The scary side of #PUSO

Battle cries elicit a resounding cause that coaches, players, and fans embrace. It is a call for unity under a singular vision and mentality in hopes of achieving success. This is evident with the Golden State Warriors winning an NBA title through “Strength in Numbers” and with the Cleveland Cavaliers doing the same by going “All In”.

In the Philippines, that rallying sentiment can be summed up into one word: Puso (or heart). In the age of social media, a hashtag was placed before the word so that it can spread like wildfire. It caught on because it perfectly encapsulates the Filipino spirit of persevering through great odds with unending determination to emerge victorious. It is an aspiration that everyone in our nation can relate to, basketball fan or not.

As it implies, #PUSO is a ploy to positively feed on one’s emotions while playing the game. Perhaps, the fervor to win in front of an affectionate home crowd motivated Gilas Pilipinas to exorcise the ghosts of South Korea by winning their semifinal encounter during the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship. Our players were able to vent decades of frustration to beat their tormentor and clinch a spot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

But the downside of playing with emotions is that you can be swayed by it for the worse. Compare that to playing with a commitment to run the same system, making the same cuts, and showing the same effort on defense whether you are up or down by 20. If sentiments are channeled in the wrong manner, pride is defended violently and nothing good comes out of it. That was in full display during the brawl between our national team and the Australian Boomers.

The war within the battle

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War states that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. The Australians must have internalized this before this World Cup qualifier because they knew precisely where to hit us: our #PUSO. Thus, they orchestrated an elaborate psywar to tick off not just the players and the coaches but the entire nation as well. While their tactics are questionable, they executed it to perfection.

The mind games started when the Australians disrespectfully took off the decals of a major sponsor during their practice session at the Philippine Arena, claiming that it was slippery. Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas Chairman Emeritus Manuel V. Pangilinan took offense by tweeting: “Aussie team ripping our/Fiba logos on the court of Phil Arena w/o asking permission. We will not back down. Those stickers go in. Regardless.”

Mind you that he mentioned FIBA when there’s no explicit evidence in the accompanying video that the logo of basketball’s governing body was being removed. Gilas Pilipinas head coach Chot Reyes chimed in that those were FIBA-approved. The Australians did apologize for their actions, citing that their player’s safety prompted them to remove the decals. The stickers were re-installed nonetheless but the damage has been done. The dominoes start to fall as Pangilinan packaged the issue as a matter of national pride and Reyes taking his mind off the game.

There were also reports that the owners and operators of the Philippine Arena are looking to file criminal charges against the perpetrators due to “malicious damage to property through pre-meditation and in conspiracy with each other”. But how big exactly of a damage did that action make to the floor itself? Likewise, the damage would be much visible if they did not place new decals two hours before tip-off. Another domino falls: taking the battle where it shouldn’t be. Yes, Australians cannot be let off the hook. But are the penalties harsh enough for them to sulk on?

Then, the taunting continued when Reyes revealed that the Boomers’ Daniel Kickert hit Matthew Wright, Roger Pogoy, Calvin Abueva, and Carl Bryan Cruz during the pre-game warm-ups. The Gilas players were on the verge of letting their emotions win over them but they were restrained and told to focus on the game. But another domino fell as the players were ticked off and were keen on payback — but not necessarily through basketball means.

With coaches and players fuming to retaliate, all of these could be prevented if Gilas played magnificently. However, the contrary happened. The Boomers dissected the Philippine defense with an efficient motion offense that led to open perimeter shots and easy point-blank conversions made possible by constant screens, switches, and immaculate floor spacing. The Aussies were also dusting the Gilas’ transition defense.

What did we have as a counter? Dribbling off one screen and trying to look for an open man. When they were trapped, they jumped and hung mid-air as they tried to look for a kick-out pass. The fans even cheered when Terrence Romeo broke the ankles of a defender but didn’t score. Going into the game, we knew that the Australians had a taller line-up and we were not able to exploit that. So it wasn’t a surprise that Gilas was already down by 28 points, 76-48, when they pressed for time with 4:53 left in the third quarter.

Then there was the constant trash talking from the Australians. While this is a dirty part of the game, what exactly can you do about it? Even if the referees give warnings or technical fouls, you can still talk trash through body movement, gestures and facial expressions. The tough-minded ones know that the best way to keep a trash talker quiet is through the score board. They use it as motivation to get the last laugh and make a sore loser of the instigator. But the emotions ran so high that the Gilas players resorted to cheap shots on their own.

This does not, by any means, absolve the Australian players who were throwing hard love taps as well. But wouldn’t it be more frustrating for an aggressor if an opponent performs well despite the hits? That would cause them to fold because their strategy is not working. When Reggie Miller had that tussle with Spike Lee, it spurned him to bring the Knicks down. In the PBA, there’s no better person to ask about trash talking counters than Ramon Fernandez, as the ‘El Presidente’ calmly knocked down baskets despite the defender’s spicy vocabulary.

The melee in Bocaue

Basketball players are humans who have limits too, especially when one’s emotions are being toyed upon. But saying that the brawl was a matter of protecting national pride is twisted. What exactly are we proud of? That we cleared our bench to throw punches, clotheslines, and kicks to a team that held us hostage mentally and trashed us by 31 points with a little over four minutes left in the third quarter? Mind you that the Australian bench was fuming to join the free-for-all, but discipline and cooler heads won over.

We are right in the mix to advance to the next phase of qualifying as well. But on this night, our #PUSO boiled over to escalate the tension. Players who were not even in the active roster were taking cheap shots and coaches who were supposed to contain the players, if the referees cannot, gave blows too. A player’s father even threw a chair to an opponent. As a cherry on top of the depressing developments, a selfie was taken as if nothing happened.

A lengthy lull ensued as referees had to visit the OB Van to check every conceivable angle. As a sign of support, fans did a crowd wave and turned on their cellphone flash lights. In the end, nine Gilas players were thrown out of the game as compared to four Australian Boomers. That left only June Mar Fajardo, Baser Amer, and Gabe Norwood to play for the Philippines. The game was a farce by then as Fajardo and Norwood fouled out to end the game at 89-56.

I get the point of not backing down without a fight since this is our turf. But what exactly did we fight for? There’s also a case of those who are in their circle would understand what they have done. So, in that case, are Fajardo, Norwood, and Amer not part of the circle then? If they are indeed fighting for country, shake off the trash talks and play for each other by moving the ball well to find the open man. Who exactly did the Gilas players scare when they stood for their brothers during the commotion? Nobody.

Laban Pilipinas goes on, but #PUSO needs to be examined

Whatever happens, the Gilas basketball program will continue. But, it cannot go on #PUSO alone. There has to be a methodical plan of action that will flourish even when coaches, players, and executives leave. This is a perfect time to build a tangible identity to our undying will to compete by installing a system that flows in international basketball for players who sacrifice a lot to play for country.

As a nation that’s bonkers for basketball, we can also assess how our #PUSO dictates our support for any team, from the barangay to the national level. Keep your skin thick for verbal jabs will be thrown. I’ve had my fair share of hearing fans and players talking trash and they are worse than labels such as “monkeys” because insults on family members and foul language are included. Watch a game live and you will experience this pathetic exchange. Keep your #PUSO in check and realize that when the final buzzer sounds, it is just a game.

As a player, keep in mind that they are saying these because they know little about you. That’s an opportunity to pour out your #PUSO and be an ambassador of the sport and of the country. Tell me they won’t mellow down if they get much love and kindness from you. When your backs are on the wall, let #PUSO be the driving force to fight back through field goals, not fists. That’s the spirit that endears you to fans and foes alike.

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