Column: Truth and hyperbole in basketball

Max Weber at the rainbow arc. Published on August 13, 2013.

It was a teaching moment, and Coach Chot Reyes seized it. After his Gilas Pilipinas team ended the so-called South Korean curse on Saturday and earned a ticket to the world basketball championships in Spain next year, Reyes had a message not only for his players but for anyone who cared to listen.

“I wanted to have a quick huddle with the players. I told them, ‘Congratulations. We have achieved our objective, now our dream is at hand.’”

And then he said (I am using a slightly edited version of’s fuller account of my batchmate’s statement at the post-game news briefing): “I don’t know if there were [already] people here in one [of] my earlier interviews. I said, our objective was to win a medal but our dream was to win it all. So we have achieved our objective, now the dream is at hand.”

The distinction Reyes made between objective and dream seems to me to be a crucial one; that he repeated it more than once suggests that he wanted his crisp formula—“We have achieved our objective, now our dream is at hand”—to carry well beyond Saturday’s quick huddle.

Objective suggests rigorous planning and disciplined execution; dream suggests something aspirational. Objective (quite literally, that which is in the way) means something which must be taken; dream means something that would be nice to have. To reduce all this to the Fiba Asia 2013 experience: It is the objective (“to win a medal”) and not the dream (“to win it all”) by which the Gilas campaign must be measured.

In other contexts, or for other coaches, dream and objective can be synonyms, of course. What did Reyes mean when he made the distinction—and why did it strike me with the power of truth?

Perhaps Weberian language can help. Aiming at an objective can be understood as an exercise in the ethics of responsibility. It is an act based on choosing the correct means: a step-by-step campaign that unites purpose with procedure.

Pursuing a dream, on the other hand, can be understood as an exercise in the ethics of conviction (I much prefer the language proposed by legal theorist Lon Fuller, though: the morality of aspiration). In other words, it is an act based on choosing not mere means but the end itself.

This does not strike me as satisfactory—but does thinking in this way sound, well, too philosophical for basketball? I hope not. The country’s favorite game has its moments of truth; that is certainly one reason why many Filipinos, even those who don’t play the game, like to watch it. More often than not, the “last two minutes” of any closely fought game reveal poise, character, even “heart.”

I think of Nikko Ramos’ extended prose poem, “We are Gilas, Pilipinas,” in Slam Philippines. After the victory over Korea, he wrote: “This goes beyond hoops. It goes past scoreboards and highlights. It’s an incredible tapestry of who we are, what we are and what we can be.”

For Ramos (surely one of the more eloquent sportswriters around), the truth about Gilas was that as a team it was truly representative of the nation whose colors it wore.

“Gary David’s horrid shooting at the start of the tourney is our daily commute: tiring, frustrating, seemingly never-ending. June Mar Fajardo’s bench-riding is how we react everytime they say we’re the Next Tigers of Asia: ‘Will our time ever come or will all this potential be for naught?’ Marcus Douthit and Ranidel De Ocampo’s injuries are our nagging disappointments: all these dreams, hamstrung by limitations and hurdles. The loss to Chinese Taipei is the equivalent of all our broken hearts, being so close to happiness, yet not knowing what you had and letting it slip away, never to be had again.”

Hyperbole? Maybe. But if we take part in, give heart to, share the impossible dream of playing basketball at the highest levels, who is to deny that a mere game can tell us the truth about ourselves?

“How did a tall man’s game become a cultural force of nature in a Southeast Asian country full of fairly short people?” author (and basketball enthusiast) Rafe Bartholomew asks in his infrequently updated blog, and then answers his own question. “But Filipinos have a basketball history that stretches back to the early 1900s, and over the past century the sport has become ingrained in nearly every aspect of Philippine society. On the sides of jeepneys, in every town square, on billboards and commercials for a dizzying range of products that includes sneakers, vitamin syrup, tires and margarine, you see basketball. Almost everywhere in the Philippines, you see basketball.”

That is no hyperbole.

* * *

Last month, another coach, in another post-game briefing, made another, important, distinction; like Reyes’ succinct formula, University of the East men’s basketball team coach Boycie Zamar’s remarks immediately, and indelibly, made an impression on me.

In the first round of the current UAAP basketball season (advanced by a couple of weeks precisely to give way to the Fiba Asia tournament), Zamar’s players lost a 15-point lead but recovered in time to beat Ateneo de Manila.

“Itong Ateneo team, they have pride. The problem with my team is that they have ego. Ateneo came back and na-deflate ’yung egos nila,” Zamar said. “UE woke up at the right time.”

No need to translate every single word; I think the sense, the truth of the moment, is clear.


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