Humility amid Belangel’s heroics

By Al S. Mendoza


IT happened again.

Almost each time we battle South Korea in a basketball game, it results in a cliffhanger.

In the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, we were up by two points with mere ticks left in the game.

“Finally, madadale na natin (Finally, we will beat the Koreans),” said Jun Bernardino, sidling up to me at the press box.

Jun was the late, lamented commissioner of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

We were in Busan—me covering the Games as the sports editor then of the Inquirer, and Jun as chief of the basketball delegation.

Almost in the wink of an eye, Jun’s win spin for the Philippines evaporated.

A lightning-quick Korean guard, with time expiring, threw a Hail Mary three, the shot finding the rim like a guided missile.

That gave the Koreans a one-point victory as we lost the shot for the gold medal clash against China.

Before the killer triple came, we blew the chance to build an unreachable six-point lead when Asi Taulava and Olsen Racela missed two free throws each in succession.

Just two free throws made—one each from Taulava and Racela—would have made us winners.

After that heartbreaking loss to the Koreans, we lost all appetite to win and easily yielded the bronze to Kazakhstan two days later.

Back in the 1973 Asian Basketball championships, we narrowly beat the Koreans to win the crown.

In 2013, we avenged our 2002 defeat when we nipped the Koreans in the Fiba Asia Cup at the MOA Gym in Pasay City.

The win, decided in the game’s dying seconds again, eliminated the Koreans and moved us to the 2014 Fiba World Cup in Spain.

Our last engagement with the Koreans was only last Wednesday, June 16, at the Angeles City Gym near Clark Freeport in Pampanga.

Rallying from a 17-point deficit, we were on the verge of cruising to a 78-75 victory when, with 2.9 seconds left, a Korean triple tied the count at 78-78.

Earlier, naturalized Filipino Angelo Kouame of Cameroon flubbed a free throw that would have given us a one-point triumph outright.

But no worries.

This time, a diminutive find from Bacolod City, would save the day for us.

SJ Belangel, at 5-foot-9 the smallest guy on the court, evaded the umbrella-like arms of two giant Koreans and flung an acrobatic, almost off-balanced shot from behind the arc at the right quarter court.

The ball hit the glass first before swishing the nets just as the game-ending buzzer sounded, giving Gilas Pilipinas an 81-78 victory.

The win pushed the Filipinos to the Fiba Asia Cup proper in August in Jakarta.

I shed a tear or two after Belangel’s winning shot.

He’s like a son to me.  I had helped secure the kid’s basketball scholarship at Ateneo some six years ago.

Sammy, SJ’s father, had this text to me after the win: “Salamat, Sir Al. Salamat sa Diyos. Ang galing ng team natin.

Such humility.

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