Quo Vadis, Philippine Basketball?

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by Henry Liao

(As I was writing this piece, I thought of the hundreds of thousands of local hoops fans from the young generation who were not a witness to the glorious days of Philippine basketball from the 1950s and through the early seventies. Any hoops fan worth his salt will surely find this recollection enjoyable to read for it was all about “The Way We Were” for our country at the international scene.)

It has been more than 120 years since the game of basketball was introduced to the Philippines by the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) from Springfield, Massachusetts in the United States – or just a few years after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Before that, soccer (or football) was the most popular sport in the country due to its history as a Spanish colony (and influenced by British sailors from Hong Kong) even during the Far Eastern Games era.

Basketball and other American sports such as baseball eventually supplanted soccer.

1923 Philippine team that won the gold during the Far Eastern Games in Osaka, Japan.
1923 Philippine team that won the gold during the Far Eastern Games in Osaka, Japan.

“Basket ball” it was originally called in mid-December 1891 when the game’s inventor Dr. James Naismith, the physical education instructor at the YMCA’s International Training School, devised a novel indoor recreation for his gym class that would keep the youthful men busy during the cold, winter months.

“We have a basketball and a ball and it seems to me that would be a good name for it,” Naismith said. “Why not call it basket ball?”

And that was how the game was called during the early days – two words, basket ball. It would not be until 1920 that the sport was regular used as one word.

According to the famous historian and National Artist awardee Nick Joaquin, basketball was introduced to Filipinos within the historic walls of Intramuros, Manila. Unclear, however, is the exact date of the first basketball game ever played on Philippine soil.

Today, basketball has become so popular nationwide, a national pastime for Filipinos.

It is played in almost every nook of a community, in playgrounds or sandlots, and even in the most remote islands of the archipelago, especially during the summer.

The Philippine team that placed eighth during the 1959 edition of the World Basketball Championship in Santiago, Chile. [Henry Liao photo]
The Philippine team that placed eighth during the 1959 edition of the World Basketball Championship in Santiago, Chile. [Henry Liao photo]
In schools, commercial-industrial companies and government services, including civil and military, basketball is played by the young and old, male and female, throughout the year on a regular basis.

Of course, that is until these turbulent times when the COVID-19 pandemic put most sports competitions around the world to an abrupt halt since March a year ago, including the postponement of the prestigious Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan by a year – from July 2020 to July this year.

At the international level, the Filipinos excelled in basketball during the first half of the 20th century (1901-99), not only in Asia but also on the world stage.

Our cagers were nearly invincible in the Far Eastern Games, a biennial competition among the Philippines, China (then represented by Republic of China or Formosa) and Japan that many considered as the harbinger of the quadrennial Asian Games. In 10 FEG editions from 1913 to 1934, the Filipinos captured the men’s basketball gold on nine occasions.

Luis (Lou) Salvador [Henry Liao photo]
Luis (Lou) Salvador [Henry Liao photo]
The country’s flag was proudly raised at the conclusion of the festivities in 1913, 1915, 1917, 1919, 1923, 1925, 1927, 1930 and 1934. The only time that the crown slipped from our hands was in 1921 when host China topped RP, 30-27, during the finals in Shanghai.

The 1923 title in Osaka, Japan was historic in that Filipino Luis (Lou) Salvador racked up 116 points in the championship duel against China at the tender age of 19. It was the second appearance in the Far Eastern Games (the first was in the ill-fated 1921 campaign) for the Leyte-born Salvador, who later became a prominent movie figure and reportedly sired 58 children, including several that joined the entertainment world. (He had lived with 25 wives and at one time had 14 of them under one roof.)

Salvador’s offensive wizardry during the 1923 FEG finals cemented his name in Philippine basketball history. In one official 40-minute game, where the 30-second shot – or even the 24-second shot clock – was not yet in effect, the well-conditioned Jose Rizal College product buried one shot after another, mostly from midcourt, to establish the first documented 100 points-or-more individual score in Philippine cage annals.

In 1936, the Philippines became a member of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the world organization that governs international basketball.

Our boys romped away with the bronze medal during the 1954 FIBA World Basketball Championship (renamed FIBA World Cup starting in 2014 in Spain) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, trailing only the United States and the host nation.

Until today, the third-place ranking remains the highest finish ever by any Asian country in the quadrennial event.

The Philippines earned a berth to the FIBA World Cup a total of six times – the first four during the 20th century when the country performed well with homegrown Filipino players during the 20th century – except perhaps in the 1978 edition in Manila when we, as host, automatically qualified for the eight-team final round and lost all eight assignments, including the 7th-8th classification game, with the deployment of “amateur” players following the inception of the Philippine Basketball Association, Asian’s first professional league, on April 9, 1975.

In addition to the stunning bronze-medal finish in 1954, the country ranked eighth in Santiago, Chile in 1959, and 13th in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1974.

The Philippines also qualified for the Summer Olympics on seven occasions, the last of which came during the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany.

Our cagers ranked fifth during the 1936 Berlin (Germany) Olympics – still the highest finish by an Asian nation until now – then settled for 12th in London (England) in 1948, ninth in Helsinki (Finland) in 1952, seventh in Melbourne (Australia) in 1956, 11th on Rome (Italy) in 1960, 13th in Mexico in 1968 and 13th in 1972 in Munich.

In Asia, the Philippines lorded it over in the Asian Basketball Confederation (now known as FIBA Asia Cup) in 1960 (the inaugural edition held in Manila), 1963 (Taipei), 1967 Seoul, 1973 (Manila) and 1986 (Ipoh/Kuala Lumpur), the last of which came when the country fielded in a pair of naturalized players – Americans Jeff Moore and Dennis Still (a third, Arthur “Chip” Engelland, did not suit up as FIBA only allowed two naturalized players at the time, a rule that since then was reduced to one naturalized player. Engelland has been an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association since 2005).

The successful 1986 title quest marked the first time in local basketball history that the national team had to turn to players without any Filipino blood or were not homegrown.

PH National Team that won the bronze in 1954 World Basketball in Rio de Janeiro. [Henry Liao photo]
PH National Team that won the bronze in 1954 World Basketball in Rio de Janeiro. [Henry Liao photo]
The Philippines settled for the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, having dropped an 85-71 decision to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the finals. More importantly, we returned to the FIBA World Cup for the first time in 36 years in 2014, which were held in six cities in Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona.

It was another silver-place finish for PH two years later in Changsha/Hunan in China, losing, 78-67, to the host nation in the finals. The 2015 edition was the 28th and last FIBA Asia Championship, which previously served as a qualifying tournament to the Summer Olympics and FIBA World Cup.

By 2017, it was renamed to FIBA Asia Cup and teams from Oceania, specifically, Australia and New Zealand, were included in the tourney held in Lebanon Australia whipped Iran, 79-56, in the finals and South Korea defeated New Zealand, 80-71. The Philippines ranked seventh.

Ambrosio (Paddy) Padilla skippered the Philippine national team that placed fifth in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Until now, it is the highest finish by an Asian country in Olympic history. [Henry Liao photo]
Ambrosio (Paddy) Padilla skippered the Philippine national team that placed fifth in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Until now, it is the highest finish by an Asian country in Olympic history. [Henry Liao photo]
All 16 participating countries qualified for the first round of the FIBA Asia- Oceania qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup in China. Via the various “window” plays, we earned a ticket to the FIBA World Cup for the second consecutive time. (Together with Japan and Indonesia, the Philippines will co-host the 2023 WC and is automatically seeded into the quadrennial games and thus will be making a third straight appearance.)

In the Asian Games men’s basketball, the Filipinos emerged victorious in 1951 (New Delhi, India), 1954 (Manila), 1958 (Tokyo) and 1962 (Jakarta). Our country has not brought home the gold since 1962.

In 1990, a year after the FIBA instituted an “open basketball” policy, we sent a PBA-dominated pro team for the first time ever and settled for the silver medal under head coach Robert “Sonny” Jaworski behind the host People’s Republic of China.

The RP Centennial team grabbed the bronze in 1998 in Bangkok, Thailand. The country has not made it to the medal podium since the time. With PBA stars dominating the national quintet, it placed fourth in Hiroshima, Japan in 1994, fourth in Busan, South Korea in 2002, sixth in Guangzhou, China in 2010; seventh in Incheon, South Korea in 2014; and fifth in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2018. (We did not compete in the 2006 Doha Asian Games due to a FIBA suspension).

Despite the presence of Fil-Am Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Taylor Clarkson (our naturalized player) on the 2018 squad, our boys lost to China (82-80 in the preliminaries) and South Korea (91-82 in the quarterfinals) in the 2018 edition and ranked fifth behind China, Iran, South Korea and even Chinese-Taipei.

Alas, the Philippines has lagged behind in the international landscape during the past two decades under the current national basketball leadership. It lacks direction and a long-term program that is sustainable in the face of the solid strides made by our Asian neighbors and even our brothers from Africa.

Sometime in the 2000s, the leadership came up with a youth-oriented program only to discard the system abruptly during one Asian Games participation, setting aside three players in favor of veteran pro players from the PBA. The reliance on pro players or the utilization of a hodgepodge of pro and amateur players without much togetherness in training time has not worked, nor will it ever work in the future.

Teams from other countries train for an international sojourn for as long as one year and develop chemistry down the road. In contrast, our basketball leaders continue to believe that a week or two of training by the national team would suffice.

As if they don’t know yet, cramming for an “exam,” does not work, whether in school or on the basketball floor.

While the Philippines remain dominant in the Southeast Asia scene, it has remained also-rans in the Asian ranks (a second-place finish in the FIBA Asia Championship on two occasions in 2013 and 2015) and a laughingstock in global basketball.

In the 2014 World Cup, our boys wound up 21st out of 24 nations with a 1-4 record. True, we gave Croatia one hell of a fight before losing in overtime, 81-78, and showed Argentina what kind of corned beef we have in dropping a close 85-81 verdict. (The Nats’ only success came at the hands of African power Senegal, 81-79, in an overtime thriller.)

But close calls don’t count except in the movies.

The PH national unit placed 12th during the 1948 London Olympics. In one game, the Nats shellacked Iraq, 102-30, to become the first team ever in Olympic history to hit the century mark. [Henry Liao photo]
The PH national unit placed 12th during the 1948 London Olympics. In one game, the Nats shellacked Iraq, 102-30, to become the first team ever in Olympic history to hit the century mark. [Henry Liao photo]
Five years later, in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, our national team fell into the pits. It lost all five assignments by huge margins to finish dead-last in the 32-team competitions. While Ivory Coast, Senegal and Japan (the 2021 Summer Olympics host) also dropped all of their five games, they came in less than embarrassing fashion.

The Philippines lost by a combined 147 points or a losing margin of 29.4 an outing.

At no time ever in our previous World Cup participations did the country finish in last place and lose by such a humiliating average difference.

Now the 2023 WC beckons, and we are the host once more. As we prepare for them, the national basketball leadership does not really know where to go in terms of player recruitment. Do we go all-PBA or with a youthful team or again apply the band-aid, quick-fix solution of a mixture of pros and amateurs from the collegiate ranks and CRAM?

Even the most passionate local hoop followers are wondering what comes next.

Sadly, the glorious days of Philippine basketball in international competitions have already passed us by. Not one significant sign points to a return to the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Quo Vadis, Philippine basketball?

Henry Liao