Year-end Throwback - Jimmy Alapag's World Cup experience
MANILA (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers) - Jimmy Alapag is a modern living legend in these parts, and his legacy remains the gold standard when it comes to representing the Philippines.
Alapag first saw action for the Philippines national team in the FIBA Asia Cup 2007 in Tokushima, Japan, where, sadly, the Filipinos missed the bus out of the preliminary group stage and finished 9th place overall.
The diminutive floor general returned to action in the FIBA Asia Cup 2011 in Wuhan, China, where this time, he helped guide a young Gilas Pilipinas to the top 4.
“We were all willing to go through a wall for each other,” he said. “That was our mindset. It was all of us unanimously working together for that common goal. If someone wasn’t on the same page, then he didn’t belong."
Alapag is one of the seasoned veterans of the Philippines, having represented the country in 3 FIBA Asia Cups (2007, 2011, 2013) and also at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2014 in Spain. For a lot of Filipino fans, he is the embodiment of their trademark "Puso" (heart), especially since, in a game usually dominated by tall players, the 5ft 7in (1.78m) Alapag stands out because of his playmaking, outside shooting and determination.
In his latter years with the national team, he was also known as a team leader and a glue guy - the one who'd take the new faces under his wing and guide them throughout the whole international basketball experience. This role Alapag took very seriously, since for him, being in Team Pilipinas meant more than just playing basketball. It was being part of another family.
"We were a family and were close to one another," Alapag said. "We would do a lot of things together off the court."
One experience he remembers well is playing at the World Cup 2014. Alapag and his teammates knew that they were the underdogs in practically every game in Spain, especially after they were grouped with European powerhouses Greece and Croatia along with former Olympic champions Argentina together with Puerto Rico and Senegal, both of which were bannered by NBA players. The Philippines were not exactly expected to advance past the group stage, but they wanted to make each game competitive. That they did, giving every team they faced a stiff challenge, including a sorry overtime loss to Croatia and an endgame collapse against Puerto Rico.
One match that the Philippines felt they should win, though, was against African side Senegal, who were led by the Minnesota Timberwolves' Gorgui Dieng. In that game, new naturalized payer Andray Blatche matched up well with Dieng, and once more, the Filipinos needed an extra period to try and book their first World Cup win in 40 years. Alapag - dubbed "Mighty Mouse" by his Filipino fans - knew that he and his teammates had to dig deep within themselves and fortunately in the endgame, the Filipinos' shots fell, they forced some defensive stops and breaks of the game went their way.
“We didn’t panic. We saw in each other’s eyes that we all knew what we needed to do,” Alapag recalled.
As a result, the Philippines won the game and made history. They brought home a win from Spain and fanned the flames of their countrymen's passion for basketball even more.
Now, Alapag knows that the pressure is on again for the national team, especially with the burden of expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders and the sense of urgency mounting after losing their last two Asian Qualifiers matches. They know they can win at the world level, but they won't be able to prove it in 2019 if they can't qualify.
Happy Birthday Coach Jimmy Alapag! pic.twitter.com/7yBUWo1s5H— Gilas Pilipinas (@smartgilasph) December 30, 2018
Still, Alapag remains confident his compatriots can get the job done and follow the footsteps of the previous generation to continue elevating Filipino basketball to new heights.