'90s Philippine basketball: The silver that felt like gold
MANILA, Philippines – When the Philippines failed to bag the basketball crown in the 1989 Southeast Asian Games, it marked only the second time the country did not rule the regional tournament.
The national team, mentored by Derick Pumaren, was bannered by then amateurs Jun Reyes, Apet Jao, Jun Limpot, Carlito Mejos, Vergel Meneses, Gido Babilonoa, Vic Pablo, Gerry Esplana, Larry Villanil, John Cardel, and Dodong Postanes.
When the squad bowed to host Malaysia, 99-107, it also sealed the country’s fate as the match was virtually the gold-medal game in the single round-robin format.
As the the Philippines sought to erase the stigma of the embarrassing SEA Games debacle, the basketball-crazy country got lucky when FIBA finally declared the advent of open basketball, paving the way for professional players to join international competitions.
Robert Jaworski was appointed head coach of the Philippine squad to the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, China. He selected his chief deputy in Ginebra, Rino Salazar, and Grand Slam-winning coach Norman Black as his assistants.
The Big J also chose Ramon Fernandez as team captain of the squad tasked to regain Asian cage supremacy. (READ: Ultimate rivalry: Big J vs El Presidente)
By late July, Jaworski had already completed his 12-men squad. There were shoo-ins such as Presto’s main gunner Allan Caidic, Benjie Paras of Shell, and Alvin Patrimonio of Purefoods.
Fernandez’s San Miguel teammates Samboy Lim, Hector Calma, and Yves Dignadice would form the core of the team.
Jaworski got role players who were already familiar with his system – Chito Loyzaga, Dante Gonzalgo, and Rey Cuenco of Ginebra.
Ronnie Magsanoc of Shell would serve as Calma’s backup and provide much-needed outside sniping. Zaldy Realubit of Presto came in as replacement for Jerry Codiñera, who was sidelined by hepatitis.
Bong Alvarez of Alaska and Nelson Asaytono of Purefoods were the reserves. Jojo Lastimosa was the most notable omission.
Although the lineup was littered with superstars, Jaworski also made sure to recruit those he knew would fit his system and vision.
The problems encountered today by Gilas Pilipinas were the same issues that beset the national team in 1990.
Back then, the national team could not convene for practices because the PBA All Filipino conference ran from June 10 to September 4.
The championship reached 7 games with Presto Tivoli winning over Purefoods. Caidic also ended up with a broken metacarpal in his fourth finger of his shooting hand.
By that time, Jaworski roughly had two weeks to prepare the team before the Asian Games kicked off on September 23.
Jaworski held practices which were open to the public at the Acropolis gym. Fans and scribes came in droves to witness the gathering of some of the biggest names in Philippine basketball.
There were also Chinese journalists who showed up during the team’s practices. Caidic was relegated to the role of a spectator with his hand in a cast while Black joined the scrimmages to simulate the play of opposing Asian big men.
The hype surrounding the team followed when the Nationals arrived in Beijing. Japan coach Yoshiaki Shimizu tagged the Philippines as the title favorite along with China.
Jaworski, though, was more circumspect as he told the Chinese media: ”We might not come out with good results this time but at least we started to send our best players to major international competitions like before.”
Caidic revealed that when they held closed-door practices in China, there were members of the Chinese team who were mopping the floor and pretending to be janitors so they could scout the Filipinos.
The Philippines played its first game in the preliminary round against Pakistan. After a shaky start which saw them trail 12-17 in the first half, Paras and Lim sparked a breakaway that allowed the team to regain control of the game.
With Paras and Caidic – who converted 6 triples – leading the scoring parade with 24 points apiece, the Philippines blasted Pakistan, 129-81.
Calma, Lim, Fernandez, Magsanoc, Patrimonio, and Cuenco also scored in double figures.
Next up was perennial Asian powerhouse Japan. In what was the team’s first acid test, Jaworski’s wards were failing miserably as the Japanese toyed with the Filipinos and erected a 14-point lead at the end of 20 minutes of play.
Whatever Jaworski said during the halftime break, it surely woke the team up. But the turnaround could be attributed to two key things.
First, the Filipinos clamped down on defense as they went on a 22-0 run to open the second half.
Second, the Triggerman happened. Caidic exploded for 34 points, including 32 of the team’s 43 points in the second half.
The Triggerman finished with 6 triples in the 86-78 upset, while Japan had 7-foot-1 Akifumi Yamasaki leading Japan with 25 markers.
The Philippines advanced to the second round where it downed North Korea, 98-82. “It was one of our toughest games. We had no way of scouting them,” Caidic said in an interview.
“They were very skilled although their style of play was a bit old school and mechanical. They also had a good mix of height and shooting.”
One of the fondest memories of older Filipino fans is a 6-foot-2 Loyzaga applying literal belly-up defense on North Korea’s best player, 7-foot-9 Ri Myung-Hun.
The giant Ri would still finish with 28 points but was frustrated by Loyzaga’s physical defense and fouled out.
Jaworski had a first-hand look at the Chinese squad in the round. After deeming he had scouted enough of the Chinese, Jaworski held back his punches and allowed the hosts to pull away with a victory.
The 60-125 loss to China, though, meant the Philippines faced a must-win scenario in their next game versus the United Arab Emirates.
The Filipinos got off to another slow start as they trailed at the break, 42-55. They regrouped in the second half to escape with a close win, 80-75. Paras pumped in 21 points while Loyzaga converted 3 triples to finish with 11 points.
A rematch was arranged with Japan – which topped the other bracket – in the crossover semifinals.
Just like in their first encounter, the Japanese held the lead early in the contest. The Filipinos countered with a 21-11 run sparked by 3 triples from Caidic to snatch the lead, 69-61, which they never relinquished.
Lim paced the Philippines with 18 points as they emerged with a four-point victory, 94-90.
China also won by 4 points over South Korea, 92-88, to set the stage for a finals between the host and the Philippines, which the media anticipated even before the start of the competition.
In the battle for the gold, the well-oiled Chinese squad proved too much for the hastily assembled Philippine team.
The host team, which won 90-74, had 11 steals and their suffocating defense limited the Philippines from having more scoring options other than Lim, who topscored with 25 points.
Caidic, hounded by 6-foot-7 Ma Jian, was the only other Filipino in double figures with 11 points.
But the Filipinos showed their big hearts by outrebounding the taller Chinese.
The Filipino bigs, despite being outsized, were able to neutralize the Chinese frontline which paraded Ma Jian, 6-foot-7 Song Ligang, 6-foot-8 Gong Xiabin, and 7-footers Shan Tao and Wang Zhidan.
It was the Chinese backcourt, though, which punished the Philippines with their outside shooting and running attack.
The 6-foot-4 Wang Fei dropped 20 points, while the 6-foot-1 Zhang Yongjun contributed 16 and the 6-foot-3 Sun Fengwu added 15.
The Filipinos fell short in their quest for gold, but they were still hailed as heroes when they came home.
Since Jaworski and his crew won the silver 30 years ago, the Philippines has bagged a medal again only once in the Asian Games. This was in 1998 when the Centennial Team coached by Tim Cone pocketed a bronze.
So it’s no surprise that the 1990 Philippine team remains one of the most celebrated national teams in history. For a lot of Filipino fans, the silver that they won felt a lot like gold. – Rappler.com