Underdog no more: Why Alapag says Gilas will not be overlooked

Jimmy Alapag said the win against Senegal is the foundation on which this current Gilas squad is built. FIBA

Jimmy Alapag has a vivid memory of the day Gilas Pilipinas arrived in Seville, Spain for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

The group waiting to welcome the team were probably expecting to see 7-footers like the big men of Puerto Rico and Senegal. Instead, the first Gilas players that they saw were all below six feet tall.

"We probably have 30 or 40 people waiting in front of the hotel, and the first three guys to get off our bus are Jayson Castro, LA Tenorio, and myself," Alapag said while chuckling. "If I could have taken a picture to capture the reaction on everyone's face when the three of us got off the bus, it was just like, 'This can't be the team that qualified for the World Cup!'

"It's funny looking back on it now but it was also an eye-opener for us to understand that we hadn't gotten respect from the best teams in the world at that particular time."

The scenario perfectly describes how Gilas introduced themselves to the world five years ago. They entered the court, dwarfed by bigger and more experienced opponents, but they never backed down. They pulled off surprises by dragging all their games to close finishes.

"It was a little daunting at first when you see the [other team's] lineup, but when the ball gets thrown out there, it's still a game and it still needs to be played," said Alapag. "The thing about us Filipinos is we have a lot of heart. We have a lot of fighting spirit."

Gilas opened their campaign with a tough overtime loss to Croatia. After that, they absorbed three more losses that mostly boiled down to the final possession. With a heartbreaking 0-4 record, they buckled down for their final stand against Senegal.

"I think going into that game against Senegal, as bad as we felt, we didn't want to leave Spain with nothing," said Alapag. "We felt like getting at least one win again would be the foundation for us to build on going forward."

Gilas' breakthrough victory became a fitting sendoff for their captain Alapag, who planned on retiring from international play after the World Cup. He suited up for the national team one last time in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, a culmination of his fruitful journey that started in 2002.

Born and raised in California, the 5-foot-9 guard came to Manila 17 years ago to try out for the national team. At that time, members of the pool were split into two PBA guest teams -- Selecta and Hapee -- as part of the buildup for the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. Alapag earned a spot in the pool but his debut game for Selecta was spoiled by a hand injury. "I broke my hand in the first five minutes of the game, so as quick as my national team experience started, it ended right away," he said. "I'm just thankful that later on in the future I had other opportunities to represent our country."

Alapag's first major international tournament was the 2007 FIBA Asia Championships in Tokushima. Coming off a two-year FIBA suspension, the Philippines was just starting to pick up the broken pieces of its basketball program.

"It was just great to have us back playing internationally," said Alapag. "Our country has such a deep love and passion for the game. To not be able to play internationally and connect with our countrymen who are all over the world, it was tough. So to at least to get that ban lifted, I think that was really the start of the Gilas program building to what it is now."

From then on, Alapag became a key figure in the Philippines' efforts to put the country back on the world basketball map. He had several unforgettable performances through the years, but nothing compares to the win against South Korea in the semifinals of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila.

Thousands of fans at the Mall of Asia Arena witnessed Alapag bury the dagger 3-point shot that simultaneously broke the "Korean curse" -- a series of losses to South Korea since 2002 -- and clinched the Philippines' first ticket to the World Cup in nearly four decades.

"To play that game, to make that shot at home with all the history with Korea, which wasn't good history by the way for us, that's a highlight of my career for sure," said Alapag.

"Those opportunities as players don't come around very often. I'm just thankful that we had a group that went out there and got the job done and brought a lot of pride and joy to our country. It's something that I'd share with my kids when they get older."

Alapag had a decorated 13-year career in the PBA. He won six championships, a season MVP award, two Finals MVP awards, and three Mythical Team citations. In 2015, he was named to the PBA's elite list of 40 greatest players. He also found success in his young coaching career, winning titles with Alab Pilipinas and San Miguel Beermen. However, playing in the World Cup still emerges on top of his long list of basketball achievements.

"Winning three straight All-Filipino [championships] in the PBA and playing in the World Cup are like 1a and 1b," said Alapag. "As a player, there's no better feeling than getting the chance to represent your country and play at a high level. To see that we were impacting our country in a positive way, that's very, very special."

Alapag learned a great deal from his time with the national team. For him, wearing the flag on his chest was "one of the absolute best experiences" of his life.

"It's funny, being three years removed from the game and I'm coaching now, I don't miss being out there," said Alapag. "I don't say 'man, I wish I can just play another 30-35 minutes,' but I'll always miss the competition. When I see Gilas play and I see the big crowds, that would never get old."

More than the games, Alapag misses the lasting friendships that he built with his teammates.

"The guys that we had in 2013 and 2014, those guys are my brothers for life," he said. "The experience that we went through on the court and just as importantly off the court -- the training, the long flights, the late nights just having conversations, playing cards, joking around -- those are times that even now as a coach that I still miss. That part of the journey is just as important as shooting a million jump shots in practice and running another million sprints."

Alapag believes that the chemistry and camaraderie of the Gilas teams that he captained were key factors in their success on the world stage.

"We'll always have that connection because we were able to do something not just for us, not just for each other and our families, but for the entire country," he said. "I just hope that what we were able to accomplish is just a foundation for even better things to come for our national team."

Gilas will no longer come in as an unknown squad when they head to the World Cup in China this August. Their opponents already know what they are capable of doing. They already proved that they belong. The challenge now is to continue competing at a world-class level.

"Just like our situation in 2014, there's a lot of work to be done," said Alapag. "I feel like we were able to leave Spain with something to say that the Philippines is back on the world level in terms of basketball. I still believe we'll be the underdogs but I think the world has already been put on notice that 'Hey, those guys in the Philippines can play some basketball too.'"