The crowd was quiet except for the occasional scream from the sidelines.
One team looked fresh with a skip in their step. Their passes quick and crisp, their movements were a lot and their game plays were intact. They had been waiting for a couple of hours to see who would be opponent in this semi-finals match, and they were able to get a blazing start, outscoring their opponent 16-2 within the first five minutes.
The other team was dripping with sweat, their feet were dragging, their faces tense. They had just played 3 must-win games that day, and this was their 4th game in 6 hours. It seemed that they were trying to wring out any drop of energy from an already empty gas tank but in vane.
I was sitting right beneath the ring with a couple of new South American friends, Kenneth Mayr from Chile, Ariel Alurralde from Argentina, Maria Romero from Colombia, and Luana Bomfin from Brazil, who were getting a first hand demonstration of just serious Filipinos take the game of basketball. And though I was cheering loudly in the previous games, I could barely clap in this one. Why? Let me back up a bit so I can explain it better.
I was with members of the AIIAS Youth attending the conference-wide sports festival in the Bulacan Sports Complex last August 25-26, 2013. Our church was assigned to organized the teams for basketball and volleyball just a couple of months before, and most of the players were people I had grown up with... friends who I had known for more than half my life, and to an certain extent, could call my brothers and sisters.
I've been a fan of basketball ever since I could remember, but this last year, I've had the rare experience of transitioning from being just a mere TV spectator of the PBA into one that actually watches live games, organizes a fan club, administers the official fan page, chats with sports journalists, and even being invited to exclusive team events. But despite all these, I KNOW that what I feel for the players and the team does not come close to that of their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters, where the main worry and prayer was not the WIN, but the safety of their loved ones on the court.
During this two-day tournament, the specific system used was double elimination and it has been arranged in such a way that a team can still survive with 1 loss, but the moment they loss a second time, they're already as good as eliminated. Our team lost their first game during the first day (and I have a specific OPINION on why that happened), but due to the rain, they weren't able to play any more games that day. On the second day, they knew that aside from the fact they couldn't afford to loose a game, they needed to play each game one after the other. It was during this specific tournament that I temporarily got to experience something similar to what the players' relatives feel because those who were battling on the court were guys I considered to be my brothers.
The first game during that second day was a blowout, the 2nd wasn't that difficult too. But it was that 3rd game that took the most out of them. The heat that permeated the whole area, the infuriating elbows, arms, knees, and feet that were strategically placed to produce the most pain, and most of all, the exasperating non-calls of "FIBA" sanctioned referees when the said body parts were used, that were present in that quarterfinals match, were major usurpers of the remaining energy they should have reserved for the next game. The scene of players by-passing the bench and sitting straight on the floor with their backs leaning on fence was becoming more and more frequent on our team... and curiously, so was the occurrence of opponents suddenly cramping up in the middle of the court, with refs needing to calling a technical time-out so that the player could be substituted.
By the third game, I was already standing in the sidelines, with a large crowd of spectators, most of whom seemed to be rooting for our team because of the various anomalies they saw happening in that game. Players of the other teams who were already eliminated were making comments like... "paki sub naman ung isang ref, nanood lang eh" (replace the ref, because he is not doing anything) and "madumi talaga maglaro yun" (that guy is really a dirty player) and the like. These comments together with the none-call hard blow Kervey Punay took to his stomach which forced him to be sidelined prompted our coach and our church pastor to talk to the officials before the end of the first half. Even going as far as to say that we would video tape the plays to show them just what was really going on. In the second half, the officiating cleaned up and our team revved up the defense and turned it into a game of fast breaks, piling up points ensuring a win, but expending a lot of energy by the time it ended. They had been playing since right after lunch and it was already 6:00pm.
The players were given 10-15 minutes to before their 4th straight game which also was the semi-finals. Clinton Punay was one of the players who just sat down on the floor for a moment but suddenly started cramping up. After getting his legs massaged and taken care of, they got ready for the next game. Their opponent had been watching them for the last 2 games... and had the advantage of rest as well as "scouting". They knew their game plan.
I joined Ariel and Kenneth under the ring, and we were joined by Maria and Luana. The ring we were under was where the opponent was shooting during the 1st half, so we got really close to the really physical rebounding and defensive action happening there. And for people who really didn't care about basketball before coming to AIIAS a couple of weeks or months earlier, they were getting a crash course on the sport.
They kept saying "this is unfair. They're really tired" every time the other team would score on a fast break, and our boys could barely rush back for the transition defense. But what could we do? When we had lost that first game, we knew that this was inevitable. I found myself just praying for that game to end without injury. I was willing the time to go faster so that the misery that was so distinct in our brothers' faces would soon end.
The game started with the other team running off to a blazing start, scoring eight points before we scored our first two, and went even as high as 16 before we scored our next point. Since none of the jump shots were going in, it seemed that Davis Magro took it upon himself to fight his way through the defense and score on the paint making moves that just left us shaking our heads in amazement. Personally, I knew Kuya Dee dominated on the basketball court especially back in college and highschool, but never in this manner, because it just seemed to be physically impossible for him to have that much energy after all the games they had just played. This seemed to spark the scoring of the others, that by 1st half, the deficit had been cut to only eight.
During the second half, baskets were being exchanged, but in the last 4 minutes, the ref suddenly called a foul on Kuya Dee which turned out to be his 5th and last one. The look on his face was first one of bewilderment and then finally one of amusement as he trudged slowly to sit on the floor while leaning on the fence. And as other members of the AIIAS Youth went over to give him high fives, I felt I needed to go over too. As I sat down, I remembered distinctly Kuya Bong made a shot bringing the deficit down to 3, so I made this comment about the other team being Korea and him being Marcus Doughit. Because it was when he left the game, that the margin diminished. Now if we could have grabbed the lead at that point, then maybe we would have had a similar ending to that of Gilas Pilipinas during the FIBA Asia Championships, but that was not to be the case.
After that, the opponents made a final run, again widening the gap, and basically booking their trip to the finals.
I remembered Luana saying "But your already tired" to Kuya Dee earlier in the game. It was his response that I think will become a quotable quote. "My body is tired but my mind is still strong", and somehow that also applied not just to him, but to the rest of the guys.
The previous night, Ariel gave short talk during our worship. He talked about our team, about the fighting spirit, about giving our best for our King. And somehow, I know, this was that extra boost that we needed.
(see Ariel's short talk in the video at the end of the blog)
With this whole CLC Sports Fest experience, I am at humbled by my brothers who fought and never gave up until the end. I am inspired by my sisters of girls who began and ended each game with a prayer. I am at awe with how this experience has helped us grow closer together. I am excited to see where the Lord takes the AIIAS Youth from here.
I know that there is still a big task ahead of us in harnessing all the talents and manpower that is present within the AIIAS Youth so that we can become a truly effective unit when it comes to winning souls for Christ, but whoever said being part of God's Army is easy? And it is POSSIBLE... not by our might, nor by our power... but by His Spirit... and THAT is what makes us WARRIORS OF THE KING.