Philippine and Chinese Basketball

My Chinese friend and basketball buddy send me an e-mail yesterday, just in time before Smart-GILAS Philippine national basketball team start its game in Wuhan City, China for the FIBA Asia Olympics-qualifying games against China’s national team. He wrote “I will watch the Philippines-China FIBA match in Wuhan. I wish your national basketball team good luck!”

As expected by many basketball enthusiasts, powerhouse China led by NBA player Yi Jinlian outshoots the Philippines, 75-60. Marcus Douthit, the Filipino-American center of the Philippine team said “They’re tough and they’re tall. This is the first time we played them and they’re hard to match up with.” In fairness, it was not a bad loss. The Filipino players gave the Chinese a good fight but the dominance of the Chinese is simply evident.

While many of my Chinese friends treat Yi and Co.’s victory over the Philippine team last Friday night as one of those many usual wins, I cannot help but feel disappointed. Last Friday night’s defeat was again a reminder that Philippine national basketball team is in a long and winding road back to its pre-eminent position in Asian basketball.

Just as the Philippines were once one of the most prosperous countries in Asia, the Philippines as well were once Asia’s basketball king. The Philippine national basketball team was invincible.

In Nazi Germany 1936, on its first of seven Olympics appearance, the Philippine basketball team dazzled Munich and landed fifth over-all. The inventor of basketball Dr. James Naismith watching on the sidelines commended the Philippine team. This feat of the Philippine national basketball team up to present time is the best performance by a basketball team outside the Americas, Europe and Oceania.

In 1954 FIBA World Basketball Championships, the United States national basketball team had the biggest scare when the Carlos “The Big Difference” Loyzaga led Philippine national basketball team almost defeated them. The Philippines settled for the bronze medal in ’54 and up until now the Philippines has the record of being the only Asian country who have won a medal in world basketball championships.

China and Iran, the two most powerful basketball teams in Asia today has yet to erase this Olympic and World Championships record from the Philippines. Aside from their feats in the Olympics and FIBA World Championships, the Philippines has also won five FIBA Asia Championships.  The Philippines won the first-ever gold in FIBA Asia and is second over-all (next only to China) in the gold medal tally of FIBA Asia since its inception in 1960.

Alas, this great start for the Philippine national basketball team was not sustained.

With China’s entry in the Asian basketball scene in the late 70’s, the Philippines faced a formidable competitor. From the late 1970’s to mid-2000’s, China has dominated Asian basketball. The only time that China did not become FIBA Asia champs in this time was in 1986 when the Philippine national basketball team composed of Samboy Lim and Allan Caidic stopped powerhouse China. After the victorious ’86 campaign, there was a renewed sense that the Philippines is on its way to reign supreme again in Asian basketball. During the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, the Robert Jaworski-led Philippine team almost defeated China on its home court. Unfortunately, what was considered as the re-awakening of Philippine basketball might was short-lived. After the 90’s campaign the Philippines were not able to clinch any top spot in FIBA Asia and the best performance they’ve had was in 1998 Asian Games when the so-called Philippine Centennial Team won bronze.

What happened to Team Pilipinas?

Some of my friends (both Filipinos and foreigners) have told me that it’s a pipe dream to witness once again the good ‘ole basketball glory of the Philippines in Asia. They say other countries’ national basketball teams are naturally gifted with height, speed, and natural talent while Filipinos are not. They added that it would be better if Filipinos would just look to some other sports where we can excel like football and boxing or better yet forget anything about sports; Philippines has a lot of domestic problems and sports ought to be the last thing that Filipinos should care about.

I beg to disagree.

First, Filipino basketball players may appear to be physically inferior to other Asian cagers but in terms of talent, it’s unfair to underestimate Filipinos cagers. If we’re not gifted in playing basketball then how come Chinese players know our great basketball history in the person of the legendary Carlos Loyzaga, the best man-to-man isolation player Samboy Lim, and the sweet-shooting Philippine #8 Allan Caidic?  As to the physical features, let’s take a look at the starting five of Philippine national basketball team vis-à-vis China:

Point Guard:                JV Casio 5ft’10in vs. Liu Wei 6ft’3in

Shooting Guard:          Chris Tiu 5’11 vs. Sun Yue 6’9

Small Forward:           Mac Baracael 6’4 vs. Zhu Fangyu 6’7

Power Forward:          Japeth Aguilar 6’9 vs. Yi Jianlian 6’10

Center: Marcus           Douthit 6’10 vs Wang Zhizhi 7’0

For the Point Guard and Shooting Guard position we have seen in the past how the likes of Johnny Abarrientos, Samboy Lim and Allan Caidic can give headache to Chinese coaches and how JV Casio and Chris Tiu can be explosive on the field goal. In the past as in the present, for the Point Guard and Shooting Guard position we can compete with other cagers head-on but what is obviously our weakest link is the Center and Forward positions. The thing is in basketball, whoever dominates the paint makes a huge difference, but what the heck, today we have the versatile 6’9 Japeth Aguilar and 6’10 Marcus Douthit, who knows somewhere in the world there is an OFW (expat Filipinos) son as tall as Yao Ming or Shaq O’Neal who would play better than EJ Feihl or Bonel Balingit.

Second, the prevailing attitude of “we’re not good at it anymore and we can’t do it” attitude just shows of our inability to create visions for the future and to endure hardship and failures for the moment. One reason why Philippine national basketball team has deteriorated is because we have become complacent and we failed in building a sustainable and visionary national basketball recruitment and training program comparable to those of China, Japan, or Korea. In China, for example,  every five years the China State General Sports Administration (Guojia Tiyu Zongju) — with input from the National Development and Reform Commission (Fagaiwei), the Administration of Industry and Commerce (Gongshan Guanliju), and the General Administration of Sport (Tiyu Zongju) — updates the “National Policy Framework.” This doctrine outlines the government’s long-term plan for national sports development. The government views basketball not only as recreation but also as a significant industry impacting both society and its commerce.

Now, we’re caught in the frenzy of Azkals football and Pacquaio’s boxing but mind you without a visionary and strategic program to sustain it in the long run, football and boxing or any other sports we’re excelling at now or planning to excel with would repeat the same thing that had happened to Philippine basketball in the past several decades.

But things are now taking a paradigm shift in Philippine basketball. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Filipino business tycoon Manny Pangilinan, who has put his money where his mouth is, Philippine basketball now is heading to a new direction. With Pangilinan’s visionary and strategic Smart-GILAS national basketball program, gone are the days when Philippine national basketball team would have to be organized in haste when international competition is just months away. In a clear departure from what is being done in the past several decades, the Philippine national basketball team has now a composite team and is being thoroughly prepared and trained years before joining any major basketball competition such as Asian Games and FIBA. Sure, it may take time a few more years before Team Philippines would regain its erstwhile basketball supremacy, but I’m sure it will.

More than the thrill of seeing Philippine national team winning basketball games, one thing I can see very beneficial in having a winning national sports team is that it reinforces national pride and unity. I can imagine how my pengyou (Chinese for friend) would tell our friends in the basketball court next weekend how great China played in FIBA and how it feels good to be on the side of the winning team.

Image credit: esports info


J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • Joe America

    I see kids doing slick dribbles, but they can’t shoot. All show, no go. And no coaching; no pick and roll. Natural talent has no way to develop. My brother-in-law is an amazing talent and is training to be a sailor.