Looking back: The 1978 World Basketball Championship in Manila (Part I)

The Philippines, courtesy of Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas president Manny Pangilinan, is bidding for the rights to host the next FIBA World Cup in 2019. And don’t bet against us pulling off such rights either, no matter the recent fiasco involving the Gilas Pilipinas team, MVP and his men and a team of NBA All-Stars that left a bad taste in the mouth of many local basketball diehards.

After all, MVP has always been known to make things happen, and that incident is just a blip in the radar, and among those assisting the SBP in this bid is the same man that served as workhorse when the country hosted the then-World Championship in 1978, the ageless FIBA Asia secretary general and SBP consultant Mauricio “Moying” Martelino.

Yes, that was the same tournament where Filipinos saw in person the best basketball players in the world and where, as host country, the Philippines played for the last time in this event that gathered the best basketball teams in the world except the US (more on this later). No, the country did not qualify for the tournament by virtue of earning a berth through the traditional regional competitions (the Asian Basketball Confederation championship in this case). After all, materials for the national team had been dissipated by the formation of the local pro league, the PBA, in 1975 and professionals at the time were not yet allowed to compete for their country in FIBA-sanctioned tournaments.

This explains why the ranks of the national team in that tournament were composed of amateur players coming from the then-existing MICAA (for Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association) and the collegiate leagues (the MICAA ceased operations in 1981 and was in effect replaced by the Philippine Amateur Basketball League that was established in 1983). And this explains why the country, despite qualifying for the semifinal round outright, the cast featuring the tournament’s top eight teams, finished dead-last among those teams, losing all its eight games, many of them by lopsided margins.

But that was the last time the Philippines had the privilege to play in what now amounts to the FIBA World Cup, a privilege that our Gilas Pilipinas team, after 36 long years, has earned in its own right when it plays in the tournament that will be held in Spain from August 30 to September 14 this year.

That was indeed a long time ago, and it makes this year’s Spain mission all the more special. You see, 1978 was the year when Martial Law in the Philippines had just reached its midway point. The World Championship hosting was part of a scheme by then-President Ferdinand Marcos to legitimize his dictatorial regime before the whole world.  And that applied as well to other international events whose hosting the government then spearheaded to showcase a supposedly benevolent regime.  

This included the 1974 Miss Universe where the late Miss Spain, Amparo Muñoz, reigned as queen, the legendary Thrilla in Manila in 1975 where Muhammad Ali defeated the late Joe Frazier in a classic battle, as well as the 1978 World Chess Championship that was held at about the same time as the basketball conclave where defending champion Anatoly Karpov of Russia beat Viktor Korchnoi of Switzerland.

The story, in fact, went that Karpov even had to move one of his games (a privilege accorded the players) just to go down from Baguio, the venue of the chess duel, to root for the USSR team that tangled with Yugoslavia in the championship game. Karpov, of course, went back to the City of Pines disappointed as the Yugos beat the Soviets in a close battle (more on this next issue).

To further illustrate how far away that World Championship already was, it’s worthy to note that two generations have in effect passed since that landmark event. It was also the year when the legendary band Bee Gees still reigned in the airwaves, starting the disco craze at that time with the disco music that they pioneered in the 1977 John Travolta starrer “Saturday Night Fever,” whose soundtrack spawned such big hits as “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman,” “You Should Be Dancing” and “Night Fever.” It marked, in effect, the Bee Gees’ second coming after that landmark arrival on the pop music scene in the ‘60s with what they called “classical rock” music.

It’s worthy to note that the 1978 World Championship, which was, in fact, the very first to be hosted by an Asian country, would have been the second such conclave the Philippines has hosted if not for the ill-starred tournament that was cancelled in 1962 when then-President Diosdado Macapagal, father of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, refused to issue visas to players and officials of teams then representing socialist countries, including Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. That tournament actually served as my initiation to sports as an elementary pupil, when I took time to read the front page of the original The Manila Times and learned about the exploits of Carlos “The Great Difference” Loyzaga, my first sports idol, and his teammates on the “RP team,” then still so-called by media to mean Republic of the Philippines (as opposed to today’s Gilas Pilipinas).

It was the time when the RP squad still beat such current-day powerhouses as Australia, Puerto Rico and Canada, something that today’s Filipino players can only dream of doing. But if one got so hot reading about how the Filipino team then fared in 1962, imagine if the same wide-eyed kid was able to catch the exploits of the Philippine national squad in 1954. That was the year the Filipinos, with a team starring Loyzaga, then still in his prime at 24, and made up of such legends as Lauro Mumar and Tony Genato, won the bronze medal in the World Championship held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, winning six games and losing three, once to eventual champion US and twice to the second-placing host Brazilians.  

It is, to this day, the highest finish any country outside America and Europe has achieved in this quadrennial event. The 6-foot-3 Loyzaga showed why he is the greatest basketball player the country has ever produced by making it to the All-Tournament Team, ranking third in the tournament in scoring with an average of 16.4 points in nine games. Loyzaga would make it again to the same team in the World Championship in Santiago, Chile five years later.

THE DIFFERENCE. The 6-foot-3 Caloy Loyzaga bannered the 1954 Filipino team that won bronze in Rio de Janeiro, the highest finish any country outside America and Europe has achieved. Photo from Wikipedia

THE DIFFERENCE. The 6-foot-3 Caloy Loyzaga bannered the 1954 Filipino team that won bronze in Rio de Janeiro, the highest finish any country outside America and Europe has achieved.

Photo from Wikipedia

Due to the country’s refusal to let teams from the communist countries come to Manila in 1962 under the government’s then-anti-communist policy, the FIBA withdrew recognition from the tournament, relegating it to a mere invitational event. Then-Senator Ambrosio Padilla, himself a former Philippine basketball Olympian in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the president at the time of the Basketball Association of the Philippines (the SBP’s forerunner), and ABC co-founder Dionisio “Chito” Calvo tried hard to salvage the event but FIBA wouldn’t budge. Worse, basketball’s governing body suspended the country from competing in FIBA world tournaments and was forced to play in a pre-Olympic tournament in Yokohama, Japan just to qualify for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This was despite the fact that it was supposed to have earned an Olympic slot by winning the ABC championship in 1963. With Loyzaga retired by this time, the country bombed out in the qualifying event, marking the first time the Filipinos have been left out of the Olympics since it participated in the event’s introduction in 1936.

The Philippines was only reinstated 12 years later in 1974, and this was mainly because BAP president Gonzalo “Lito” Puyat was already serving one of his two terms as FIBA president. That year also marked the country’s return to the World Championship held that year in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That event was won by the Soviet Union, with Yugoslavia and the US, starring recent Manila visitor John Lucas, then a Maryland All-American who led a group of American collegians, finishing second and third, in that order. 

The Philippines, made up of its best players at the time as the PBA was still a year away from being born, nevertheless finished just 13th in a field of 14 teams, winning two games and losing five. The Filipinos actually tied with Argentina and Australia in the classification round but was relegated to their final ranking with the worst quotient among the three teams, thus finishing ahead of only African champion Central African Republic, which was winless in seven games. William “Bogs” Adornado, however, gave the Filipinos something to cheer about somehow when he ranked 10th in tournament scoring with an average of 18.0 points.

So what happened in Manila in 1978?

For starters, the World Championship that year set standards that succeeding World Championships would try to emulate. The Filipinos, true to their reputation for hospitality, graciousness and organizational excellence, impressed the 13 other visiting teams that made up the 14-team field, including the host country. From October 1-14 that year, such excellence marked the staging of the games in two venues, the 8,000-capacity Rizal Memorial Coliseum, the original mecca of local basketball, and the 30,000-seat Araneta Coliseum that alternately hosted the games.

This was a far cry from the crudeness with which past stagings of the tournament were undertaken, particularly when the first World Championship was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1950 where the court was encased in a wire cage, or when the 1959 tournament was held in Santiago, Chile in an open-air venue in a football field.  This is why the lofty standards with which the conclave’s seventh edition was held in Manila set the tone for future tournaments, including those held in Cali, Colombia in 1982, in Madrid, Spain (1986), in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1990), in Toronto, Canada (1994), in Athens, Greece (1998), in Indianapolis, Indiana in the US (2002), in Saitama, Japan (2006) and in Istanbul, Turkey (2010).

The national team that represented the country that year was made up of former Ateneo stars Steve Watson (then still sporting a full lock of hair), Bernardo “Joy” Carpio and Federico “Padim” Israel as well as Alex Clariño who were then playing for Crispa, MAN Diesel’s Ramon Cruz, Leopoldo Herrera, Federico “Bokyo” Lauchengco and Edward Merced, Yco’s Gregorio Gozum and Nathaniel Castillo, ITM’s Cesar Yabut, and A & W Records’ Cesar Teodoro. The team was coached by Nic Jorge, then one of the rising coaches who was a year away from establishing the long-running Basketball Efficiency Scientific Training or BEST Center.

The Filipinos’ lack of talent and experience, however, would doom them. Right from the start, the locals would prove to be overmatched by their bigger and more experienced, if not more talented, counterparts.  The Filipinos, as we said, were automatically seeded into the semifinal round along with the defending champion Soviet Union by virtue of being the hosts, having to play with the six other qualifiers from the preliminary round.  

They drew powerhouse and eventual champion Yugoslavia right for their first game in the semifinal round and promptly lost 117-101. The game, however, perhaps proved to be the second-best the Filipinos would play in the entire tournament, trailing the Yugos by just nine at the half 54-45 before eventually losing by a not-too-embarrassing score. Cruz led the Philippines with 31 points, the same score tallied by top Yugoslavian star Drazen Dalipagic. Cruz was backed up by Watson with 20, Clariño with 16, and Carpio and Herrera with 10 apiece. Dalipagic, meanwhile, found support from Ratko Radovanovic with 20 points, Mirza Delibasic with 17, and Duje Krstulovic with 15. All 12 players that coach Aleksandar Nikolic fielded would score.

But that would be one of two relatively good games the Filipinos would play as they lost two straight games by 47 points and a third by 37. They were clobbered by the Soviet Union 110-63, massacred by Brazil 119-72 and blown out by Italy 112-75 as their lack of size (no one stood taller than 6-4) and experience simply hampered them.

Against the Soviets, the 7-4 Vladimir Tkachenko simply overpowered them. But it was Anatoli Myshkin and Alexander Salnikov who topscored for the Soviets with 15 points each, followed by the late Hall of Fame guard Sergei Belov and Alzhan Zharmukhamedov with 12 apiece. Again, all 12 players fielded in by coach Alexander Gomelsky got into the scoring act, with Tkachenko surprisingly tallying the lowest with four points. Watson was the only double-figure scorer for the Philippines with 18. Herrera had nine while Cruz struggled mightily with just two.

Against the Brazilians, the locals would also prove to be painfully overmatched, with the South Americans racing to a 59-34 halftime lead and never letting up from there. The legendary Oscar Schmidt, still earning his spurs at that time, led the Brazilians with 27 points, which would have been more had there been a three-point line already in those days. But it was Carioquinha Setrini, who had earlier played for the Emtex Sacronels that placed second to Toyota in the 1977 PBA Invitational Conference, who proved to be a big thorn on the Filipinos’ side, frolicking with 22 points as he didn’t have a Robert Jaworski hounding him this time. Cruz and Carpio led the nationals with 16 and 14 points, respectively.

It was more of the same against the Italians as future Hall of Famer Dino Meneghin asserted himself at the slot with 16 points, the same tally by Lorenzo Carraro, and Renzo Bariviera erupted with 25 points.  With two more teammates, Giulio Iellini and Marco Bonamico, also joining them in double figures with 12 points each, the Italians had no problem as they quickly took a 54-30 bulge at the turn and coasted from there. Four locals – Cariño, Yabut, Cruz and Herrera – finished in twin digits with 16, 15, 12 and 10 points, in that order. Watson would miss here the first of four games he would sit out with an injury.

That didn’t help the Filipinos’ cause any as the Australians came next and blitzed them by 45, 97-52, the lowest tally the nationals would have in the tournament. Five Australians, led by Andris Blicavs who notched 17 points, scored in double figures as the team from Down Under jumped to a 48-21 bulge at the break. In contrast, only one local – Herrera with 10 – was in twin digits as Cruz again struggled with just four markers.

Getting the nationals’ scalps next was Canada, which nevertheless had the smallest winning margin over the Philippines throughout the games after beating the host country 99-88. The Filipinos, with Cruz finally regaining his touch with a personal-high 33 points, didn’t allow the Canadians to break away the way other opponents did, and, despite missing Watson and using just seven players, gave a relatively good account of themselves. Carpio, with 18 points, Castillo (13) and Israel (10) backed Cruz up. Five players, led by Howard Kelsey with 22 points and former NBA player Leo Rautins with 20, had twin tallies for the Canadians.

Against the US in their last semifinal-round game, the locals fell for a seventh straight time, with the Americans winning 100-70. The US, as it was wont to do in the World Championship before the advent of the open era in 1989 and the participation of NBA stars for the first time in the Olympics in 1992, did not even send their best collegiate players in this one, letting the core of the Athletes in Action team, a barnstorming group of Christian players, to take up the cudgels for the Americans. But that did not matter as Eugene Parker, a 6-1 guard from Purdue, hit for 26 points and three other players – Irv Kiffin Jr. (14), Marvin Delph (13) and 7-2 center Ralph Drollinger (11) – also scored in double figures for the US. Cruz, with 22 points, and Carpio, with 20, bore the brunt of the Filipinos’ offense.

It was thus left for the Philippines and Australia, then at the tailend of the eight-team semifinal cast, to dispute seventh place, and the Australians repeated over the Filipinos 92-74 to notch their highest finish yet at the time. The hosts played gallantly and were behind by just two 38-36 at the half, but the Philippines simply lacked the firepower and the size and couldn’t keep up in the end. Les Riddle (18 points) and Phil Smyth (15) led five Aussies in double figures. Cruz (14 points) led three other locals who scored twin digits. Cruz, a 5-foot-11 guard, eventually wound up as the Philippines’ leading scorer in the tournament with a 16.8-point average, but unlike the legendary Loyzaga, it hardly mattered in the end as the Filipinos wound up winless in the country’s last appearance in the World Championship.

Filipino roundball fans, no doubt, are hoping that a different journey will be navigated by Gilas Pilipinas later this month in Spain.

Next issue, we come up with the victorious Yugoslavian campaign in the Manila conclave. – Rappler.com

 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.