Gilas Pilipinas put the Philippines back on the world basketball map after qualifying for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain -- nearly four decades since the country's last appearance in the tournament.
The Philippines played tough matches against Croatia, Greece, Argentina, and Puerto Rico before notching its breakthrough victory over Senegal in overtime. Gilas finished the group stage with a 1-4 record and did not advance to the next round.
Five years later, the Philippines clinched its second straight World Cup berth after surviving 15 months of tough competition in the qualifiers. Six other Asian teams -- New Zealand, Korea, Jordan, Australia, Japan, and Iran -- will join the host country, China, in the 2019 FIBA World Cup from August 31 to September 15.
Before Gilas heads to China, players from the Philippine team that competed in Spain recalled what it's like to play on one of the world's biggest stage.
How was the experience of representing the country in the World Cup?
Paul Lee: I was happy because it was my first time. It's a different experience, a different feeling. It's way better than a Game 7 in the finals but the atmosphere was like that. I was really blessed and happy that I was a part of it.
June Mar Fajardo: It was a great experience for us because we were there in a high-level competition. Then now, we were able to return to the World Cup so it's another great experience for the Philippines.
LA Tenorio: It's been the highest point of my career representing the country in the World Cup after so many years. ... I hope the players who will play in the World Cup can cherish their moment. It's a different feeling, the whole world is watching. It's a different feeling when you step on the court. That's what I remember. I really enjoyed that moment, enjoyed the competition, enjoyed the time that I was there and the training camps that we went to
Jeff Chan: I was really proud to represent the Philippines. I don't really know the last time that we qualified for the World Cup. Now that we have another chance, hopefully, we can be successful. At that time, we had many games that we fell short, like three points or five points. (Gilas lost by three points to Croatia in overtime, by four points to Argentina, and by four points to Puerto Rico). Hopefully this time, we already learned and hopefully we can advance. That's the only thing I want for Gilas. I'm praying for a successful World Cup for this Gilas team. Everybody dreams of playing and fighting for the Philippines. Hopefully, we can prepare earlier, I think that's what we lack.
Marc Pingris: Wow. First of all, it's an honor. Of course, we're not playing for our surnames at the back, we're playing for the Philippines. It was a really happy, really great experience. One thing I can say, the Filipinos who supported us were also great. Maybe 80 percent of the audience were Filipinos. It was a good feeling that even if you're not in your country, it still feels like you're in the Philippines because of the Filipinos' support. That's what gave us life and that's why we played hard.
Gabe Norwood: Man, there's nothing like it. It's hard to put into words, to be honest. Everything, from the practices to hearing your anthem to just being out there on the court with the world's best is nothing like it. It's one thing, as a basketball player, that I wish every player could experience. There's nothing like it.
What were your most memorable moments in Spain?
Lee: Every game was memorable for me -- every time I step on the floor, every time I play. But the most memorable was when I was included in the lineup to play in the World Cup, that was really a big deal for me.
Fajardo: So many memorable moments. The game against Senegal was the best and our bond with our teammates. I was one of the youngest in the team so my older brothers were always guiding me. Now I'm one of the older brothers. Time passes by fast, but I still miss my older brothers from 2014.
Tenorio: Playing against the best of the best in the world. That, I think, was the most memorable moment for me. Playing against NBA players and NBA-caliber players, playing in front of the whole world, not only in front of our countrymen -- the whole world is watching.
Chan: Oh my God, of course every game! There was a time that we almost won, against Croatia. But every game [was memorable]. We had a good bond at the time. I actually miss playing for the Philippines, I really miss it.
Pingris: Spain was really beautiful, like the cathedral and the churches that we visited. But for me, maybe (the most memorable was) when spending time with my family there, because I haven't seen them in so long and then my dad rented a house that has a swimming pool. After practice, I travel for around 30 minutes just to see them. Maybe that, our win against Senegal, and of course our bond as players.
Norwood: Personally, the dunk on [Luis] Scola and actually the second dunk (over Marcos Mata) that I had in that game surprised me more than anything. I don't really dunk left-handed too much and that happened. But probably one of the coolest things was Argentina's national anthem. Usually, you're pretty stoic and Argentina was kinda partying through their anthem like a soccer or World Cup game rather than basketball so that was pretty cool.
Who were the players or teams that you looked forward to playing against?
Lee: No one in particular, but every time I get matched up with NBA players, every time I defend them, I would realize after the game that "hey, I was guarding an NBA player." I was really overwhelmed with pride.
Tenorio: Everything for me was a challenge really. But the most memorable for me was playing against the best of the best point guards. There were many of them, not only during the World Cup but the preparation during the World Cup. We joined many pocket tournaments all over the world. I will never ever forget that.
Chan: I was hoping that time, before we went there, that [Manu] Ginobili will play for Argentina. Sadly, he didn't play, but there were a lot of good players. Against Greece, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] was there. He wasn't my matchup but I saw him and look at him now, an MVP candidate. Him, [J.J.] Barea, and many others.
Pingris: Luis Scola. I don't remember the others, but every time coach [Chot Reyes] tells me to play, even if they're tall, I just give my best.
Norwood: Man, probably the first game. [Bojan] Bogdanovic, I think he's with the Pacers or the Wizards now. I'm not sure where he's at but he was a great matchup. (Bogdanovic plays for the Sacramento Kings). Great scorer, bigger and stronger than I thought, but he came out and played really well against me. I learned a lot in the first game in the World Cup.
How did it feel when you finally won your last game against Senegal?
Lee: Whatever happens, I was just really blessed and happy, but especially when we won. We don't know the last time that the Philippines won before that game.
Fajardo: When the buzzer sounded, when the Philippines won, I had mixed emotions. I was really happy, and not just me, all the Filipinos were happy because we won.
Tenorio: That was the plan actually, to beat Senegal and Puerto Rico, something like that. It felt like we were champions. Too bad we didn't qualify for the second round, but winning and putting the Philippines on the map, that was a big thing for us. We had the confidence that we can beat the best of the best.
Chan: Oh, that time, it felt really good! We knew that we fell short in many games, but that time (against Senegal), we made it a sure ball win so we were all happy. It's our first win since a really long time that it's probably forgotten already. We were all happy.
Pingris: Even if we didn't advance, it still felt like we won the championship because we worked hard for it. We didn't expect that we'll get anything but in our first game, we told ourselves that we can win. There were a lot of games that were close fights, close games. So Cap Jimmy Alapag said that we needed to win our last game for the Filipinos watching. We just really gave our all. It's like we entered the finals, that's how it felt even if it's just one win.
Norwood: That was big not just for the country but also at that time, that was Jimmy's last game internationally. To send him off with a win was huge and something that we wanted to do for our captain. Overall, it's just awesome to beat Senegal, a team that was probably one of the biggest basketball teams I've ever played against. To come out victorious was awesome for us and for the country.