Reminiscing PH basketball’s heydays

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Sunday, August 31, 2014


WATCHING the Gilas Pilipinas give a taller Croatia team a scare, losing by a mere three points, 78-81, in the World Cup currently held in Spain made me recall the heydays of Philippine basketball. I am referring to that period when the sports dragon that is China was still asleep and basketball competition in Asia didn’t include Middle East countries yet.

That was also the time when the mishandling of the country’s basketball affairs by the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP), the precursor of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), eventually became so unbearable the big stars in the game escaped its clutches by helping form the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

I was but a child then, one introduced early to sports by a father who loved following sports events through the newspapers he bought daily and through our cheap transistor radio. And like many other Filipinos, we ended up favoring basketball and boxing over other sports disciplines. Okay, we liked chess, but not as fanatically as those two.

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We didn’t have a television, so I didn’t know if basketball games were covered live in that medium. But a radio station did follow the games of the popular amateur basketball league run by the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (Micaa), which was later replaced in popularity by the PBA.

We religiously followed every game of our favored teams, which usually had Cebuano players like Manny Paner, Yoyong Martirez, etc. in their rosters. It so became a habit for me that even if everybody else slept I was still awake listening to the basketball coverage in the dark, with the volume of the transistor radio switched very low.

I didn’t know anything much about the players, especially the league’s stars, but I tried to attach images to the names mentioned by the anchors and imagined the plays made. But through the years, I got familiar with the faces and the plays of those stars.

Of course, the Philippine teams formed at that time for our participation in international basketball tournaments caught our attention, more so if these included players from Cebu. We would follow the qualifying tournaments for such major competitions as the Olympics and the world basketball championships. We followed the Asian Games.

I remember that our stiffest competitions then were teams from South Korea and Japan.

In the tournament of the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) held in the Philippines in the early ‘70s, we kids were awed not only by Robert Jaworski, Paner, Martirez, etc. but also by South Korea’s Shin Dong Pa.

I think that was the last time we won that competition before the taller Chinese team joined it and the PBA was formed. With China ruling basketball and most other sports disciplines in Asia, BAP sent basketball teams abroad that got mauled not only by basketball biggies but even by its lesser lights. At that time, players in professional leagues were not allowed to play in amateur tournaments.

The entry of China made us realize that basketball is indeed a game for tall players.

Before the surfacing of so-called Fil-foreigners in the Philippine basketball landscape, and also before naturalizing players became a practice, the centers of our teams were as short as the 6’2” Paner and as “tall” as the 6’4” Abet Guidaben. Some teams abroad even had 7-foot players in their roster.

When I was a student in Southwestern University, I got a chance to talk with then coach Jake Rojas, who was once a member of the Philippine team. He laughed when he recalled their predicament battling bigger opponents. When one Philippine team member got sandwiched by two players of the opposing team, he said, that Pinoy would disappear from view.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 01, 2014.

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