A trip down memory lane with the 1st PBA-backed national team

Gilas Pilipinas will be up against basketball giants France and New Zealand starting July 5 when the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament kicks off at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.

This year’s version of the men’s basketball team will be led by some of the PBA’s top local stars like June Mar Fajardo of San Miguel, GlobalPort guard Terrence Romeo and reinforced by naturalized center Andray Blatche.

Indeed, so much has changed in the Philippine basketball landscape since 1990 when the first all-pro national team took home the silver medal in the Asian Games in Beijing, China.

Unlike before when 6-5 players were a rarity, today, basketball skyscrapers are a natural occurrence in the PBA with the presence of the 6-foot-10 Fajardo, Barangay Ginebra’s Greg Slaughter (7-0) and the 6-9 Japeth Aguilar, along with Fil-foreign big men like NLEX’s ageless center Asi Taulava (6-9), Tropang TNT rookie Moala Tautuaa (6-7), just to name a few.

Filipino basketball legend Ramon Fernandez, along with a young Shell center Benjie Paras, were the tallest members of the national team during the 1990 Asian Games, both standing well within 6-5.

As millions of basketball-crazy Filipino fans unite and rally behind Gilas Pilipinas next week, FOX Sports asked Fernandez and basketball luminary Chito Loyzaga to talk about their experience after being part of the first PBA-backed national team in 1990.

Asia’s basketball bully

When the very first PBA-backed national team participated in the Asian Games 26 years ago, Fernandez shared that China was the region’s only powerhouse national team.

The Philippines, the first in the world to send professional players to play for the national team (2 years ahead of the US Dream Team of Michael Jordan and Co.), opened the tournament with resounding wins against Pakistan, Japan and North Korea, beating the three countries by an average margin of 24 points.

“Mga 2 weeks lang kami binuo nun. But Asia-wise at that time walang problema, China lang talaga problema natin because of their size. Malalaki kasi sila eh,” recalled Fernandez, then a year removed from leading San Miguel Beer to a rare Grand Slam championship in the PBA.

Although he was already the oldest player in the Philippine team at 37, Fernandez said being in peak form was probably one of the reasons why he was selected by national coach Robert “Sonny” Jaworski to play in the Asian Games.

“Okay pa naman tayo nun because we just won the 1989 Grand Slam with San Miguel so I wasn’t surprised (to be part of the national team) because supposedly, I was still at my peak in 1989,” shared Fernandez, who just last week, was appointed as one of the commissioners for the Philippine Sports Commission.

Fernandez recalled battling at the post against China’s 7-foot center Shan Tao, whose imposing size proved too much to handle for the Filipinos’ shorter front court.

Making things more difficult was the presence of China’s pair of forwards led by the 6-foot-7 Ma Jian and the sweet-shooting 6-9 wingman Song Li Gang, both US NCAA Division 1 prospects back then.

China massacred the Philippines, 125-60 during their first meeting in the quarterfinal round.

Loyzaga admitted the lack of preparation that included the team’s unfamiliarity with the Chinese players, were evident during that 65-point blowout loss.

“Nung una na nakalaban namin sila, wala eh, di natin sila kilala eh,” said Loyzaga, one of the PBA’s top defensive players during his time.

However, the 57-year-old Loyzaga explained that the humiliating loss to the host nation didn’t dampen their spirits.

Jaworski’s coaching magic

That 65-point defeat to China certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth of the PBA-backed national team. But Loyzaga said Jaworski, a master motivator, didn’t dwell on the loss as he reminded them of the big picture.

“Malawak ang experience ni coach Sonny as a basketball player,” shared the current National University athletic director. “And he knows and in fact, has the experience. He knows also how it feels to play in an international arena.”

The former PBA 7-time All-Defensive team member said Jaworski wisely gathered his vast basketball knowledge and used all of that to motivate the Philippine team heading into the crucial stretch of the tournament.

“He was able to get all that and share it with us while at the same time, also used that to motivate us and not to lose focus and not to be intimidated by the other players of the other teams,” added the son of the late Filipino legend Caloy Loyzaga.

The Philippines went on to score a 94-90 semifinal victory over long-time regional rival Japan to barge into the gold medal round and arrange a rematch against China.

A near gold-medal finish

The championship round saw the first all-pro national squad bow to China once again, 90-76, but Loyzaga said the Filipinos made sure they won’t get blown out of the court.

“Sa tulong na nakuha ni coach Sonny kay coach Norman (Black) and coach Rino (Salazar, who served as Jaworski’s assistant) and other veteran players na nakasama namin, nabasa din namin ano gagawin nila (Chinese) kaya that time around, we were more prepared,” recalled Loyzaga.

Fernandez said being hastily-formed posed some problems for the national team since they were forced to fast-track everything in 2 weeks time.

“It was actually more of trying to develop in 2 weeks time to win,” said Fernandez.

“Eh malalakas din talaga (Chinese players) that’s why nag-2nd place lang tayo though like I said, at that time, kaya pa natin ang ibang Asian countries and we simply used our experience in basketball against the rest,” he added.

For Loyzaga, the Chinese crowd, the cold weather and the unfamiliarity with the game venue, were all big factors that worked against the Filipinos.

“Ang naging kalaban namin talaga is yung 6th man nila, yung Chinese crowd. And biro mo pinalaro kami sa ibang venue? And during that time, winter pa, napakalamig, walang heater,” he said.

“Eh sila sanay, kami hindi. Pero kasama talaga iyan sa international competition so you have to learn to adjust to that because you can’t use that as an excuse all the time.”

Golden reminders

Loyzaga, named last year as 1 of the 40 Greatest PBA players, reminded today’s generation of Gilas players to always wear the Philippine team jersey with pride, something he normally hears from his late father Caloy Loyzaga.

“You should always be proud and always consider it an honor to represent the country,” said Loyzaga.

“And it’s important that you always give your best, hindi lang 100 percent but 110 percent kasi iyun parati ang daing sa aming dalawang mag-kapatid because of the experience my dad has gained in playing always in the international competition,” he added.

Chito’s younger brother Joey, a noted three-point shooter, used to be his teammate at Ginebra in the 1980s.

Today, the Philippines has surged back to prominence, having played in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, a feat that has eluded the national team for 40 years.

Next week, Gilas will try to make history as it aims for an Olympic berth in the qualifying tournament in Manila. – By Richard Dy

Follow this writer on Twitter: @richava