"D'Alie! D'Alie!" yelled some Filipino fans from the bleachers of the Philippine Arena. Rae Lin D'Alie looked up, waved and smiled, causing the crowd to erupt to even louder cheers.
By the time the 2018 FIBA 3x3 World Cup ended, D'Alie had become a household name in the Philippines. Fans sought her out, hoping to catch a closer glimpse of the Italian cager, and of course, to ask for selfies.
It probably helped that she's called "Rae Rae", a very Pinoy-sounding nickname with repeated syllables like Jun Jun, Den Den, Tin Tin, Che Che. Or that she made an effort to learn the word "puso" (heart), Gilas Pilipinas' battlecry, which she shouted with gusto in one of her post-game interviews.
D'Alie deserved the attention. After all, she starred for the Italian team that emerged as the new World Cup queens, dethroning the fifth-ranked Russia. Her impressive handles, crafty shots, and killer ankle-breakers were on display every time she's on the floor.
"She moves like Romeo," said one spectator, comparing D'Alie to Gilas Pilipinas guard and 3x3 sensation Terrence Romeo.
In a lot of ways, Filipinos can relate to the diminutive Italian baller.
At 5-foot-4, she's one of the smallest players in the tourney but she stood tall among a sea of giants. She embodied the "never-say-die" attitude as she pumped her teammates up, no matter the score, and believed that they can make it all the way to the championship.
D'Alie, named Most Valuable Player, compared Italy's humble beginnings to the experience of the Philippine women's team, which ended up winless on its World Cup debut.
"They're awesome, a lot of heart. People here, your players, they grind. They get down, they get tough," D'Alie said about Janine Pontejos, Afril Bernardino, Gemma Miranda, and Jack Animam who fought valiantly against more experienced opponents.
She recalled the time when the Italians also entered the contest as the bottom-seeded squad. They worked their way up, improving their 3x3 program in the process, until they reached the pinnacle this year.
"That's how we started. We ain't winning tournaments, we would arrive in like 20th. A couple of years passed, we were eighth. Then a couple more years passed and we were fifth. This year came and now we're first," she shared.
D'Alie definitely knows how it feels like to be an underdog especially given her height, and it's a situation that's all too familiar for Filipinos. If she could give an advice to the PH team, it's to continue dreaming and surrounding themselves with people who will push them to become better.
"There's gonna be a lot of limits in life, but at the same time, those can become your strengths," she said. "You just keep grinding, you just keep believing. You keep putting yourself around the right people who believe in you."
Still in awe of the Filipinos' passion for the sport, D'Alie expressed her sincere gratitude to the fans who cheered them on.
"Thank you for coming out, for driving out here. Thank you for filling the stadium. I can't say enough about the Philippines' culture," she said with admiration.
"You guys are great and you can tell that there's a great appreciation of basketball. You can tell just by the people coming out. This place is rocking," she went on. "I think the lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs' is because we're playing good basketball, but also, it's because inside the Filipino heart, there's a basketball."
The crowd darling will return to Italy not only with a historic gold medal but also with fond memories of playing in front of basketball-obsessed people, who constantly made her feel like she was at home.