In just his second year in the amateurs here, Asi Taulava got the chance to watch the Philippine Centennial Team built to compete in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand.
It was undeniably one of the most stacked national squads the country had ever fielded, consisting of the best PBA players then. led by league Most Valuable Players Alvin Patrimonio and Allan Caidic.
Then in his mid-20s, Taulava was left blown away with that team, which copped bronze in Asiad. And that sparked his aspirations of representing his motherland on the global stage one day.
“Watching these guys, I’m like, man, I wish I would be given this opportunity to play,” he shared in Tiebreaker Vodcasts’ 2OT, presented by SMART and supported by Phenom Sportswear.
“‘Cause I remember how blown up [I was]. I was still an amateur, and the Centennial Team was everywhere. That was the thing I looked forward to. I was like, one of these days, when I get my opportunity, I’m not gonna let it pass.”
Four years later, Taulava — already one of the best big men in the PBA at that point — finally got the call that he had been waiting for. The opportunity to play for the national team, at last, knocked on his door.
The Filipino-Tongan bruiser was part of the PBA-backed Philippine team for the 2002 Asian Games coached by Jong Uichico, who took the place of the late, great Ron Jacobs after the American mentor suffered a stroke.
“And true enough, my day came in 2002 when I was called to serve. And I was like, man, I’ve been waiting for this since 1998! There’s no way I’m saying no to this,” he recalled with excitement.
“I remember the first day of practice. I was there like, two hours early, waiting for coach Ron Jacobs to coach and put that team together. I was excited.”
It was a stacked team that had Taulava, Noy Castillo, Olsen Racela, Dondon Hontiveros, Dennis Espino, Eric Menk, Danny Ildefonso, Andy Seigle, Jeffrey Cariaso, Rudy Hatfield, Asi Taulava, Kenneth Duremdes, and Danny Seigle.
But during their last warm-up game of the nationals, disaster struck.
“The last tournament we have… We had a tournament, we had a game in Araneta, so the last few plays of the game, and it so happened Danny jumped. Can’t remember it right, but he just landed awkwardly. He’s laying on the ground, the game stopped, and we’re all walking over there to the far side — that’s where the exit is to the locker room. We just thought Danny was being lazy that day, he was just laying there. We’re getting ready to leave for the tournament, we just thought he’s being sarcastic. I get there and he whispered, ‘I think I tore my Achilles’,” recalled Taulava.
“I was like, ‘There was no way you tore your Achilles and you’re whispering like that’. If that was me telling I tore my Achilles, I would be screaming. And then afterward when he raised up his leg and the team doctor looked at it and touched it, and said there was no more Achilles, it recoiled!”
Taulava felt floored.
Besides seeing a good friend of his go down, he could not believe how stone-faced Danny was.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ and he took it like a champ. Didn’t cry, didn’t scream or anything, he just waited for the medics to come to get him, and he was a big piece of that puzzle.”
The rest, as they say, was history.
The Philippines, who called up Mick Pennissi to replace Danny, made it all the way to the semifinals, only to lose to Korea on a buzzer-beating three by Lee Sang-min, 68-69. They eventually finished fourth after suffering another heartbreaker, this time a 66-68 loss to Kazakstan.
But if Taulava were asked, he firmly believes up to this day that the Philippines would have won gold had Dynamite Danny been there.
“He would’ve been that missing piece that game wouldn’t have been close against Korea, ‘cause remember at the time, Danny was dominating. Danny was dominating. He was awesome. The two Dannys of San Miguel, it was a handful. Olsen? You know those three guys know how to play together. We were just excited to be part of that team ‘cause you knew that was their team. Danny was so smart, so efficient that time,” Taulava said with wonder.