Photo courtey of FIBA.com
MANILA, Philippines – With Andray Blatche's first World Cup experience coming to an end, all he wanted is to repay his adopted country with a victory before going home.
The strings of heartbreaking losses are too much to bear for Gilas Pilipinas, but as their national duty dictates, they have to move forward and bring honor to the flag they represent, as if they have not yet done that with their gallant efforts that always seem to fall short.
"We have one more. Hopefully we can leave with a win instead of just falling short again," Blatche told FIBA.com after a heartbreaking 73-77 loss to Puerto Rico that killed their hopes of advancing to the knockout stages.
Blatche and Gilas will try to salvage the country's first World Cup campaign in 36 years by going out with a win against Senegal Thursday night.
Before he was naturalized by law to play for Gilas, some quarters in the Philippines doubted if Blatche would give his 100 percent effort for the national team given the uncertainty of his status in the NBA. But that were all washed away once he stepped on Seville.
Doubters turned into believers as Blatche courageously fought with Gilas Pilipinas, showing that he may not be a Filipino by blood, but by heart, he is every inch deserving of the citizenship accorded to him.
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The NBA free agent, not minding his future in The Association, earned the adulation of Gilas fans for giving his all, even playing through injury to give the country a shot at historic victory in this tournament. After four heroic efforts though, the victory remains to be elusive for Gilas, who lost three of them in heartbreaking fashion.
"We keep getting ourselves in position to win and we can taste it. We just haven't gotten it yet," Blatche said.
While he can take the pain of a bum knee and play with one good leg, the way the losses are piling up on an undersized Phl team, which he was expected to lead, is like rubbing salt to the injury. More than the physical pain, the emotional baggage is just too heavy to carry.
Photo courtey of FIBA.com
"They're pretty painful. But we keep fighting. It hurts. We come into the fourth quarter expecting a win," Blatche said.
Despite being limited by tendinitis in his knee, Blatche was able to average team highs of 22 points, 12.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
In this whole FIBA World Cup experience – from his naturalization process to the training camp up to the tournament proper – he has come to love the team never before seen from him in the NBA.
"It feels like a blessing. Everything is great. From the supporters back in Philippines to the coaches to my teammates. It's been a great experience for me. The guys have been great. They've been helping me along, making this as easy an adjustment as possible. I'm just very thankful," said Blatche, who added that this was the longest time he was away from his family.
The whole Gilas journey has helped Blatche not only basketball-wise but also grow as a person.
With the whole thing about to end, the 28-year-old former Brooklyn Nets center wants to go out with a bang, knowing well that his stint with Gilas in the Asian Games is in jeopardy.
This might be the last time we'll see Blatche in Gilas uniform, at least for this year. And that gives him more motivation to bear the pain and try to win his “last” game for the team, the country that gambled on him when no one from the NBA did after his most productive season with the Nets.
"To be here, period, means a lot. For them to have that much faith in me and belief that I could come and make a difference for this team means a lot and that's why for the last 30 days I really took it in and worked hard, staying focused and staying humble and doing extra work," Blatche said. "I have a lot on my shoulders to contribute."
Blatche played like he's never done before in his first eight seasons in the NBA. He embraced Gilas, showed and embodied the country's "Puso" that he will bring to wherever he will go from here.
Alder Almo is a blogger for NBA.com Philippines. His views do not reflect those of the NBA.