WHEN I covered the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, expectations were high for our basketball team to win the gold for two major reasons.
One, our team was called the Centennial Team in commemoration of the 100th year of Philippine independence. So much patriotism was sweeping the nation then.
Two, almost every basketball-loving Filipino—from the dirt poor to the filthy rich—pitched in both their moral support and money to make the Centennial Team the 1998 Asiad winner in the Thai capital.
The Centennial Team had stars like Andy Seigle, Jojo Lastimosa, Dennis Espino, Jun Limpot, Vergel Meneses, EJ Feihl, Olsen Racela, Alvin Patrimonio, Allan Caidic and Kenneth Duremdes. Tim Cone was the head coach, with Chot Reyes and the late Aric del Rosario as assistant coaches.
Before we left for Bangkok, the Centennial Team flew to the US to hone up its skills by battling high-powered NCAA teams.
Before flying to America, Cone’s cagers defeated the vaunted PBA All-Star selection in the 1998 All-Star game. Then they captured the Jones Cup in Taipei that year.
In the 1998 Bangkok Asiad, after eking out a 53-52 opener over Kazakhstan, we routed Kyrgyzstan 91-50, UAE 93-57 and Thailand 86-60. Then we lost to our perennial nemesis, South Korea 103-83.
That loss dropped us to a semifinal clash against China, whose firepower was simply too much to handle. We yielded an 82-73 decision, sending us to a bronze-medal battle against Kazakhstan.
But we outgunned the Kazakhs behind Lastimosa’s last-minute heroics to salvage the bronze that glistened like gold. A bit of redemption from our elimination in the 1994 Hiroshima Asiad.
If you end up medal-less in basketball, that’d drown out all the victorious roars in the field, including even the 2002 Asiad golds won by equestrian Mikee Cojuangco and bowler Paeng Nepomuceno in Busan.
On my first day in the office upon arrival from Bangkok, a P20,000 check was on my table.
A note, from the newspaper owner, read, “For a job well-done.”
It felt nice.
I had worked my whole butt out there, indeed.