Seven years ago, I was at the media tribune of 2013 FIBA Asia Championship hosted here in Metro Manila. I was sitting in the fourth row with my good friend Joao Pablo and a host of other media personnel from all over the continent.
I was crying. Joao was crying. The Filipino media personnel around us were all bawling. Grown men in their 20s, 30s, and upwards in the Mall of Asia Arena and perhaps even those watching from the comforts of their own homes also found tears falling down their faces.
It was a singularly surreal moment. It was the day grown men cried.
The main cause? Twelve gallant Filipino basketball players — along with their coaches, managers, consultants, and other team personnel — slew an Asian giant and exorcised a ghost that had haunted us to no end years and even decades prior.
It was the day the Philippine men’s national basketball team finally found itself superior to South Korea in the context of a continental event.
It was the day Filipinos cried not because of another late-game breakdown or because of another last-second dagger three. This time, the tears flowed because of jubilation and not consternation.
This time, we won, and how.
Fueled by bitter memories of previous national teams falling short against the Koreans, the 2013 Gilas Pilipinas squad broke a curse that for so long seemed unbreakable.
Hur Jae’s sniping in the 1990s. The 20-point shellacking in the 1998 Asian Games. Lee Sang-Min’s buzzer-beater in Busan 2002. Losing to Korea twice in the 2009 FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin. Getting eliminated in the 2010 Asiad quarterfinals. The late-game collapse in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan.
Fittingly, as I recall that game seven years ago, in many ways, it was a condensed, 40-minute retelling of all our tragic basketball history with Korea, only with a fortunate twist in the end.
It had the highest of highs like Jayson Castro’s daredevil drives, Marc Pingris’s emphatic rebounding, Ranidel De Ocampo’s kili-kili shot, and Gabe Norwood’s defensive gem in the final minute.
It also had the lowest of lows, from the injury to Marcus Douthit (which, looking back, quite possibly cost us the title itself), the amazing shooting of Kim Min-Goo, and of course, just like clockwork, Korea’s patented fourth quarter run.
On that night seven years ago, however, our aims were just a little truer, our defense held just a little stronger, and our hearts were just a little bigger.
When the smoke cleared and the 2014 FIBA World Cup ticket to Spain was officially booked, the box scores had Castro finishing with 17 points, three assists, and one block in a scintillating performance, while Pingris, undersized as he is, made up for Douthit’s injury by reeling in a mighty double-double — 16 points and 10 boards — in the face of Korea’s imposing frontline.
And then, of course, we could not leave out the heroics of one Jimmy Alapag, who almost single-handedly drove every painful endgame nail in the Koreans’ collective coffin, draining one big basket after another as the Filipinos returned to the biennial competition’s championship game.
When the final buzzer sounded, Alapag had collected 14 points in just 17 minutes of play, thanks to sinking four three-pointers. What a guy, right?
It was sweet payback for decades of frustration, and it quashed any lingering sense of inferiority we may have unconsciously harbored when facing the Koreans.
Before we drown in this past glory, however, remember that since beating Korea in 2013, we have failed to duplicate that feat in every continental level tournament where we’ve played them, be it the FIBA Asia Cup (lost to them in 2017) or the Asian Games (lost to them in 2014 and 2018).
Still, if anything, looking back at that momentous night in 2013 should fan or reignite the embers of another possible miracle when we collide with the Koreans again. Keep in mind that the soonest possible time we go head-to-head against South Korea is whenever the second window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers opens, and that can be as early as February next year.
Until then, let’s reminisce how our national team, on that fateful day seven years ago, played so well that they made grown men cry.
A 4:20PM Tiebreaker Vodcasts’ 2OT presented by SMART Sports will look back on Gilas Pilipinas’ win that broke the Korean curse