Still Rock Solid
Down big against the long, talented, and athletic Wellington Saints in the 2015 Jones Cup, Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin called upon his unique mix of young blood and old hounds. The young guns—Calvin Abueva and Jayson Castro—provided an intoxicating blend of end-to-end hustle, catch-me-if-you-can speed, and coast-to-coast drives. One of the old hounds, veteran Dondon Hontiveros, caught fire from beyond the arc.
But it was the other old hound, the oldest of them all, who started the comeback. Asi Taulava, the six-foot-ten, forty-two-year-old, blond-haired mastodon dug deep and turned back the hands of time as he held his own against the tall, athletic, and much younger frontline of the Saints. “Kuya Asi,” as he is affectionately called now by members of the Gilas squad, provided a jolt of energy and a steadying calm. He then connected on timely undergoal stabs, grabbed important rebounds, kept loose balls alive, set hard screens, and just plain sacrificed his already worn-out body on both ends.
At forty-two and on the tail end of a storied, storybook career, Asi could have opted to rest that aging body so he can be fresh and ready for the upcoming PBA season.
With a slew of accolades, including a PBA MVP, an ABL MVP, several Mythical Team selections, a Defensive Player of the Year award, a Finals MVP, and two all-star game MVPs, to name a few, Asi could have simply rested on his laurels, secure in his place in Philippine basketball history even without another stint for Team Pilipinas.
A many-time member of the national team since 2002, Asi could have cited all his previous years of sacrifice in refusing this particular go-round with Gilas. The big man could have reasoned that he has paid his dues already and moved on.
And to a man, it was well within Asi’s right not to play for flag and country, not only for this iteration of Gilas, but for every other national team since 2004, when the Fil-Tongan became a basketball pariah of sorts, along with Fil-Ams Erik Menk and Danny Seigle, during the height of the Fil-Sham controversy that hounded the PBA. Asi and his brethren’s lineage was doubted, their legitimacy, openly questioned. They were branded in the court of public opinion as fakes, wannabe Pinoys who had no trace of Filipino blood in their veins. Worse, Asi and company became the poster boys of a Senate witch hunt—commanded to stop playing and required to attend Senate hearings and submit a seemingly never-ending plethora of documents.
Worse still, Asi was firmly at the crosshairs of the controversy. Even his mother, Pauline Hernandez Mateeaki, became collateral damage. He was, for a moment, at the doors of deportation again, ready to be kicked out of the country for a second time, not only by members of the Senate, but even by his own peers. (Asi had been deported in April 2000 due to citizenship issues; he came back in 2001 to prove his citizenship.)
Someway, somehow, Asi survived the controversy. He was given the green light to resume his career. Little by little, he rebuilt his reputation. He regained his basketball soul. He rewrote his story, on and off the court. Along the way, he chose not to turn his back on the country that essentially was ready to turn its back on him. Instead of being all bitter and vengeful after the controversy, the affable big man chose to put the past behind rather quickly and open heartedly. Rather than be distrustful and distant, Asi embraced this country and his countrymen even more.
Even as people continued to question his Filipino lineage, or lack thereof, Asi remained committed to the national team, never wavering in his desire to wear the blue, red, white, and yellow. Ever since the Fil-Sham witch hunt of 2004, Asi has not once refused an opportunity to play for the country. And each time Asi has represented the Three Stars and a Sun, he has done so with an admirable passion and a palpable sense of pride. He has played with “puso” way before “puso” became the battle cry of the national team.
Over the weekend, at the 2015 Manny V. Pangilinan Cup (MVP Cup), the blond-haired, fun-loving Fil-Tongan showed once more that age is just a number, especially for a man whose puso beats in perfect perpetual harmony with the hearts of every basketball-loving Pinoy here and everywhere else in the world. Asi played in all three games, and as he has done so many times before, he laid every thing out on the hardwood. His final act on home soil as a member of the national team was typical Asi at his forty-something best—workmanlike and blue collar, sublime yet steady. He was all work and no frills, all heart, pure guts, unfiltered passion.
This, for all intents and purposes, is likely Asi Taulava’s final stint with the national team, his final chance to prove that running through his veins is the blood of a true Pinoy—brave and bold, passionate and persevering, unselfish and unyielding. Not that he needs to prove anything to anyone anymore. Pauliasi “The Rock” Taulava. He first played for the national team in 2002, when he and the rest of his teammates broke down in tears after the now infamous “Heartbreak in Busan.” Since then, Asi has answered every call of duty for flag and country, even as some have continued to cast aspersions on his lineage and legitimacy, and now, on his fitness and ability to play the game.
The oldest hound of Gilas Pilipinas is still putting it all on the line for the Philippines, and we all ought to thank him no matter what happens at the FIBA Asia Olympic qualifiers. The curtain on Asi’s international career is about to be unfurled, and it’s about time that Filipino basketball fans give the man his due.
Old man Asi deserves it.
Martin is a copy editor for the University Press of First Asia. He is an avid sports fan. He used to keep a sports blog at http://pinoysportsnet.blogspot.com/.