 — the Philippines’ coach, Chot Reyes, standing at half court with his arms folded over his chest, started beaming like a kid staring at a pile of presents on Christmas morning.

“Di siya nag-mimintis!!!” Reyes enthused. He’s not missing!!!

As new toys go, it’s fair to say no coach in the history of Philippine basketball has had one quite as impressive on paper as Blatche, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center in the prime of his NBA career, 28 years old, with ballhandling skills and an outside shooting touch on par with some of the Philippine team’s better guards. Other Americans like Renaldo Balkman, Dickey Simpkins, and Billy Ray Bates have cycled through the Philippine professional ranks after washing out of the NBA, but a player like Blatche — a legitimate NBA big man who scored in double figures during his last two seasons in Brooklyn, an unsigned free agent who is expected to be back in the league next season — is an unprecedented coup for a Philippine team.

The occasion for Reyes’s grand acquisition is the 2014 FIBA World Cup. The tournament, which begins Saturday in Spain, is the Philippines’ first appearance at this level of competition since 1978, when the country hosted the world championships. The last time the Philippines competed in the Olympics for basketball was 1972. So when the country placed second in last year’s FIBA Asia Championship and finally earned a return to the world stage, Reyes and his bosses at the national basketball federation, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, decided to go for broke and recruit an NBA big man to serve as the naturalized player for Gilas Pilipinas, as the team is known in the Philippines. Their goal: to somehow win two out of five games in the group phase (against Argentina, Puerto Rico, Croatia, Greece, and Senegal) and advance to the knockout round of the World Cup.

OK, slow down. Before we name our firstborn sons “Andray” in gratitude for Blatche’s service to Philippine basketball, how did this even happen? How did an NBA player with no Philippine heritage, a native of Syracuse, New York, who had never visited the Philippines before a weekend in June when he flew to Manila to introduce himself to the country, become a Filipino?

The answer is less zany than you’d expect. The Philippines chose to naturalize Blatche so he could represent them in international basketball competitions, beginning with the World Cup, but also — they hope — the 2014 Asian Games and the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, which will serve as the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics. Naturalizing players is common in international basketball. FIBA allows teams to have one such player on their active rosters during tournaments, and several other teams at the World Cup will feature nonnative citizens. Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka, originally from the Republic of the Congo, will play for Spain, while Americans Pooh Jeter, Oliver Lafayette, and Casey Frank will represent Ukraine, Croatia, and New Zealand, respectively. Before Blatche, the Philippines had relied on former Los Angeles Lakers second-round pick Marcus Douthit as their naturalized big man, and before Douthit the country endured messy, aborted attempts to naturalize onetime Kansas Jayhawk C.J. Giles and Cal center Jamal Sampson.

The rationale behind naturalizing Blatche was simple: The Philippines is a proud basketball nation that has gained international recognition for its love of the game in recent years; the World Cup would be the first time in more than 35 years that the country would compete at the sport’s highest level; to improve the national team’s chances, they wanted to add an NBA big man to the roster. The process of turning Blatche into a Filipino, however, was more complicated.

First, the SBP had to make contact with Blatche and gauge his willingness to play for the Philippines. The federation also considered JaVale McGee, who played in two exhibition games in Manila alongside Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and several other NBA stars during the 2011 lockout, but injuries removed McGee from the Philippines’ list. Gilas reached out to Blatche through Duke Pryor, an Indianapolis-based consultant whose extensive basketball Rolodex allows him to serve as a fixer for businesses or, in this case, national basketball teams that are seeking the services of NBA talent. Pryor, whose connections come from a decade spent mentoring elite high school players, many of whom now play in the NBA, comes across as a minor World Wide Wes–style sports power broker. He helped bring Bryant back to Manila in August 2013 for an appearance on behalf of Lenovo laptops, and SBP hired him to act as its emissary in acquiring Blatche.

Blatche with the ball in his Pilipinas No. 11 jersey.

Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty Images

Pryor told me it took only a couple of phone calls to reach Blatche and deliver the Philippines’ pitch. Pryor, Reyes, and Blatche have all declined to reveal the exact amount Blatche signed for, but Bryant and Durant each reportedly received $400,000 to participate in the 2011 lockout exhibitions and Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that some NBA players who flew to Manila for a two-day event in late July earned upward of $150,000. Both the lockout games and the July visit were paid for by the same utility-telecommunications-mining conglomerate, controlled by businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan (MVP, for short), that sponsors Gilas Pilipinas. With those figures in mind, it seems reasonable to estimate that Blatche will receive more than $1 million for two months with the national team. “Dray is committed,” Reyes told me in Miami. “He has a signed contract that says he’s going to play all the way through the Asian Games.”

With a deal in place, SBP’s next step was to go through the legal process of naturalizing Blatche. Generally speaking, Philippine citizenship can only be gained jus sanguinis — by blood. To naturalize a nonnative Filipino requires the passage of a bill in both chambers of the Philippine congress (which resembles the United States’s bicameral legislature, a remnant of American colonial rule in the country during the first half of the 20th century), and then the signing of that bill into law by the president. The legislation passed the Philippine House of Representatives with hardly any opposition, but the Senate version hit a mild snag when Senator Jinggoy Estrada questioned whether granting citizenship to a foreign athlete who hadn’t yet set foot on Philippine soil made the country look “cheap.” Estrada’s concerns were alleviated after Blatche signed an affidavit confirming his sincere desire to play for the Philippines in international competitions as well as “to mingle with Filipinos and embrace the customs, traditions and ideals of the Filipino people.”1 Finally, on June 11, the eve of the country’s Independence Day, President Benigno Aquino made Andray Blatche a Filipino.

In Miami, I asked Blatche if he felt pressure representing the Philippines, a country that’s nearly as pious in its love for basketball as in its devotion to the Catholic church. “I don’t feel like I have no pressure on me,” he said, but he did feel a kinship with Filipinos’ passion for the game. “It’s like everybody in the Philippines — they breathe, sleep, and eat basketball. Guys play in flip-flops or they play in floods. I can’t imagine there not being basketball over there.”

As uncontroversial as the legislative effort to naturalize Blatche proved to be, its numerous hearings, readings, and votes were still followed breathlessly by the local media and then published online for an international audience. NBA bloggers were drawn to the novelty of Blatche, who would be one of the highest-profile naturalized imports in FIBA, getting hitched with the Philippines, a basketball minnow compared to powerhouse nations like Spain, France, and Argentina. Blatche provided further grist for the mill by joking with Joe Johnson and reporters in the Nets locker room about his nonexistent Filipino roots. Then, at the outset of his June Manila trip, Blatche tweeted a message in Tagalog for his Filipino fans: “Kumusta Manila #LabaPilipinasPuso!” It was a well-intentioned gesture — if only he had used the hashtag #LabanPilipinasPuso!, which means “Fight Philippines Heart!” instead of one that roughly translated as “Laundry Philippines Heart!”

The gaffes and the goofing around highlighted the obvious question: If the Philippines wanted to naturalize an NBA big man, why in the world would it choose Andray Blatche? This was a player whose lapses in judgment and unprofessionalism have become almost legendary in today’s NBA. Yes, he hosted Lap Dance Tuesday at a Miami strip club. Yes, he was once held out of a game with the box score line “NWT2 — Conditioning.” Yes, he belongs to the Ricky Davis Society for players who’ve tried to engineer their own triple-doubles. And yes, he was briefly exiled from the Nets last season for being out of shape. This is a player whom the Wizards are literally paying to not play for them, via the amnesty provision. What made Gilas Pilipinas so eager to bring him into the fold?

Chot Reyes’s answer is blunt: “Only he said yes.” While NBA franchises can afford to be selective about how they assemble their frontcourt rotations, the country ranked 34th in the world by FIBA has significantly fewer options when it comes to recruiting NBA big men. In fact, once injuries ruled out McGee, Blatche became Gilas’s only realistic option. And although Blatche has been a skilled but often unreliable reserve in the NBA, he’s still a sizable talent upgrade for the Philippine team.

Blatche tweeted a message in Tagalog for his Filipino fans: “Kumusta Manila #LabaPilipinasPuso!” It was a well-intentioned gesture — if only he had used the hashtag #LabanPilipinasPuso!, which means “Fight Philippines Heart!” instead of one that roughly translated as “Laundry Philippines Heart!”

“We’re already in second place,” Reyes said, referring to the Philippines’ runner-up finish to Iran in last year’s FIBA Asia tournament. “So maybe just one more bump to get over the Irans and the Chinas. Maybe upgrading that naturalized spot.”

As for Blatche’s history, Reyes told me he did his due diligence and was convinced that Blatche had matured in recent years. He also referenced his decades of coaching experience in the Philippine Basketball Association, a league with a rich history of embracing unstable American imports. Remember, this is the league in which ex–Portland Trail Blazer Billy Ray Bates averaged 41.7 points during a season in which he routinely came to practices reeking of alcohol and his coach implemented a weigh-in regime that forced Bates to dry out before games. For a more recent example, take former New York Knick Renaldo Balkman, whom the PBA banned for life in 2013 after he bumped a referee while arguing a call and then briefly choked his own teammate in the ensuing scuffle. Balkman’s team, the Petron Blaze Boosters, pleaded with commissioner Chito Salud to give their import, who had helped them get off to a strong start in the standings, a second chance.

“We said, we’ll take a risk,” Reyes said about the decision to add Blatche. “We may not be sure about the other parts of his personality, but at least we’re sure about his athletic ability. … In my mind, we could assimilate anyone as long as that person is open. Working with imports, bringing them from the cold into a team — we have a lot of experience there.”

Blatche, Reyes insisted, gave Gilas a better chance to advance in the World Cup. “Andray is going to improve our chances but it’s still very slim to get beyond our group,” he said. “Having him here gives us a fighting chance, and that’s all we want. If it doesn’t work, [then] it doesn’t work, but no one is going to fault us for not giving it our best.”

Which brings us back to Miami. The team had flown from Manila to South Florida — a trip that takes more than 24 hours, door-to-door, with layovers in Tokyo and New York — to begin its monthlong World Cup training camp with 10 days in the city where Blatche makes his offseason home. Because his free agency was still unresolved, it was easier for Blatche to stay in Miami and let the team come to him. From Florida, it would travel to Spain and then France for a series of exhibition games against other World Cup qualifiers before opening the tournament on August 30 in Seville. This practice was the first time Blatche and his teammates were seeing each other on the court, and despite the familiar environs, it must have been clear to the newly minted Filipino citizen that this team was a long way from the NBA squads he’d known since entering the league straight from high school in 2005.

Cycling through drills with him, Blatche would see not Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Deron Williams, but instead a trio of sub-6-foot point guards: Jayson Castro, L.A. Tenorio, and team captain Jimmy Alapag. Paul Lee, the team’s fourth point guard (who will probably play some off guard in Spain), is listed generously at 6 feet flat. Swingman Jared Dillinger, with his unruly nest of black hair and bushy, unkempt beard, resembled a buff, CrossFit-obsessed version of the Unabomber. Among the Gilas big men were two “power forwards” who stood about 6-foot-4 — Ranidel de Ocampo and Jean Marc Pingris — and Beau Belga, a rotund, 6-foot-5, 280-pound center whose favorite offensive weapon is a line-drive 3-pointer that he flicks at the rim without leaving his feet, instead rising to his tippy toes on the release like a late-career Sam Perkins.3

The Philippine team has players who look black, players who look Chinese, players who look half-white, and players who look “Filipino,” if you take that to mean having Malay features and a brownish complexion. The languages Blatche would hear on the court would include Tagalog, English, Taglish, and perhaps a word or two of Bisaya and Pangasinense. In that regard, the members of the team accurately reflected the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Philippines, but for the time being, the only language Blatche needed to share with his teammates was hoops. “We’re quick and we all can shoot,” Blatche said of his first impressions of the team. “When I drive the ball I got a lot of kickout opportunities, and I know they’re gonna knock it down.”

The Gilas players also seemed enamored of their new big man’s skill set. Sure, they’d all read about Blatche’s conditioning struggles and the screwball controversies in his past. And there was no way for them to tell, so early on, if a hired gun like Blatche could give his all playing for an adopted homeland. But in that first practice and the twice-a-day workouts that followed, they marveled at his ability. When Blatche caught a pass outside the 3-point line, dribbled once into the lane, and then extended for a one-handed dunk, the players gasped in appreciation. When he combined hesitation, crossover, and behind-the-back dribbles in a fluid series to snake through three defenders and lay the ball in, practice stopped while the Gilas players mimicked his drive.

A few days into training camp, point guard Castro had already begun adding wrinkles from Blatche’s game to his own. During a four-on-four shell drill, he caught the ball on the wing and then raised it in an exaggerated, one-handed shot fake before swooping it back down into a jab-step fake, and then drove to the basket. It was a move Blatche had been using all week. The thought of one’s players adopting moves from Blatche, a player who has never been known for his work ethic or offensive efficiency, might cause anxiety attacks in some coaches. For Reyes, however, it was a sign his longtime players and his new pickup were beginning to jell. It didn’t mean that he’d be coaching a team full of undersize Andray Blatche clones,4 but that they felt a “combination of respect and awe” for the big man’s game, and that playing with Blatche was giving his players “a lot of optimism [and] a lot of hope” about their chances to pull off an upset in Spain.

Chot Reyes, Gilas Pilipinas Head Coach

Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty Images

After just a handful of practices in Miami, Reyes’s faith in Blatche appeared to be paying off. From a tactical standpoint, Blatche’s versatile offensive game meshed almost immediately with Gilas’s offense, a version of the dribble-drive motion scheme John Calipari made popular at Memphis and Kentucky. Often, over the course of a six-minute scrimmage, Blatche would catch a kickout pass to knock down an open jumper, then beat his defender off the dribble to score at the rim, and then grab a rebound, dribble the ball coast-to-coast, and find a teammate spotting up for a transition 3.

There were, of course, moments of that familiar Blatcheian indulgence: possessions in which Blatche would pump-fake his man out of his shoes, then pirouette around a second defender before attempting to sidespin a one-handed bounce pass between two more opponents and watching the ball skid out of bounds. But less than a week into camp, Reyes seemed content to see the silver lining in Blatche’s unselfish blunders.

Perhaps more concerning were the plays in which the ball would swing to Blatche on the perimeter and get stuck there while he surveyed the court and probed his defender with jab steps. When it’s clicking, the Philippine team’s dribble drive resembles a hyperaggressive half-court weave. One player blitzkriegs his way into the paint, and when the defense closes in on him he pitches the ball out to a teammate, who slices right back into the lane as soon as he makes the catch. After two or three such incursions, a breakdown occurs somewhere in the defense and leads to an 8-foot floater or a drop pass for a baseline dunk or a skip pass that leads to a corner 3. “Always downhill! Always attacking!” Reyes would yell during practice. On possessions when Blatche held the ball on the wing and didn’t make a quick decision to drive or pass the ball, the Gilas offense could look stagnant and lifeless.

Still, Reyes liked the early returns on his team’s gamble and believed it had time to work out the kinks. “I’m discovering more and more every day that he is very coachable,” Reyes said. “To be very honest, that was at the back of my head: Unless a guy is willing to be coached, to play with the system, then it’s gonna be difficult. What I’m seeing now is Andray being willing to play with his teammates.”

It also helped that Blatche seemed to have a natural understanding of pakikisama, the Philippine value of getting along well with others. Before every practice, he made a point of circling the gym, high-fiving and hugging his teammates and coaches. While the players stretched, he gossiped with them about a PBA sideline reporter known for demonstrating titillating feats of yoga flexibility on Instagram. He told stories about playing with Joe Johnson and Antawn Jamison — “I almost never seen them dunk in a game.” He laughed along with swingman Gary David’s post-workout comedy routines, a daily digest of dirty Tagalog jokes translated into halting English with lines like “white guy he try to make his cock hard …”

“Coming in, I had my doubts about Andray,” Reyes told me. “I thought he would be always away from us, but he’s actually thrown himself into the process. When people saw that he was a legitimate NBA player who was willing to be just one of the guys … there was a palpable sigh of relief.”

Blatche even seemed to develop a genuine closeness with Gilas ball boy Bong Tulabot — and not just because Bong spent the 15 minutes before every practice massaging weapons-grade menthol liniment into Blatche’s calf muscles. “Where’s my guy?” were often the first words out of Blatche’s mouth when he’d enter the gym, and he’d jockey with Alapag for Bong’s attention. The unlikely bond between Blatche, the 28-year-old, 6-foot-11 NBA center, and Bong, the 48-year-old, 5-foot-6 Filipino team handyman who used to sell rice porridge in the street, was consummated when a morning practice ended with a visiting SBP official placing $200 at half court and inviting everyone in the gym to shoot for it. Blatche launched his half-court attempt, and when the ball rattled through the rim Bong leaped in celebration.

“DAT’S MY MAN! DAT’S MY MAN!” Bong shouted in a peculiar falsetto as he ran in circles around the gym. Blatche melted to the floor in laughter, then got up to meet Bong for a running, jumping chest bump, although their height disparity made the maneuver look more like Bong delivering a flying head butt to Blatche’s waist. Nevertheless, the moment was enough to make “DAT’S MY MAN!” the team catchphrase for the rest of its time in Miami.

P  uso.

In Tagalog, it means heart, and it has become the identity of Gilas Pilipinas, the team’s rallying cry in huddles and the viral marketing phrase that gets hashtagged and turned into commercials for fried chicken restaurants. And for the coaches and players of the Philippine national team, they can’t know if Blatche possesses it until the World Cup begins — essentially, until it’s already too late.

The puso mythology around the national team stems from its rousing, shorthanded victory over South Korea in the semifinals of last year’s FIBA Asia Championship. The Philippines had not defeated South Korea since 1985, and it appeared headed for another disappointment when Douthit left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter. Instead, the Philippines rallied and won, thanks to gutsy defense and rebounding from de Ocampo and Pingris (who hobbled through the game with a strained hamstring) and two cold-blooded 3-pointers from Alapag in the endgame — shots that could have had Sam Cassell doing an honorary “big balls” dance from another hemisphere.

But puso isn’t merely the story of one gritty victory. It’s linked to a traditional Philippine preference for underdogs. You see it in the rush to bet on a longshot dehado in a cockfight. You see it in Manny Pacquiao’s rise from humble beginnings to a world champion boxer known for knocking down naturally bigger men to a politician with — for better or worse — a real chance to become a senator in 2016. And you see it in the stories of the Gilas players who grew up as pedicab drivers and fruit vendors, or in Alapag’s memories of joining his high school basketball team as a 4-foot-9, 90-pound freshman. Puso wasn’t just the identity of the Gilas Pilipinas national team; it was an extension of how many Filipinos see themselves.

During a team meeting in Miami, Reyes explained the ethos to Blatche. “I don’t believe in the saying ‘It’s not personal, it’s business,’” Reyes said. “Everything is personal. There’s no other way for us to win but to play with our hearts. In 2007, we lost the medal and we were all crying; in 2012 we won and we were still crying. That’s us. We play Pinoy and we play fucking hard.”

But does Blatche have puso? He tweeted about it, but is it in him? Blatche showed some breathtaking skills and his winning personality during Gilas’s Miami training camp, but how will he respond when the Philippines plays its first game against Croatia and finds itself trailing by 17 midway through the second quarter?

That looming uncertainty is what made the Gilas players hesitant about the plan to hire Blatche as a replacement for previous naturalized big man Douthit. “There were mixed reactions because Marcus was still here,” said Alapag, the 36-year-old captain who has been playing for various iterations of the national team since 2002. “After going through those battles and you have success with someone who you consider a brother and not just a teammate, you’re kinda worried when coach comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna try somebody else.’”

Douthit, 34, is still with the team. He trained with Gilas in Miami and traveled to Spain with them to complete their preparations for the World Cup. The plan is for him to remain involved, competing for the team in smaller regional tournaments or when the NBA schedule makes Blatche unavailable, and eventually transitioning into a coaching and scouting role. Still, it has been difficult for the Gilas squad to move on without the big man who has anchored the Philippine national team since 2010, who carried them to the semifinals of the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, who has had a home in Manila for the past three years, and who was part of the group that won the opportunity to play in the World Cup. “It’s mixed emotions,” Alapag said, “but at the end of the day it’s what’s best for the national team.”

So far, the transition from Douthit to Blatche had been smooth, with Douthit’s continued presence and public willingness to sacrifice his spot for the good of the Philippines. But in Miami, Alapag told me it’s up to Blatche to earn the honor he’s been given, to live up to the team’s puso mantra. “It’s important, not just for the guys on the team but also for the country, to see that Dray’s gonna go out there and fight,” Alapag said. “Just like everybody knows that we’re gonna go out and fight.”

Paul Lee drives against France.

Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty Images

The morning of the fifth day of Gilas’s Miami training camp, the team gathered for a group Skype session with their families in Manila. It was 9 p.m. on the other side of the world, and the players could see their wives and children huddled around a laptop in Reyes’s home, projected on the hotel gym’s white wall. The Internet connection was weak at first, and players strained to make out the choppy images and garbled voices of their loved ones. The coaches joked that they felt like real OFWs — overseas Filipino workers, the millions-strong labor force that props up the Philippine economy with wages earned as nurses, construction workers, engineers, seamen, maids, and cruise ship entertainers around the world.

When the connection finally improved, the first clear image the players saw was the pudgy, smiling face of Gilas official Butch Antonio, which they greeted with riotous boos. Then, one-by-one, the players’ wives and kids would take a few moments in front of the webcam. Each conversation seemed to track a similar path, from a child’s giggly delight at seeing his or her father to a teary-eyed good-bye. Pingris wrote “Danica I Love You” on the coaches’ whiteboard and held it in front of the screen, earning clucks of mock disapproval and accusations of being sipsip — Tagalog for being a suck-up — from his teammates.

David spoke to his daughters in the same hokey English he used in his joke sessions with Blatche: “Hey, what’s up girls? Yeah, because we are in Miami that’s why I am speaking to you in dollars.” Both rooms, on both sides of the Pacific, burst into laughter at the same time, and before any more tears could be shed, everyone waved good-bye and blew kisses into the screen and waited for Antonio to appear again and end the call.

The Skype session set a sentimental mood for that day’s practice, which began with another video. Reyes asked the players to sit around the projector and watch Think Normal, a 16-minute documentary5 that retells the story of Jason McElwain, the autistic high school basketball player who became famous in 2006 for scoring 20 points in four minutes the first and only time his coach checked him into a game, from the point of view of his mother. At the end of the film, Reyes had the players pull their chairs in around him and think about how they could apply the emotions they felt while watching Think Normal to the challenges awaiting them at the World Cup.

Gabe Norwood spoke first. He said McElwain’s mother made him think of the “ultimate sacrifice as a parent,” and how, as a player, he vowed to be willing to sacrifice as much for his teammates as McElwain’s mother did for her son. Others compared McElwain’s seemingly impossible athletic feat to the long odds facing Gilas in the World Cup. “Nothing is impossible,” said Tenorio, “just like the kid.” Dillinger added: “He just jumped — two feet in — and said, ‘I’m gonna do this.’”

Blatche spoke seventh, before Reyes started nudging some of the quieter players to share. “What I see from being with you for a short period of time is that we have heart,” he said. “That mom — she was a fighter. We gotta have that heart.” And so it went, from player to player, English and Tagalog, courage and sacrifice, faith and opportunity, until every player but Douthit had spoken.

Kuya Marcus,” Reyes said, using the Tagalog term for “big brother.”

Finally, Douthit spoke. It wasn’t some dramatic, dam-bursting wellspring of emotion. He, too, compared the Gilas team to McElwain. Many people thought that high school game was “like the highlight of his career or his life,” Douthit told his teammates. But the documentary showed it wasn’t. “That was just the start of his journey, his success,” he said, and they all should treat last year’s FIBA Asia accomplishment the same way: Yes, it was a highlight of their careers — they had restored Philippine basketball to the ranks of the world’s elite. “But it just don’t stop there,” he urged them. “It just don’t stop there.”

Nothing said during the Think Normal video session sounded all that profound. In fact, to a person not associated with the Philippine national team, the whole exercise might sound like a two-bit high school team-building ploy — some bit of schmaltz cribbed from one of the basketball scenes in High School Musical. But inside that gym, it was impossible not to feel moved by the players’ sense of purpose, their desire to honor and justify the Philippines’ love for the sport.

“The moment was not about the words that were said,” Reyes told me later. “There was a genuine energy — you have to be there to experience it. You could feel the energy just going around. Everyone was into it.”

Gilas Pilipinas ended its time in Miami with a pair of scrimmages. The first came against an undermanned pro-am squad that needed to pick up one of Blatche’s friends and a visiting PBA player just to field six players. The second was against a more seasoned group of former Division I players led by Kenny Kadji, a starter on the 2013 Miami Hurricanes team that made the Sweet 16. Gilas won both games easily, then packed for Europe, where they’ve faced much stiffer competition in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. There have been encouraging losses to France, which beat Gilas by only seven points, and Australia, whom the Philippines played more or less even for three quarters. They beat Egypt, but Ukraine gave Gilas a 50-point pasting, which Blatche sat out with a tweaked ankle.

Throughout the exhibition schedule, Andray Blatche, Filipino, has looked a lot like Andray Blatche, NBA player. There have been plays in which he jukes his defender off balance, then glides to the rim for a smooth, pretty finish. There have also been plays when he catches the ball 19 feet from the basket, dribbles four times between his legs, and then throws a contested shot off the backboard without hitting rim. Against Angola, Blatche scored 33 points and grabbed 17 boards; against Egypt, he shot 0-for-11 in the first half.

The Philippines’ chances to advance past the group stage look about as slim as Reyes said they were back in Miami. Gilas is on even footing or might even be a slight favorite against Senegal. To steal a second game against Puerto Rico, Greece, Croatia, or Argentina, they will need every variable to break in their favor: Blatche will have to dominate on offense; the rest of the Philippine players will have to shoot out of their minds; and their opponents will need to have one of the worst games in their nation’s history.

Meanwhile, Manila is in a mild state of panic over recent reports that Blatche will not be allowed to play in the Asian Games, which begin about a week after the World Cup ends. The Olympic Council of Asia, which runs the competition (not FIBA), has indicated it will interpret its residency requirements for naturalized players in a way that will bar Blatche from participating. Even though such an interpretation might also disqualify the naturalized players of other national teams competing in the Asian Games, the ruling seems to be intended specifically for Blatche. (It might be the best chance host country South Korea and the Philippines’ other Asian basketball rivals have of defending him.) So while Reyes and the Gilas team will need to summon the best games of their lives to compete with the likes of Argentina and Croatia, their representatives in Manila will be scrambling to convince the OCA to allow Blatche to play.

If the worst-case scenario occurs and Blatche remains ineligible for the Asian Games, the Gilas program’s best hope to avoid furious criticism back in Manila may be for the national team to overachieve in the World Cup, perhaps by pulling off some impossible upset that makes Filipino fans so proud that they forget the brewing Asian Games fiasco.

“Andray,” Reyes said, “gives us that chance.” 

Illustration by Vince Wasseluk

Filed Under: NBA, FIBA, 2014 FIBA World Cup, The Philippines, Andre Blatche, Brooklyn Nets, Basketball, Washington Wizards