On November 5, 1954, the Philippines copped the bronze medal in the World Basketball Championship held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. To date, this remains the highest accomplishment of any national basketball team from Asia. It may also be a feat that will not be surpassed.
There are two major international basketball tournaments that are consideredthe most prestigious globally. The first is the basketball competitions in the Summer Olympic Games. The second is the World Basketball Championship (now called FIBA World Cup) which, like the Olympics, is also held quadrennially.
The Rivalry remembers this momentous occasion in Philippine basketball history and encapsulates the details of the road to the bronze medal.
Twelve teams participated in the world championship. Three teams made up one bracket of four. The top two teams per bracket advanced to the championship round where each team played their opponent once in round robin style. The team with the highest win-loss record in the round was declared champion. The team with the second-highest record took second place and so on.
The team roster
The national team was made up of different players from the MICAA, NCAA and the UAAP. Representing the San Beda Red Lions were Caloy Loyzaga, Tony Genato, Rafael Barretto and Pons Saldaña. Those who came from the UST Glowing Goldies were Nap Flores and Ramon Manulat. Letran had two representatives in Lauro Mumar and Florentino Bautista. There was one player each from Ateneo (Francisco Rabat), PAL Skymasters (Benjamin Francisco), the JRC Heavy Bombers (Nano Tolentino), and the FEU Tamaraws (Bayani Amador).
The team was coached by the most eminent coach that time, Herminio “Herr” Silva, the proponent of “The Freeze.” He was also the head coach of the UST Glowing Goldies.
The participating teams
There were 12 countries that participated. Those from the Americas were the United States, Canada, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and host Brazil. Two countries represented Europe – France and Yugoslavia, while three countries came from Asia – Nationalist China (Formosa, now Taiwan), Israel and the Philippines.
Philippine delegation head Ambrosio Padilla, himself a former basketball player who captained the national team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, represented the Philippines in the drawing of lots for the groupings. Padilla unhappily announced that the Philippines was drawn with host Brazil, a pre-tournament favorite, and equally tough Paraguay for Group AA. Group BB featured the United States, Canada and Peru; Group CC had Uruguay, France and Yugoslavia while Group DD was made up of Chile, Israel and Nationalist China.
Curiously, the Iron Curtain countries like the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany did not take part in the tournament, opting to boycott the event after the Brazilian government refused to issue visas to the USSR players. On the other hand, Egypt boycotted the tournament for refusal to play against Israel.
Upon learning of the result of the groupings, Coach Silva told his wards, “This is it, boys. This is not going to be easy but I think we can do it.” There was guarded optimism and Silva only knew too well how to motivate his players.
It didn’t help also that the participation of some countries evoked bitter memories. Canada, for one, was a team that ended up with the silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics although the Philippines, which ended fifth, had a better win-loss record. Another team that haunted the Filipinos was Chile, which routed the 1948 national team to the London Olympics, 68-39, after the Filipinos were goaded into rough tactics by the taller Chileans and their swinging elbows. There was also Uruguay, a team the Philippines beat in the 1936 Olympics, 33-23, only to find themselves six notches lower than the Uruguayans in the Helsinki Olympiad 16 years after.
There was something about the American countries that proved to be difficult for the Philippines to hurdle since basketball became part of the Olympics in 1936. For the Rio joust, they were bracketed with two countries from this continent.
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Their first game was against Paraguay. Down 27-26 in the first half, the Filipinos surged ahead for good in the second half, led by The Great Difference himself who contributed 15 points. In the end, the Philippines came out with a 64-52 shellacking over Paraguay, proving to all that they were more than capable of competing against their South American counterparts. The impressive win was likewise featured in the headlines of major daily newspapers in Manila, as it gave the country a foot in the door to the next round.
In their next game, they faced the hosts, but got clobbered, 99-63, in a relatively high scoring affair. The Brazilians blew the game wide open from the get go, taking a 44-22 lead at the half before coasting along in the latter stages of the second half to pull off the 36-point victory. This worried the Filipinos as the quotient system would have meant a -24 for the country, meaning a Paraguay win over Brazil would have eliminated them. Fortunately, the Brazilians were in no mood to be gracious hosts, pulling off a 61-52 win to pave the way for the Filipinos’ entry into the next round. Mumar topscored for the team with 22 points, while Loyzaga fouled out.
Versus the United States
How often do we see the Philippines going up against the best basketball team in the world, the United States, in a world championship stage? Not that often, but for this tournament, the Philippines waged battle on their very first game in the championship round despite the odds. The Americans were made up mostly of players of the Peoria Cats of Illinois.
Coach Silva employed his “deep freeze” tactic once more. This was the time when there was no 30- or 24-second shot clock, and the offensive team could dribble the ball, not shoot, and waste the time without worry of getting called for a violation. The deep freeze strategy was employed to slow the game considerably, favoring a team that has fewer offensive weapons. This, plus Silva’s vast knowledge of the zone defense, kept the team at pace.
There was even a time when the Filipinos were ahead, 31-26, early in the second half, only to capitulate when the Americans imposed their heft and height against them. Wire service reports described the last ten minutes of the game as “particularly rough.”
The superior technique and ceiling of the Americans, though, allowed them to pull out a 56-43 victory. Skipper Mumar had 14, Loyzaga chipped in 12 and Tolentino added 11 points as they kept pace with the American giants, scoring 37 of their 43 points in a gallant losing cause. Bautista, Flores and Manulat contributed 2 points apiece to round up the score.
They were to face Nationalist China in their next game. Being a favorite whipping boy of the Philippines, the same team they beat in the 1954 Asian Games basketball finals held in Manila where Silva employed the “freeze,” it took one half for the nationals to zip past the Taiwanese, 48-38, after seeing the game deadlocked at 21 apiece at the half. Flores led the scorers with 12 points, and was ably backed up by Saldaña and Genato.
Buoyed with the big win against their Asian neighbors, the Filipinos came back, despite having less than 24 hours to recuperate, to demolish Israel, 90-56. Once more, the Philippines bucked a slow start – after leading by only 7 in the first half, they refocused in the second and put the game out of reach midway in the half. Saldaña and Loyzaga shared scoring honors with 20 and 18 points, respectively. Loyzaga scored 10 of 13 from the free throw line as he dominated Israel’s bigs and put them in foul trouble. Even with Israel having the size advantage, Silva’s charges dazzled and ran rings around their opponents through a series of fastbreak plays.
Rematch with Brazil
With hardly any rest, the Filipinos went up to battle the Brazilians once more the next day. This time, the game was closer, as they valiantly tried to keep in step with the hosts. Down by 12, 35-23 at the half, Loyzaga battled the bigger Brazilians at the boards, and ended up with 15 points in a losing effort, 57-41.
The loss put the Philippines tied for third place with France and Canada with 2-2 records, behind the unbeaten slates of the USA and Brazil. Given that they had lost to both leaders, it was already impossible for the nationals to win the gold medal. They still had a shot at winning the bronze though if they beat Canada and France.
It was 8:30AM of November 2 when the Philippines faced Canada in an all-important match. It seemed then that every resident of Manila was glued to their radio sets waiting for flash reports on the game. The game was close, with the Philippines holding a slim 6-point margin at the break. They had to withstand the taller Canadians as Loyzaga, who put in 12 points, fouled out of the game, a testament to his mighty effort to contain the opponent’s height supremacy. Genato also added 12 as the two played like Mutt and Jeff, but it was the Fox’s sensational performance, his best game in the tournament, netting 24 points in the game, that withstood the efforts of the Canadians to come back. The Filipinos won 83-76 in a game described by old-timers as causing a “whoop that was heard all over Manila.”
The win catapulted the Philippines to third place, still tied at 3-2, with the winner of their next game against France copping the coveted bronze medal, regardless of their last game against Uruguay. Loyzaga pumped in 20 points, the night’s best, to spark the Philippines to a decisive 66-60 victory against the taller French team. The chief slotman had to overcome the 7-foot Paul Beugnot, the tournament’s tallest player, who brought a basket crashing down during the game, delaying the match for at least 10 minutes.
Loyzaga, though, proved more superior than his opponent nine inches taller. He put in 6 field goals, and went a perfect 8 for 8 from the charity stripe, as he thoroughly dominated the big Frenchman.
That stunning win against France gave the Philippines a 4-2 record, and, by virtue of the winner over the other rule, clinched the first bronze medal for the Philippines and the only one medal won by an Asian quintet.
Meanwhile, the US and Brazil were still tied with unbeaten 5-0 records with the winner in their game virtually becoming the gold medalists.
On November 5, well-inspired knowing that they’d achieved a milestone, the Philippines then went on to beat Uruguay, 67-63, after a 32-all standoff at the half to put themselves in solo third with a 5-2 record. Loyzaga set his tournament best in scoring with 31 markers, proving that he was one of the best big men in the world.
The United States expectedly defeated Brazil on the same day, 62-41, drawing the curtains down on the second world basketball tournament by finishing with an immaculate 7-0 card. Brazil wound up with the silver at 6-1, while France ended with a 3-4 card to salvage fourth place.
Loyzaga: truly The Big Difference
After tallying the stats, Loyzaga ended up scoring 147 points in 9 games, or an average of 16.33 points, making him the tournament’s third top scorer. The Big Difference upped his game in the championship round by averaging 17.29 points as he led the team in scoring and rebounding. Despite being only 6’3, Loyzaga stood tall and showcased the heart and guts of the Filipino athlete. The media covering the event voted him to the tournament’s Second Team.
The players were dressing for their well-deserved night out in Rio when they got a cablegram from President Ramon Magsaysay. The message said, “Congratulations for a magnificent performance. I state country’s pride not only in your victories but in clean, sportsmanlike manner they were won. You have brought new glory and luster to the name Filipino.”
There may never be a team from this side of the world that may replicate, much more, surpass the performance of this gutsy 1954 Philippine national basketball team. It only makes the phenomenal accomplishment even more remarkable.