Letting ‘Puso’ into My Heart

Job de Leon

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The public claims Smart Gilas won games through “puso.” Does reducing basketball to narratives of character shortchange our understanding the game?

Last August, the undersized Gilas Pilipinas national basketball team defeated Korea in the silver medal match of the FIBA Asia Championship, qualifying for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. The last time we participated in the world championship was in 1978, making the Korea game the biggest basketball victory in 35 years.1

Korea played the villain here. They had stood in our way before, discarding us in the 1986 and 2002 Asian Games semifinals and foiling our last World Championship bid in the 2011 FIBA Asia semifinals, among other bitter defeats.2 As the narrative goes, Gilas Pilipinas exorcised the demons of the past en route to one of the biggest stages of our national sport, a refrain repeated and celebrated in the days and weeks that followed.3

Korea is an Asian powerhouse—the only country that has qualified for every Asian championship since FIBA Asia’s inception in 1960. They lead the region in the medal tally with 24 (China is second with 18). With shorter preparation time (and personnel), how did Gilas Pilipinas defeat these perennial contenders?

We don’t really get an explanation, other than the idea that the perfect storm happened on Aug. 10, 2013. So we’re told, Marc Pingris and Ranidel De Ocampo played like they were eight feet tall, Jayson Castro is the Pinoy Barry Allen, and Jimmy Alapag is a Navy SEAL sniper moonlighting as a three-point shooter. All these feats were made more incredible especially when you consider that Marcus Douthit, our hulking 6’11” game-changer in the middle, was injured and didn’t play for the entire second half.

Despite the odds being stacked against the smaller Filipinos, they prevailed with a heaping of grit, toughness, and good old Pinoy diskarte. How exactly did they buck the odds and figuratively move mountains? The answer you’ll get from an ordinary Filipino is a simple, four-letter word: puso, which in English literally translates to “heart.” Case closed, so go and dutifully lift the unquenchable, sacred torch of Pinoy pride.

THE LEGEND OF PUSO

This Gilas Pilipinas team will probably be remembered for their battle cry of “Laban Pilipinas! Puso!” They were the words to end every team huddle and the call to arms of Gilas’s fans everywhere. TV 5, the PBA’s broadcast network and FIBA Asia’s free-to-air TV partner, produced a short commercial where each of the members of the team, including head coach Chot Reyes, stated their names and their hometowns in an act of solidarity with the rest of the nation.4 The clip was on heavy airplay rotation for an entire month and later inspired 20,000 rabid fans to chant “puso” when Gilas Pilipinas played Korea.

Puso is also a clichéd explanation for a wide range of triumphs in basketball. Roi Sumang, for example, is a huge part of the University of the East Red Warriors’ success because their coach, Boysie Zamar, says Sumang “has the biggest heart.”5 Despite James Yap’s declining performance in the last several months, he will always been regarded as a threat because presumably, whenever he likes, he can summon shades of his younger self.6 And ever since the legendary Robert Jaworski hung up his sneakers, every gutsy Ginebra win will forever be praised in light of his “never say die” legacy.7  There’s an inexhaustible list of events and performances attributed to the lowest common denominator of puso.

The media feeds off the phenomenon of puso for page clicks and to drive up the drama, reinforcing its looming presence. Watching the game itself is sometimes secondary to its reporters, who sift through gestures and statements for possible story lines that they might contain. A good deal of column space and talk time last year was dedicated to Far Eastern University Tamaraws star Terrence Romeo, and whether he could balance his in-team feuds with team-first play.8  Or how aging veteran Dondon Hontiveros went back in time to deliver a performance for the ages.9 Or how it was a tremendous deal in fans’ collective consciousness when PBA hotshot Gary David, who struggled mightily through the preliminary FIBA Asia matches, scored two baskets in the dying minutes of a blowout.10

BY THE NUMBERS

Consider how commentators analyze NBA games. In the most recent finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, the dominant narrative went like this: The shrewd Spurs organization, represented by their grizzled, zero-ego trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, were holding the Alamo once more against LeBron James’s sublime talents and the glitzy, star-driven forces that assembled James’s cast in South Beach. It was a battle between the old ways versus the new, the young versus the old, spun nineteen-odd different ways for the eager public.11

The difference is the hype was not totalizing. For every game, there were analytical articles detailing how one team won and lost a match. Amateur and professional writers have mushroomed across the Internet over the past decade and a half on platforms like ESPN to the SB Nation blog network, with every team getting more or less the same quality of analytical scrutiny.

The newer wave of analysts refrains from pandering to story lines and generalist claims. Contributors likeGrantland’s Kirk Goldsberry and SB Nation’s Coach Nick present footage and aggregated statistics to guide fans (“These plays worked, those mistakes led to that basket, this is how unlikely this was to happen but it did”) and explain, much like a team scout, how players achieved a particular outcome.  Writers examine long-held correlations between certain statistical categories, and how teams can create better strategies against opponents.

And instead of using raw per-game numbers, analysts use advanced measures try to scrub variables from the data and isolate the noise.

Advanced or not, statistics that are targeted at fans needn’t be pure geek speak. For example, Jon Bois wrote a tribute to Tracy McGrady after his retirement in August, praising his 13 points in 33 seconds outburst in 2004.12 Bois calculated that McGrady only had a 1.1% chance to make four straight three-pointers to beat San Antonio, a figure which doesn’t even consider the degree of difficulty that the Spurs imposed on each of those attempts, and concluded it was a legendary achievement. But ultimately, how you choose to value his 1.1% figure is less important than the fact that NBA writers are constantly innovating ways to articulate a player’s performance. The general consensus is while advanced stats don’t present the whole picture, they raise questions that otherwise wouldn’t enter the minds of management brass and their fans.

LACK OF ‘INTELLIGENT’ DISCUSSION?

There was a time when I publicly disparaged the rhetoric and reportage surrounding puso. As an avid observer, I lamented that there were tactical reasons that the nationalist-patriotic line obscured: that Korea was more prepared for players with Douthit’s skill set because contenders like Iran and China employ similar personnel, thus Korea found a way to turn him into a liability; that a smaller lineup with mobile big men like Pingris and De Ocampo forced Gilas Pilipinas to share the ball more, which caught Korea off-guard; that Gilas Pilipinas’s defenses frantically warded Korea’s shooters away from the three-point line; that the national team scrapped to grab their own misses to salvage otherwise wasted possessions.

I believed that the fire of your emotions is not a tangible, result-driving force. I’m sure Gilas Pilipinas played with puso against Chinese Taipei, hoping to provide a moral victory for OFWs facing discrimination over a fatal encounter between a Taiwanese fisherman and the Philippine Coast Guard. I’m sure they also played with puso versus Iran, especially with the opportunity to nab its first FIBA Asia gold since 1985. But teams don’t lose games just because they “lacked intensity” or “didn’t want to win as bad as the other team,” among other sports clichés. All the puso in the world would not inspire Gilas Pilipinas to upset Team USA if they collide in the 2014 World Cup. There’s a human component to basketball, but it doesn’t present the entire story; real, measurable, and observable explanations can be found as the game unfolds, and more answers to winning and losing lie there.

In this regard, only columnist/TV analyst Quinito Henson was close to offering anything substantive.13  In The Philippine Star, Henson printed an offhand quote from ex-national team coach Rajko Toroman, who posited that Douthit’s absence tempted Korea to attack Gilas Pilipinas’s interior defense, distracting them from their deadly outside shooting game.

“Known for its lethal outside shooting, Korea played the percentages and pounded it inside not realizing Pingris and De Ocampo play much bigger than their size. What Pingris and De Ocampo showed in that game was pure heart. They battled, scrapped and fought like true warriors, making every Filipino proud,” said Henson, praising the national team. The first part makes real strategic sense and could’ve led to a landmark article had he or someone else bothered to dissect it. But sadly, Henson undercuts himself by concluding with puso.

But really, what I was asking for was nearly impossible in the context of Philippine basketball today. We don’t have the money to buy high-tech tracking cameras from STATS LCC, nor the people at the rare intersection of basketball, statistics, and journalism to make sense of a million data points per game. Any kind of “intelligent” discussion that is analytical or tactical in nature remains mostly on the sidelines.14  The current state of Philippine basketball is such where writers have to scrounge for stat sheets because the professional and amateur leagues don’t have reliable, updated official websites.

THE DAILY GRIND

Rafe Bartholomew, author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball,15 came to the Philippines in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship grant to witness firsthand how steeped our culture is in the sport. It isn’t too far to suggest that when basketball, from a communal event that occurs throughout class lines, collides with the hodgepodge of advertising, consumer goods, showbiz, and politics in society, becomes an allegory for life itself.

To the extent that it’s an emotion that can be felt, puso is real: Players feel it when they in the hard hours of unseen work. Fans feel it too when their belief in their team borders on the transcendent, fervently adhering that physical limitations can be hurdled by the sheer power of will. The battle cry of puso resonates not just as a unifying anthem for the national team, but more importantly, as an embodiment of Filipinos’ daily grind.

“Basketball isn’t a coping mechanism, it’s an expression of an indefatigable spirit,” said Bartholomew in theNational Geographic mini-documentary series Pinoy Hoops.16  The tenacity and creativity you need to play against the giants of the world probably isn’t far off from the diskarte you need to make ends meet in this dog-eat-dog part of the world.

It makes sense to add another layer of representation on Gilas Pilipinas, and by extension, our favorite teams and players. We spin, feint, and juke out the hindrances that we encounter, all for the chance to make a difference when we get a small opening to score. Plus for the more talented few, basketball takes you literally from the slums to becoming a millionaire in the PBA.17  But if your shots don’t fall you lose the game and you lose face, that is, until the next time you’re ready to pick the ball up again. It’s more than perfect for a melodramatic people like us. And if here my countrymen find solace and hope, then odds and metrics be damned, it’s something we should support.

This is far from saying that we should stop trying to introduce advanced statistics into our understanding of the game. It’s time will come, and I can’t wait for the day that it does. But I’ve been trying to view the sport from the perspective of a college-educated writer, as something I can dissect and essentialize; basketball, the strongest cultural force Filipinos have next to religion, will always mean more than X’s and O’s. I’ve come to celebrate the 20,000 fans who chanted “Puso!” for Gilas Pilipinas that night, and to the devout millions of this basketball nation, puso is a word that means nothing and everything at the same time.

footnotes

  1. The country also qualified for the 1986 World Championship after sweeping the Asian Basketball Championship in 1985, but that Danding Cojuangco-backed squad was forced to withdraw from the tournament, incidentally also hosted by Spain, as the People Power revolution forced the team’s principal sponsor to flee the country.

  2. Jaemark Tordecilla, “Philippines versus South Korea: A History of Heartbreak in Basketball,” InterAKTV, 10 August 2013, internet document.

  3. The sentiment tying Gilas Pilipinas’s performance to nationalist narrative was a common refrain on TV newscasts and commentaries, but is best captured by Nikko Ramos in this piece for SLAM Online PH. Nikko Ramos, “We Are Gilas, Pilipinas,” SLAM Online PH, 11 August 2013, internet document.

  4. InterAKTV, “Gilas Pilipinas: PUSO,” 11 July 2013, YouTube video, 1:48.

  5. "Coach said that he who has the biggest heart takes the shot. So I took it,’ said Sumang.” Celest R. Flores, “Sumang unleashes game-winner anew as UE scrapes past UST,” Inquirer Sports, 15 August 2013, internet document, http://sports.inquirer.net/114931/uaap-sumang-unleashes-game-winner-anew-as-ue-scrapes-past-ust.

  6. I’ve dabbled in this, too. Job B. De Leon, “The Return of King James,” GMA News Online Sports, 25 April 2013, internet document.

  7. “‘[Ginebra] banded together, relied on each other, devoured the inspirational words of their coach to keep on going, to keep on enduring. They just refuse to die.’” Polo Bustamante, “Ginebra’s ‘never say die’ spirit versus the ‘Boring Death Machine’ of Talk ‘N Text,” GMA News Online Sports, 25 April 2013, internet document.

  8. Mico Halili, “The Final Score: The thrilling balance between Nash Racela and Terrence Romeo,” GMA News Online, 27 August 2013, internet document.

  9. Chuck Araneta, “Dondon Hontiveros unchained,” GMA News Online, 6 August 2013, internet document.

  10. Carlo Pamintuan, “How the crowd saved Gary David,” GMA News Online, 6 August 2013, internet document.

  11. A good summary of them can be found here: Sports Illustrated, “NBA Finals Roundtable: Examining top story lines for Heat vs. Spurs,” 5 June 2013, internet document.

  12. Jon Bois, “13 points, 33 seconds: The night Tracy McGrady was a basketball god,” SB Nation, 27 August 2013, internet document.

  13. Joaquin M. Henson, “Blessing in Disguise,” The Philippine Star, 25 August 2013, internet document.

  14. Despite their limited capacity as non-professional writers, the HumbleBola.com, spearheaded by Nico Baguio, does their best to fill this space.

  15. Rafe Bartholomew, Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, (New York: New American Library, 2011)

  16. Pinoy Hoops Part 1, Documentary, directed and produced by Bill Velasco (2013; Manila, Philippines; National Geographic; 2013)

  17. PBA player Allein Maliksi recounts how he scrounged for coins and lived with a family of five in a tiny shack in a cemetery. Carlo Pamintuan, “No stranger to tragedy, Allein Maliksi is on the road to recovery anew,” GMA News Online, 2 October 2013, internet document.