When the FIBA World Cup of Basketball tips off tomorrow, the Philippines will feature one of the most unexpected participants in the whole tournament — Andray Blatche, current NBA free agent and erstwhile host of Lapdance Tuesdays. Although Blatche is fairly reformed from his worst days with the Washington Wizards, he is still not considered to be the picture of dependability and commitment. Yet the oddity goes much deeper, because the Philippines is a country with a basketball obsession that belies its relatively minor impact on the international game. How, exactly, would a player like Blatche fit in with this culture?
Not surprisingly, the answer is that it's taking some time. In a new feature for Grantland, Rafe Bartholomew details Blatche's adjustment to his new team. Yet it's his teammates' own adjustment to playing with Blatche that could be the most interesting issue at play:
A few days into training camp, point guard Castro had already begun adding wrinkles from Blatche’s game to his own. During a four-on-four shell drill, he caught the ball on the wing and then raised it in an exaggerated, one-handed shot fake before swooping it back down into a jab-step fake, and then drove to the basket. It was a move Blatche had been using all week. The thought of one’s players adopting moves from Blatche, a player who has never been known for his work ethic or offensive efficiency, might cause anxiety attacks in some coaches. For Reyes, however, it was a sign his longtime players and his new pickup were beginning to jell. It didn’t mean that he’d be coaching a team full of undersize Andray Blatche clones, but that they felt a “combination of respect and awe” for the big man’s game, and that playing with Blatche was giving his players “a lot of optimism [and] a lot of hope” about their chances to pull off an upset in Spain. [...]
“Coming in, I had my doubts about Andray,” Reyes told me. “I thought he would be always away from us, but he’s actually thrown himself into the process. When people saw that he was a legitimate NBA player who was willing to be just one of the guys … there was a palpable sigh of relief. [...]
That looming uncertainty is what made the Gilas players hesitant about the plan to hire Blatche as a replacement for previous naturalized big man [Marcus] Douthit. “There were mixed reactions because Marcus was still here,” said Alapag, the 36-year-old captain who has been playing for various iterations of the national team since 2002. “After going through those battles and you have success with someone who you consider a brother and not just a teammate, you’re kinda worried when coach comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna try somebody else.’” [...]
So far, the transition from Douthit to Blatche had been smooth, with Douthit’s continued presence and public willingness to sacrifice his spot for the good of the Philippines. But in Miami, Alapag told me it’s up to Blatche to earn the honor he’s been given, to live up to the team’s puso mantra. “It’s important, not just for the guys on the team but also for the country, to see that Dray’s gonna go out there and fight,” Alapag said. “Just like everybody knows that we’re gonna go out and fight.”
The article's consideration of Douthit is especially crucial to understanding Blatche, because the former had to prove himself to his new country in much the same way that the latter does now. The 34-year-old Providence product and Philippine Basketball Association star has competed for the Philippines since 2010, and it's clear that he's earned great respect from his teammates and even become a team leader. The fact that Blatche has replaced him has understandably created some awkwardness, even if everyone is trying to work past it.
On the other hand, the mere fact that Douthit has been able to reach that level of comfort within the country and team suggests that Blatche can achieve the same. It will take time, and it might not happen until future tournaments, if it does at all. But Blache appears to be doing the work, and that in itself matters. The two sides are doing their best to integrate an outsider into this rich culture.
Bartholomew's piece is much more involved than what I describe here — there's also information on what brought Blatche to the national team in the first place, plus a lot else. If you've ever wondered what goes into turning a player given citizenship specifically for basketball into a legitimate member of a national team and nation, this is the piece to read.
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