‘Justin Noypi’

Filipinos woke up on Friday the 13th to the freaky news that Justin Brownlee had flunked a drug test following Gilas Pilipinas’ historic conquest in the 19th Asian Games.

The development rocked Philippine sports to its foundation.

Aside from facing the possibility of forfeiting the gold medal that took six decades to materialize, it also cast serious doubt on the integrity of the victory as Brownlee is considered the cornerstone of Gilas Pilipinas.

Brownlee may have been born and raised in the United States, but he is treated as a basketball savior and a national treasurer in this basketball-crazy country.

In the Philippine Basketball Association, he saved Barangay Ginebra San Miguel — the country’s most beloved professional team — numerous times, leading it to six titles while netting three Best Import honors.

When the country lost the Southeast Asian Games title, Brownlee came to the rescue as he suited up for Gilas as a naturalized player to restore the glory.

His heroics in the Asian Games were genuinely superb.

In the quarterfinals against Iran, Brownlee fired 36 points, including a short jumper at the baseline in the final 44 seconds, to lift Gilas to a heart-stopping 84-83 victory.

A couple of nights later, Brownlee was again at his best as he knocked down back-to-back three-pointers in the crucial stretch to help Gilas eke out an incredible 77-76 win over host country China in the semifinals.

Gilas Pilipinas eventually won the gold medal following a masterful 70-60 win over Jordan, essaying a fitting finale to the odyssey of a team searching for an Asian Games title for the past 61 years.

But what made the journey a feel-good tale was that Gilas met many adversaries along the way.

After the World Cup, the team was rocked by the departure of key players and the resignation of its head coach, prompting the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas to reach out to the PBA and San Miguel Corporation for support.

Then personnel problems hounded the team with four new players barred from seeing action, while Brownlee suited up still nursing an injury after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs in his foot.

Even Tim Cone wasn’t supposed to call the shots, but he had a last-minute change of heart after SMC president Ramon Ang personally asked him to handle the squad.

It was indeed a perfect Cinderella story. It was a tale that deserves to be narrated repeatedly to the next breed of basketball stars.

And now this: Brownlee — the star player of the team that accomplished one of the most significant victories in the history of Philippine sports — had tested positive for Carboxy-THC, a substance connected to cannabis.

Although cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug and is legal in some parts of the US, it is still included in the list of banned substances of the World Anti-Doping Agency as it violates the spirit of sports, including the values of honesty, dedication, and respect for rules and laws. Its negative connotation of being a highly addictive illegal substance makes it unwanted.

Still, it’s not yet the end of the world for history-making Gilas.

The Filipinos can keep their Asian Games gold medal, while Brownlee can still appeal his case by authorizing the International Testing Agency to have his B-samples undergo further tests. He has until 19 October to appeal.

Brownlee will face a two-year ban if found positive, effectively barring him from seeing action for Gilas — and probably for Ginebra in the PBA — until he is 37 years old in 2025.

If not, he will be vindicated, but the stigma of being branded a cheater, a drug dependent, and a marijuana user will definitely linger for the rest of his career.

But it shouldn’t be the case.

Brownlee has spent the past seven years making Filipino basketball fans happy. More than his exploits inside the court, his tremendous character, sportsmanship, maturity, humility, and decision to undergo naturalization earned him the moniker “Justin Noypi.”

His star power shone even brighter when he agreed to play for Gilas at a time when other players were asking for “the moon” to wear the country’s colors. Despite not being in perfect shape, he took up the cudgels, donned the national jersey, and bravely battled the giants of Iran, China and Jordan.

In short, he is one of us. He may have been born and raised in the US, but he is no mercenary and is definitely a Filipino in heart and mind.

So, will this brouhaha tarnish Brownlee’s legacy?

Definitely not. His spot as one of the greatest imports ever to play in the PBA is secure.

They can call him whatever they want, but for Filipinos, Brownlee will be known by just one name: Justin Noypi.

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