When Justin Brownlee became a citizen of the Philippines in January, he also reached another milestone: the first PBA import to be naturalized for the Philippine national basketball team.
That's an astounding fact for a country with the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world where hundreds of imports have played. Former import Daryl Smith, who played in the PBA in 1979 before moving to Cebu where he died in 2008, and Meralco Bolts coach Norman Black both settled down here, but neither took Philippine citizenship.
Before Brownlee, Black came the closest. Seven-time Best Import Awardee Bobby Parks also expressed his willingness to be naturalized in the 1990s, but got little support from the Basketball Association of the Philippines, the local basketball federation at the time.
"We were (asked by the media)," Black said. "I know we both said yes. But it's hard to naturalize yourself on your own."
Brownlee's PBA coach Tim Cone said the other long-time resident import he coached, Sean Chambers, also would have been up for naturalization.
"I'm a thousand percent sure Sean would have wanted to do it. But I don't think it was in the conversation at that time."
Former TNT imports Donté Greene and Terrence Jones were mentioned as possible naturalization candidates, while former San Miguel import Chris McCollough has repeatedly announced his willingness to be naturalized on Twitter.
Meanwhile, several former PBA imports such as Nick Fazekas (Japan), Ricardo Ratliffe (Korea) and Wayne Chism (Bahrain) have gone on to become naturalized players elsewhere after their stints in the Philippines. While those three players have done well, Brownlee is in another class.
"Obviously Justin falls along the line of a Bobby Parks or a Norman Black in terms of dedication to the country and making this his own," Cone said. "I know Justin personally is extremely, extremely proud that he'd been honored like this. He feels that it's just a great honor that the country would want him to represent them. ...
"And for me personally, I don't think we could have gotten a better representative for the country in Justin. He's going to represent us well, not just by playing well, but by being a good person. He's gonna represent the country in such a positive way. He's gonna be playing with total respect for the game. He's a super, super high-character person. And the teammates always love him and they're gonna love playing with him."
It was a special moment when Brownlee played his first official game in a Gilas Pilipinas jersey, a 107-96 win over Lebanon in last month's FIBA qualifiers. He scored 17 points, and could not stop smiling afterwards.
"It's very special," he said. "Coming here to play with Gilas just gives me so much joy. I'm just very blessed and lucky to be a part of this. It's just an honor to put the Philippines in front of my chest tonight. The Philippines showed so much love to me. I just want to do my best and do what I can to give some back.
While Brownlee isn't the Philippines' first naturalized player, he's certainly the first to balance playing for Gilas and his PBA team in the same week. Just two days after scoring 41 points in a one-point loss to Jordan, Brownlee was back on the floor donning his Barangay Ginebra jersey and rallying the Kings from a 13-point deficit and a win over Black's Meralco Bolts.
"I loved it," Brownlee said after scoring 29 against the Bolts in a 112-107 win. "The older I get now, I'm trying to cherish every moment on the basketball court whether it's practice, games, or whatever it is. I'm just enjoying it even though it's taxing on the body. I'm just enjoying the ride and trying to make the most out of each and every moment."
Added Cone, who's also a Gilas assistant: "I can't tell you how proud I am of Justin and Scottie (Thompson) and Jamie (Malonzo) for coming out and playing with the effort and the minutes they played (against the Bolts). I was with them the whole week and it was a really, really tough week. We were doing two-a-day practices, intensive games, a lot of pressure. Obviously a lot of pressure on Justin because it's the first time to play with them."
Brownlee's naturalization process lasted several years. It had to go through a pandemic, a change in national leadership, and even several changes at the Gilas coaching position. But there is no doubt in anybody's mind that he is the perfect choice.
"It's not an easy process and that's why you gotta really pick the right guy," Cone said. "And I think they picked the right guy in Justin. "
Black, who has been on the losing end of several epic Brownlee performances in the PBA, echoes this sentiment:
"I'm happy for Justin. I think he's handled himself well since he arrived in the Philippines. He's not only a really, really good player but I think he's handled himself off the court, too, so he's representing the country well. I know he's getting a little bit older now so this is probably the right time for him to get naturalized if he's going to get a lot out of his playing ability. Yeah, I'm happy for Justin. He's a good guy, not to mention a really good player."
After his performance in the sixth window, there are now some who suggest that maybe he would be a better fit for Gilas over Jordan Clarkson. If you ask Cone and Black, though, the best scenario would be to have both of them together.
"Sayang Jordan Clarkson couldn't play as a local," Cone said. "Then to have Justin as the naturalized (player), that would have been really, really sweet."