Gilas Pilipinas are Asian Games gold medal winners for the first time in 61 years following a 70-60 victory against Jordan on Friday. Justin Brownlee scored 20 and Ange Kouame had his best game of the tournament with 14 points and 11 rebounds to complete a magical run to the men's 5x5 basketball championship at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou.
It's the first basketball gold medal for the Philippines since the legendary Caloy Loyzaga won in Jakarta in 1962, the last of four straight gold medals for the country. Until Friday night, the Philippines had just one silver and two bronze medals to show.
The historic win also padded the Philippine delegation's medal count to four golds, with ju-jitsu's Annie Ramirez winning one earlier in the day.
Gilas snapped Jordan's winning streak at five, while holding their opponents to a tournament-low 60 points on 26% field goal shooting. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 24 but was held to just 8-of-29 shooting. Still, it was Jordan's first medal of any sort in Asian Games basketball.
Team of destiny
The win capped an improbable journey for this Gilas team that had disaster written all over it right from the start. Tim Cone found himself a reluctant head coach after Chot Reyes abruptly resigned after Gilas ended its World Cup stint. Formed hastily after the FIBA World Cup, the team went through several agonizing days of waiting for a decision on the eligibility of a few players. The lineup of the 12 players who eventually made it to Hangzhou wasn't finalized until a few days before the Games opened.
That Gilas even made it to the gold medal match exceeded most expectations. Jordan blew them out in the group stage, and in the knockout stages they barely scraped through a gauntlet of traditional Asian basketball powerhouses. In both instances, Brownlee was unquestionably the team's savior, hitting the go-ahead baskets in a pair of tense one-point wins over Iran in the quarterfinals and hosts China in the semifinals.
In the final, Jordan gave an early reminder why they were considered favorites, erasing a 13-point deficit in the second quarter in less than three minutes. Gilas again looked stunned and confused against the Jordanian onslaught, but unlike in their earlier meeting when they didn't punch back, this time they came out of the halftime break with dogged determination, grabbing the lead for good at 40-37 and smothering Jordan's vaunted offense the rest of the way. For the first time in the tournament, Jordan looked rattled and out of answers.
History was also against Gilas. Prior to this year, China had never lost the gold medal in men's 5x5 basketball when it was the Asian Games host. One of those gold medal wins was against the Philippines in 1990, which was also the last time the Philippines played for the gold medal. The last time the Philippines even medaled in this event was 25 years ago, and the last time it made it to the semifinals was in 2002.
Significance of this win
This gold will mean different things to different people. The coaches of those hard-luck 1998 and 2002 teams, Cone and Jong Uichico, now have closure. Chris Newsome and Calvin Oftana, the last two cuts from Gilas' World Cup team, both showed they belonged on the big stage.
Ange Kouame, the 6-foot-11 naturalized center who looked ordinary and even out of sorts at times during the tournament, finally showed the form that made him a UAAP MVP. June Mar Fajardo and Scottie Thompson, the two most recent players to be named PBA MVP, proved that the local pro league's best can hold their own in Asia.
For Cone, this gold medal solidified his claim as the greatest coach in Philippine basketball history. He had mere days to bring this team together. While it's true that Brownlee did much of the heavy lifting, it's also true that Cone coached brilliantly in this tournament, making crucial adjustments against China and getting the most out of his bench.
Brownlee now occupies a special spot in the pantheon of all-time great foreign players in Philippine basketball history. There may have been more talented and more prolific imports before him, but none can hold a candle to his accomplishments.
His performance against China was one for the ages and will be one of the most-searched videos on social media for years to come. Most importantly, unlike the others, he willingly took Filipino citizenship and proudly embraced it.
Prior to Friday night, this generation of Filipino basketball fans had never experienced a championship at the Asian level. For them, Loyzaga was more of a mythical figure who was the hero of their grandfathers. Most were born after that fabled 1973 team won the Asian Basketball Conference championship on home soil, and others were too young to fully appreciate the 1985 ABC champion team.