Philippine sports has many reasons to thank the late President Ramon Magsaysay for.
For one, RM, “The Guy,” or “The Man of the Masses,” as he was fondly called by the Filipinos, whose 110th birth anniversary the country is celebrating today, presided over the country’s hosting of the Second Asian Games where the Filipino athletes ended up second to then powerhouse Japan in the race for the overall championship with a 14-14-17 gold-silver-bronze harvest.
RM, a former mechanic who rose to become the Republic’s seventh Chief of State, died in a plane crash in Cebu on March 17, 1957 in the company of 28 others with only one surviving. It was also during his term when weightlifters Rodrigo del Rosario and Pedro Landero finished fourth and sixth, in their respective event with the former lifting the barbell to a new Olympic record 105 kilograms in press.
What many Filipinos hardly know is that had the former defense secretary and Zambales Congressman not interceded on behalf of the Philippine basketball team captain Lauro “The Fox” Mumar, the Filipino hoopsters could not have salvaged the bronze medal in the 1954 World Championship held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The team left Manila for the United States where the Filipinos were scheduled to play several tune up games at the date of departure without Mumar. This led Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation top honchos to ban him for life for “failing to honor an international commitment and conduct unbecoming of an athlete of national stature.”
The ban on the national team skipper became an instant national issue, leading Congress to conduct an investigation as to why “The Fox” was left behind. The late Arsenio Lacson, former Manila Mayor and a Congressman at that time, denounced on the floor of the Lower House what he termed as the ‘oppression of the oppressed” on Mumar by the high lords of basketball.
The congressional probe revealed that Mumar had not a single centavo in his pocket at departure time and was waiting for his parents from Bohol to send him pocket money, which did not come.
Sportswriter Eddie Ticzon, then writing for the Roces family-owned The Manila Times, reported on the “missing Fox” whose only crime, he said, “was his having been poor, unlike the other members of the basketball aristocracy.”
Magsaysay, known as the champion of the poor, made his move, held his own investigation and summoned the team captain to Malacañang twice. “Ako po ay mahirap lamang,” Mumar told the President as reported by the The Manila Times.
“The last time I joined the national team to the London Olympics in 1948, all I had in my pocket was $2. Right now I have not even paid my apartment rent,” Mumar confessed.
The Fox also told the President he promised basketball officials that he’d just follow as soon as the money his parents was supposed to send arrives. “But nobody simply cared to listen. They suspended me without due process.”
Convinced, President Magsaysay talked to the PAAF high priests, who, in a subsequent public hearing held at the Manila Hotel, lifted the ban it had earlier meted out on Mumar.
The sports public, elated by the development, conducted a fund-raising campaign to raise fund for Mumar’s trip to the U.S. to join his teammates who at that time, had lost three of their first six build up games in the land of sweet and honey.
After everything had been settled and having the needed money in his pocket at last, Mumar left for Florida with more well-wishers on hand than when the national team itself flew out of Manila.
After a three-day rest with friends in Florida, Mumar along with his teammates—Carlos Loyzaga, Pons Saldana, Mariano Tolentino, Antonio Genato, Francisco Rabat, Rafael Barredo, Bayani Amador, Ramon Manulat, Nap Flores, Ben Francisco and coach Herminio “Herr” Silva—flew to Cuba for a one-game exhibition with the Cuban national team.
Lending his experience and leadership, Mumar, whose basketball career was nearly jeopardized by the fiasco, led the Philippines to a 49-45 victory over the Cubans in a triumph described by the Cuban media as a “humiliation by a crew of “little-known Asians.”
That defeat to the “Little Brown Dolls” resulted in the Cuban government’s decision not to send the team to the world championship.
Mumar, Loyzaga, who was named to the world mythical five after the tournament, and their team mates compiled a 6-2 win-loss record, beaten only by eventual champion U.S. and runner up Brazil, to bring home the bronze medal for finishing third, the still the highest finish by any Asian country up to the present day.
Magsaysay served as Chief Excutive from December 30, 1953 until his death in an aircraft disaster. Magsaysay was appointed military governor of Zambales after his outstanding service as a guerilla leader during the Pacific War.
He then served two terms as Liberal Party congressman for Zambales before being appointed as Secretary of National Defense by President Elpidio Quirino. He was elected President under the banner of the Nacionalista Party.
He was the first Philippine President born during the 20th century and the first to be born after the Spanish colonial era.