By: Ariel Ian Clarito
Before 2002, the idea that Korea was the “kontrapelo” of the Philippines was still inconclusive. The Asian Games that year in Busan proved it. Lee Sang Min’s buzzer-beating three was a dagger that ripped through the heart of every basketball-loving Filipino.
After that, people began calling it the “Curse of Korea”. It reared its ugly head again in the 2010 Asian Games and the 2011 FIBA Asia. In both instances, the Philippines had the lead, but allowed Korea to steal both games from the jaws of defeat.
“The Curse of Korea” was real. The Philippines had three decades of experience as damning evidence.
Why have we become so fixated on beating Korea?
China has won over us more times in the last thirty years. Then since Iran emerged as an Asian power in 2007, we have beaten them only twice. Maybe we know that against Iran and China, we are outsized and often come in as underdogs. We loathe China, which acts as bullies both on and off the court.
Korea, on the other hand, is not a dirty team. They have no discernible size advantage over us. We could go toe-to-toe with them — until the dying seconds of the game. I personally do not hate the Koreans. Through the years, I have come to admire and respect the way Korea plays basketball.
I even wonder if Korea considers us their rivals. By my count, they have beaten us 16 out of the 18 games we have played against each other since 1985. These are just in the FIBA Asia and Asian Games. If we include the Jones Cup and the FIBA Asia Cup, the numbers become even more lopsided.
But there is one game between the two teams that I will forever remember.
It happened exactly seven years ago to the day: the semifinals of the 2013 FIBA Asia held in Manila. My wife Paola and I joined over twenty thousand Filipinos who packed the Mall of Asia Arena. So much was at stake in the game. That Korea was standing in the way would make winning extra sweet — and losing excruciatingly unforgivable.
When I got into the arena, my emotions swung from buoyant expectation to foreboding that Korea would yet again snatch the game away from us.
Gilas Pilipinas kept in step with Korea the entire first quarter.
In the second quarter, tragedy struck as Marcus Douthit went down with a hamstring injury. The odds quickly turned from 50-50 to bleak. Coach Chot Reyes had to make do with a rotation of 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar plus Ranidel De Ocampo and Marc Pingris, who are both listed at 6-foot-5. (A major exaggeration after I saw them standing side-by-side with the Korean frontline of three players standing 6-foot-9 and one measuring officially at 6-foot-8.)
The game ebbed and flowed while the two gladiators left everything they had on the hardwood. For every daredevil incursion by Jayson Castro and crafty penetration by LA Tenorio, Korea answered with a spurt of their own, preventing the Philippines from building a sizable lead. There was one man keeping the Koreans afloat — Kim Mingoo.
Running through my head was the thought that maybe Korea had an assembly line of guards designed primarily to make the Philippines miserable. Shin Dong Pa in the 60s and 70s. Lee Chung Hee in the 80s. Hur Jae in the 90s. Lee Sang Min.
Kim Mingoo shot the three like Shin Dong Pa and ran the transition like Hur Jae. The difference was that Kim Mingoo was taller, leaner, and more high-flying. Another striking difference was Kim Mingoo’s auburn-dyed hair, which made him appear more like a member of a K-Pop boy band than a basketball player. He was a combustible presence on the floor with 27 points built on five triples, the last of which resulted in a foul and a four-point play to narrow the gap to just a point as the game entered the homestretch. Before I knew it, the Koreans had grabbed the lead.
It was a scene far too familiar for Filipino fans, like a deja vu happening on a groundhog day. I knew a Korean comeback was inevitable. To see it happening right before my very eyes were both frightening and spellbinding.
But this version of the Philippine team had no quit in them. Instead of simply crumbling, they launched their counter-attack. It was as if they were staring down the Koreans and telling them that, no, the Philippines was not going down that easily. Not in this game. Not today.
In the closing minutes, Jimmy Alapag attempted a difficult step-back three that had bad shot written all over it. And he saw his audacity rewarded when the ball went in, returning the lead to the home team.
With the Filipinos up by just two with a minute remaining, Alapag once again did everything a sensible point guard would not do. He dribbled the time away instead of moving the ball around. He refused to call any play. With the shot clock winding down, Alapag summoned Pingris for a screen. As it came, Alapag launched another three-pointer.
It was ill-advised. A miss would have been catastrophic. My eyes must have dilated twice the usual size as I followed the ball, which traveled up and over like a rainbow. Nothing but the bottom of the net. A little over 50 seconds remained.
The place was close to erupting in pandemonium as the crowd began to smell the sweet scent of triumph permeating from the court and through the stands. My own celebration, though, was restrained. History has taught me that no lead was ever safe against the Koreans.
Kim Mingoo had another chance to inch his team closer. His attempt was blocked by Gabe Norwood. Gilas needed one last basket to seal the victory. Castro’s lay-up missed its mark and two Koreans close to the basket were ready to grab the rebound. Then from out of nowhere came Pingris, plucking the ball from the Koreans, who froze on their tracks. Pingris scored on a stickback to give Gilas a seven-point lead.
Finally, it was over. I was lucky to witness a beautiful basketball game between two gallant combatants who were equals separated only by a few breaks.
I never imagined it would take three decades since I started following the national team for us to finally win over Korea, but I always knew I was going to see it in my lifetime. Watching it live with a horde of screaming Filipino fans who decided to stand the entire game because they wanted to cheer themselves hoarse made it a truly epic evening for me.
It was the best crowd I was ever part of. On the way out of the venue, fans were still shouting “Laban Pilipinas” and “Puso”. I was there when we finally exorcised “The Curse of Korea”.
On that one glorious night, I felt my love for Philippine basketball was finally requited.
A 4:20PM Tiebreaker Vodcasts’ 2OT presented by SMART Sports will look back on Gilas Pilipinas’ win that broke the Korean curse
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