Whether it was Japeth Aguilar rattling the rim with his teeth-gnashing dunks, Jeff Chan or Jimmy Alapag launching three-point shots all the way from Tawi-Tawi, or Jayson William penetrating the shaded lane like was going through the hole of a needle, Philippine basketball never felt more alive in the recently-concluded FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Asia Championship.
In my 26 years as a sportswriter, there have been only few occasions when I wrote about Philippine basketball. The first time was in the late 1980s, when I was forced to write about the game following the exodus of writers from the now-defunct Champ magazine. The second time was in the early 1990s, when a dear friend, the late Willie Caballes, asked me to pen select stories about the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) for the Manila Bulletin. Make no mistake, I am a die-hard hoops fan, but my addiction to the game ended when the Crispa-Toyota rivalry in the PBA reached the nadir. I shifted to writing about the National Basketball Association for Scoreboard, Sports Life and Sports Weekly magazines.
My addiction to the game returned during Gilas Pilipinas’ magnificent run at FIBA Asia. What was supposed to be a one-game live viewing at the Mall of Asia Arena was followed by more games. Like the rest of the fans, I rummaged for tickets, fell in line at least two hours before the game and entered the arena with the enthusiasm of a kid sprinting out of school to welcome the summer break. The atmosphere in the arena was literally electrifying; Filipinos screaming their lungs out and our players responding by going out on a limb to snare the win. When the team advanced to the championship round with a hard-earned win over archrival South Korea, grown men unabashedly shed tears. How emotional was the win? Shortly after the game, signal no.1 was raised in Manila because of typhoon Labuyo. Yes, the heavens also shed tears.
Despite losing to Iran in the gold medal match, the Philippines’ silver-medal finish was good enough for a spot in next year’s FIBA World Cup of Basketball. You better believe it, the Philippines is returning to the tournament where it first merited global attention. The Philippines participated in the 1954 FIBA World Basketball Championship (as the tournament was then known) in Brazil and finished with an impressive 5-2 win-loss record to take the bronze medal. The third-place finish remains the highest by an Asian country in the history of the tournament.
The Philippines was a global force in basketball during the 1950s, dominating the first Asian Games in 1951 and finishing within the Top 10 in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games. In 1975, just two years after the Philippines won its fourth FIBA Asia title with a perfect 9-0 record, the PBA opened shop and this prevented our players from taking part in international competitions, what with the FIBA’s prohibition on pro players. China and South Korea took our place in the Asian basketball map, but Filipinos kept the faith, honestly believing that that the best players in Asia were just holed up in the PBA.
When FIBA opened its doors to pro players in 1989, the Philippines was expected to reclaim its throne in a snap of a finger. But from the time FIBA declared open basketball until this year’s FIBA Asia, the Philippines’ best performance was a silver medal finish in the 1990 Asian Games, the year when our first all-pro team made its debut in the international stage. That it took nearly an eon for the country to return to the World Cup of Basketball only shows how far we were left behind by our Asian counterparts.
The impressive performance in the recent FIBA Asia nonetheless shows that Team Philippines is slowly working its way back to contention. Next year, when our players arrive in Spain for the World Cup of Basketball, I expect my addiction to get the better of me again.
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