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by Henry Liao
It comes from a love song from the sixties – why not when the Love Month of February has just begun – and it mirrors the golden era in Philippine basketball history.
To paraphrase, “once upon a time the world was sweeter than we knew … but that was once upon a time very long ago.”
The words remind me of the yesteryears when the Filipinos were not only cage kingpins in Asia but also respectable before the eyes of the global basketball community.
It was in the fifties and sixties and somehow once upon a time never comes again.
Why all the melodrama? It’s because it gives me goose pimples while reminiscing the stunning performance of our national men’s basketball team during the 1954 World Basketball Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from October 22 to November 5, 1954.
In those quadrennial festivities, the Filipinos grabbed the bronze medal for the highest finish ever by any Asian country. Only the United States (gold) and host Brazil (silver) fared better than our boys. The Philippines is one of only 16 nations to make it to the medal podium (bronze, silver or bronze) since the FIBA World Cup first saw the light of day in 1950 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A dozen countries were in attendance in the 1954 edition – seven from the Americas, three from Europe and two from Asia, the Philippines and Formosa (Taiwan/now known as Chinese-Taipei).
Despite employing a second-rate squad composed of players from the industrial or commercial leagues, the minor colleges and the American Armed Forces, the U.S. dumped host Brazil, 62-41, in the gold-medal duel en route to an unblemished 9-0 record.
The Americans’ lowest winning margin was five points, a 64-59 (30-26) verdict over sixth-place Uruguay in the eight-team final round.
Brazil settled for the silver with an 8-1 record, including a pair of victories over the Philippines. The scores: 99-63 (44-22 at the half) in the two-game preliminary round and 57-41 (35-23 at the half) in the final phase.
The Philippines downed South America’s Paraguay, 64-52, (26-27 at halftime), in its first game behind 17 points by “The Great Difference” Carlos (Caloy) Loyzaga. Despite a subsequent 99-63 loss to Brazil in its next assignment during which Loyzaga tallied only nine points – his lone below-double-figure output in nine tournament games – the Pinoys advanced to the final round of eight.
In the final round, the Philippines fell to the eventual titlist United States, 56-43, but not before giving the Americans a scare.
Trailing by only three points at the half, 25-22, the stubborn RP unit rallied at the start of the second half and grabbed a 31-26 advantage. However, the Americans’ offense eventually got rolling and with three minutes left, the U.S. took control, 49-31, with an 18-0 bomb to gain the victory.
Kirby Minter, a 6-foot-6 forward, topped the Americans with 15 points. Big man Carlos (The Big Difference) Loyzaga was one of three Filipinos in twin-digit scores. Team captain Lauro (The Fox) Mumar, who nearly failed to make it to the tournament, paced our boys with 14 markers and 6-2 Jose Rizal College hotshot Mariano (The Feet) Tolentino netted 11.
The Philippines finished with a 6-3 mark overall and officially clinched the bronze medal with a 66-60 victory over France in its penultimate game in the final phase, where all eight teams played against each other on a round-robin basis without any playoffs.
Against the fourth-ranked French, Caloy, a bull-strong 6-3, 200-pound center in his prime, amassed 20 points.
In the Philippines’ farewell appearance, the San Beda College product torched sixth-place Uruguay with a tournament-high 33 points as he steered our boys to a 67-63 success despite the absence of team head coach Herminio (Herr) Silva, who had called in sick that day. (Note that Loyzaga scored nearly half of the team’s output.)
With the team travelling on a shoestring budget and handicapped by a lack of personnel (Silva did not have an assistant), Mumar assumed coaching duties aside from playing.
En route to its podium finish, the Filipinos also defeated the Republic of China (now Chinese-Taipei), 61-44; Israel, 90-56; Canada, 83-76.
Loyzaga finished as the tournament’s No. 3 leading scorer, averaging 16.4 points in nine outings. Only Uruguay’s Oscar Moglia (18.6 ppg) and Canada’s Carl Ridd (18.2 ppg) registered higher scoring averages.
Backing up Loyzaga on the offensive end were the quick and wily Mumar and Nano Tolentino, who normed 9.3 ppg and 9.1 ppg, respectively.
Not surprisingly, Loyzaga made it to the World All-Tournament Second Team (out of three teams).
Other players on the historic RP team (with their colourful monikers) were the following: Antonio (Spitfire) Genato, Napoleon (Chink/Hook Shot) Flores, Francisco (The Rajah of Rebounds) Rabat, Florentino (Pong/Bote) Bautista Jr., Rafael (The Rock) Barretto, Benjamin Francisco, Ponciano (Pons) Saldana, Bayani (Dirty Hero) Amador and Ramon (Cool) Manulat.
Not known to many were the alternate players on the squad – Francis Wilson and Alfredo Sagarbarria.
Mumar had considered the WBC bronze medal-winning feat as his most outstanding achievement as a player and the most memorable because of the harrowing experience he had undergone before making the trip to Rio de Janeiro, the site of the games.
“We made a niche in Philippine basketball and I was part of it (as team captain),” said Mumar in a 1981 article from the Celebrity magazine. “I also suffered a lot. I was suspended by the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation (PAAF) – the harbinger of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) – through its Basketball Committee for my refusal to join the team in our tuneup games in the States.
“I did not want to go because of financial reasons. My suspension for disciplinary action created a national uproar. (Manila) Mayor Arsenio Lacson and Senator Claro Recto started to lambast the Federation. It got to a point where then-Philippine president (Ramon) Magsaysay call me up to find out what the problem was. I explained my side and Magsaysay reconvened the Federation so that an open hearing on my case could be held.
“I was very heartened by the offer of many people to come to my defense in the hearing at the old Manila Hotel. I graciously refused the offer since I thought I didn’t need a lawyer. All I had to do was tell the truth. Well, I was exonerated, and Magsaysay sent me to join the team in the States.”
So did Mumar, a foxy 6-1 frontliner, make it to the national team to the Brazil world competitions.
Recalled Mumar, who went into coaching in playing retirement (in the old MICAA and the professional PBA aside from mentoring the national team of India in the mid-sixties): “The procedure then was tough and rugged. We were divided into five groups, with two teams from each group qualifying. The other 10 teams played each other regardless of the results of the qualifying round, unlike nowadays when results of the eliminations are carried into the finals. We had been there (in Rio de Janeiro) for almost three weeks and we had been playing almost every day.
“Finally we reached the last day. The game (vs. Uruguay) had no bearing. Even if we lost, we would still have been third. But to a man, the players said that we should win for our country, for our (sick) coach. We had to win so that there would be no question that we deserved and that only two teams beat us – the first and the second placers. It really touched me. Everyone forgot about our MICAA rivalries so that we could work better as a team.”
In another 1981 interview with a weekly sports magazine, Mumar also said that free-throw shooting played a pivotal role in the Philippines’ 1954 bronze medal-winning finish in the World Basketball Championship.
Said the Bohol-born Mumar: “Aside from the many sets of the team, foul shooting, which was given due and special attention during training, was the key to the team’s success. Reviewing the records of the team from the foul line, I discovered that the team had an 82.6 percent average conversion.
“The two pivotal and crucial matches that were instrumental in catapulting our team to that bronze medal finish (beaten only by the U.S. and Brazil) were won from the foul line. We won over France by six points (66-60) and over Uruguay by four points (67-63).
“In the encounter with France, we converted nine of 11 and with Uruguay, 10 of 13 free throws. In these two particular games, our team lost in the field goal department but managed to win via an excellent free throw performance. The RP team wrote basketball history in Brazil all because of foul throw mastery.
“The late (coach) Herminio Silva, put such a premium in free throw shooting for, as far as he was concerned, players who could not convert from the line had no business playing basketball.”
“Bay” Mumar is right. After all, free throws are free from any defensive interference. And in most instances, free throw shooting can decide a ballgame.
Mumar knew whereof he spoke. As a star player out of the Colegio de San Carlos (Cebu City) and Colegio de San Juan de Letran and in the post-graduate ranks (MICAA), Mumar was said to have owned a good fake and mastered the art of foul-baiting. And because he went to the foul line often with his sly foul-baiting tactics, Mumar had put a lot of emphasis on free throw shooting in his offensive arsenal.
Nothing in life is free, except from the basketball charity stripes.