It took all of 39 years before the Philippines was able to regain its slot as one of Asia's representatives in the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup to be held in a still-identified country next year.
The FIBA U-19 is a biennial tournament that features the best players all over the world aged 19 and below. It started in 1979 and was then a quadrennial tournament until 2007 when the governing body decided to stage the event every two years. Next year will be the 14th staging of the tournament with the United States being the only team to have won the championship more than once. The young Americans have accomplished the feat six times with the remaining seven shared by Yugoslavia, Australia, Canada, Lithuania, Serbia, Greece, and Spain.
This tournament is significant as fans are looking at the future of the coming FIBA Men's basketball stagings. In the coming years, we will see these teenagers don their respective country's jerseys playing in the senior and more prestigious events—a sneak peek of how nations will fare.
For the Philippines, this is only the second time where it will play in the world event. To be part of this, we need to be the top, if not, one of the top teams of Asia to represent the region by winning in the FIBA-Asia U18 tournament. In the past 24 stagings of the biennially-held FIBA-Asia that started in 1970, China has won 11 titles, with the Philippines winning six times, South Korea and Iran tied at third with three chips apiece, and Japan with one.
In the first five stagings of the FIBA-Asia U18 (previously called the ABC Youth), the Philippines copped gold medal honors from 1970 to 1978 in a dominant display of superiority over our Asian rivals. However, the run was snapped in 1980 when China dethroned us for the title held in Bangkok. The Filipinos came back in 1982, when, in front of an overflow crowd of 25,000 fans at the Araneta Coliseum, demolishing the powerhouse Chinese, 74-63. From thereon, our best finish has been one second place finish against the Chinese in 1986 held here in Manila.
There was no doubt that the Philippines used to lord over its rivals in the youth version of the FIBA-Asia. Matter of fact, it was the last basketball tournament in Asia that the country dominated until it ceded its supremacy to the Chinese. In the Asian Games, the first four basketball gold medals given out starting 1951 was won by the Philippines. In the Asian Basketball Confederation (now FIBA-Asia Cup), we won four of the initial seven stagings that started in 1960.
But because of a confluence of events—the creation of the PBA in 1975, the growing dominance of the mighty Chinese, the Philippines becoming more insular and not knowing how the talent level compared to our regional neighbors, the poor basketball development program of the moribund Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP), among others—we lost our supremacy in Asia.
When the FIBA U19 tournament was first held in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1979, the Philippines was the only Asian country to participate in a 12-nation field as a reward for winning the FIBA-Asia Youth title the year before. The team was coached by the venerable Arturo Valenzona, then the winningest amateur coach in the land with multiple titles for Solid Mills in the MICAA and the FEU Tamaraws in the UAAP. His 12-man lineup featured future PBA players Marte Saldaña, Bay Cristobal, Yoyoy Villamin, Hector Calma, Joel Banal, Chito Loyzaga, JB Yango, Biboy Ravanes, Rad Pasco, Badong Ramas and Gary Vargas with Jay Lucido rounding up the list.
The country wound up with a 2-6 card to snatch 10th place, just ahead of Panama and Egypt. They beat Panama, 79-78 and Egypt, 126-88, but lost out to Canada, 89-81, Brazil, 123-80, Italy 88-71, Yugoslavia, 106-102, Australia, 89-83, and Uruguay, 111-108. FEU and Solid Mills stalwart Cristobal led all scorers, averaging 18.6 ppg, including two 27-point performances against Yugoslavia and Australia. Marte Saldaña proved to be the country's finest amateur point guard of his time, averaging 17 ppg, including two 31-point performances against the Italians and the Yugoslavians. As expected, the United States swept the tournament, going 8-0, with an average spread of 36.63 points. The Americans had future big names in their lineup like NBA stars James Worthy, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Sam Perkins, Fat Lever, and Scott Hastings, the five powering the team to a 75-55 victory over the host country in the Finals.
And so, after 39 years, we're back in the world stage. The Batang Gilas U18 team, led by the 7'2 Kai Sotto and the 6'10 Fil-Nigerian AJ Edu, along with Italy-based point guard Dalph Panopio, the sweet-shooting Dave Ildefonso, scion of PBA legend Danny, and future NU Bulldog Miguel Oczon, swept their four-team bracket in the preliminary rounds, defeating Lebanon, 75-53, the United Arab Emirates, 92-49, and mighty China, 73-63. It was the first victory of the Philippines against China since defeating them in the 1982 Finals, by almost the same scoreline, 74-63.
In the sudden-death quarterfinals, Sotto played his best game, tallying 21 points, including 10 straight points in the pivotal third, 10 boards and third blocks to lead the team to an impressive 67-52 victory. Edu, the most consistent Filipino so far, backed him up with solid numbers of 16 points, 17 rebounds and two swats. With the win, the Philippines is now in the semifinals, and will tangle Australia for a berth in the Finals. Likewise, the victory catapulted the country to the FIBA-World U19 tournament next year, as Asia will be represented by the Top 4 teams.
But even more importantly, the country is looking at a bright future with this nucleus of young, talented, skilled and, yes, tall players, making up the core of future national teams. By 2023, we may see at least three players suiting up for our men's national team in the FIBA World Cup to be held in Manila. With the right guidance from a mentor like Tab Baldwin, we may find ourselves in the Top 8 in five years.