DOHA - For Chooks-to-Go Balanga and Chooks-to-Go Pasig, making the trip to Doha, Qatar was already an achievement in and of itself as it ended the Philippines' short absence in the FIB3x3 World Tour circuit.
As lower-seeded teams about to have their first taste of World Tour competitions, not much was expected from both squads.
For Chooks-to-Go Balanga, maybe beating Moscow Inanomo, the 15th-ranked team in the whole world, could allow them to sneak into the quarterfinals if the quotient fell in their favor? But beating Riga Ghetto of Latvia, the third seed? That's too big a dream.
For Chooks-to-Go Pasig, maybe they could use their superior basketball experience against the younger Katara squad from Qatar to book a seat in the top eight. But beating the top team in the world in Serbia's Lima? That's impossible.
The Philippine representatives may have entered the competitions with low expectations from the 3x3 pundits but the thing about expectations is that these are just opinions, easily trumped by the dedication of teams to reach the goals they have set for themselves.
Things started auspiciously for the country as Chooks-to-Go Balanga opened their campaign with a huge upset against Riga Ghetto. With Travis Franklin heating up early in the game, they built a big lead but ultimately lost it when the import got some rest and when Leonard Santillan suffered an ankle injury. Still, Chooks-to-Go Balanga persevered and made some big plays in the end. Veteran Karl Dehesa drew a huge offensive foul late in the game and sank a free throw to help them pick up the win, 19-17.
"Guys, we just beat the third-ranked team in the world," said assistant coach Anton Altamirano.
This generated cheers and applause but it quickly died down as picking up a single win was not the goal. Against the Latvians, the three Filipinos and their talented imports were thinking about rankings. Numbers listed on a piece of paper do not deliver wins. Players do. And that the end, they didn't care about the rankings, only about the belief that they had for their squad.
Chooks-to-Go Pasig saw action a little later on against lightly regarded Katara. As expected it ended with an easy 21-14 win over for the Philippine side but a problem was apparently brewing within the team.
French import Angelo Tsagarakis left the court hastily, not even joining the huddle after the win. He and Nikola Pavlovic had a disagreement in the substitutions in the game, which caused a crack in their newly-minted partnership.
With only a week together as a complete unit, members of Chooks-to-Go Pasig did not yet completely know one another except for locals Joshua Munzon and Taylor Statham. This unfamiliarity boiled over in their very first game, which had head coach Eric Altamirano putting in a lot of work early in the day to smoothen things out.
With a chance to take the top seed in Pool C, Chooks-to-Go Balanga saw action next against Moscow Inanomo. The challenge for the squad was to figure out a way to win with only three players seeing action as Santillan was unavailable after spraining his ankle. To makes matters worse, Moscow was playing its first game of the day, which made them the much fresher team.
However, Alvin Pasaol would not allow his team to lose. He captivated the predominantly Filipino fans by grabbing big rebounds against more athletic opponents and scoring inside against much bigger defenders. The game was so tight that 10 minutes expired with the score tied at 18-all, forcing sudden death overtime.
Pasaol would complete his heroics in the game by sinking a tough corner two to win the game 20-19, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"It didn't feel like Doha," Pasaol said. "I felt I was playing in Manila because of the support of the fans."
After sinking the game-winner the entire Philippine contingent celebrated with Pasaol and even Tsagarakis and Pavlovic joined in. The moment although fleeting may have served as a reminder of just how joyful winning with your teammates should be.
The fans mobbed Pasaol and it wasn't just Filipinos. Qatari kids approached to ask him for photos.
In a way, Pasaol is the perfect embodiment of 3x3 basketball. He's not the tallest, not the most athletic, and definitely not the fastest but what he has in an unparalleled drive to do everything possible to win. This fire pushes him to sky for rebounds he should not be getting and defeat opponents who he should not be defeating.
When he finally got through the crowd and into the dugout, he was met with hugs by Franklin and Dehesa while Santillan looked on from a chair, unable to get up because his ankle was being iced.
"Man, I would not have known what to do if you missed that shot," Franklin told Pasaol. The American import who would turn out to be the top scorer of Day 1 with 24 markers was dead tired, his legs almost giving up on him.
"But I knew you were going to make it," Franklin told a guy who was a complete stranger a few weeks ago. Now, at the most crucial stretch of the match, the talented import looked for a local to deliver the goods and he did.
Franklin was not the only one running on fumes though as, at one point in the game, Dehesa was begging for a substitution even though he knew Santillan could not even put too much weight on his foot.
"I didn't even care if he just stood there because I really needed even just one second to sit down and catch my breath," said Dehesa who realized they still had a timeout to burn, which he opted for instead of the substitution.
Chooks-to-Go Balanga's twin victories put Chooks-to-Go Pasig in a tough spot. With the way the competitions are set up, a loss against top-seeded Liman would lead to an all-Filipino matchup in the quarterfinals, something they wanted to avoid at all cost.
"Win this one," Dehesa told Statham as he walked out of their shared dug-out.
"We have to," he replied. "There's no other choice."
Statham would prove to be a man of his word as he saved his best performance for last with nine points against the world's best team. Even though the Serbian squad did not have their best player in Stefan Stojacic, they were still bannered by Aleksandar Ratkov, Mihailo Vasic, and Stefan Kojic, who are ranked third, fourth, and seventh by FIBA, respectively.
However, Statham would not allow his team to lose and with Tsagarakis and Pavlovic playing on the same page, they scored the biggest upset of the tournament by beating the favorites, 19-16.
Averting having to face each other in the quarterfinals, the two teams celebrated together as they marveled at what they accomplished together. The teams that were described by local media as "from basketball-crazy Philippines" and "to round out the group" topped Groups A and C, an accomplishment never before done by the Philippines.
"We're so proud of what the team accomplished," said head coach Eric Altamirano. "And they did it together. They helped each other out in practice and pushed each other to be better and cheered for each other so even if we have two separate teams, we really won as a group."
There were lots of cheers and hugs in the dugout but Statham was quick to remind everyone that they have not yet accomplished their goal.
"The same thing happened in the SuperQuest," he cautioned. "We won the first two games then we fell flat in the third. Getting these wins was good but tomorrow we'll play the more important games."
Chooks-to-Go Balanga is not scheduled to battle Liman while Chooks-to-Go Pasig is matched up with Riga Ghetto, allowing both teams to exchange notes to help the other prepare for their respective games.
After the day's competition, the Philippines dominated the headlines on FIBA 3x3's website as their writers were in awe of what the two teams accomplished. But now the element of surprise is no longer on their side. As top teams, they are now marked men, which means they will get the best from their opponents tomorrow.
Chooks-to-Go Balanga and Pasig got the world's attention. Now they'll have to prove they could thrive under the spotlight.