The bogeymen of Philippine basketball are mostly South Korean.
It started with Shin Dong Pa, a shooter for the South Korean national team in the 1960s and early '70s. The Filipino old-timers who competed against him utter Shin's name with the same mixture of terror and regard as characters in The Usual Suspects say "Keyser Söze." To hear them tell it, Shin was a 6-foot-3 marksman with range out to 30 feet who could catch and shoot with ruthless, mechanical efficiency. It wouldn't matter if he had Shane Battier palming his face and tickling his armpits, Shin would drain shots as if nobody were guarding him. There's surely a hint of exaggeration here, but for hard evidence of Shin's greatness, look at his stats from the 1970 World Championships — he averaged 32.6 points per game and was the tournament's leading scorer.
Shin's South Korean team back then didn't beat the Philippines with great regularity, but the two countries competed more or less on equal footing, and that alone was enough to spell the beginning of the end for the halcyon days of Philippine basketball's international competitiveness. Filipinos represented Asia in every Olympic basketball competition except one from 1936 through 1972. Since then, they've never been back, and the teams that caught up to the Philippines in the '70s soon surpassed them. China and Iran are typically the favorites heading into major Asian tournaments these days, and before their FIBA Asia semifinal match Saturday night in Manila, the Philippines hadn't beaten South Korea in a major international competition since 1985.
During the past three decades, South Korea has made a habit of beating the Philippines in gut-wrenching semifinal and bronze medal matches. (For a full rundown of the Philippines' three-decade drought against South Korea, read InterAKTV.) The most traumatic of these defeats came in the semifinal round of the 2002 Asian Games, when the Philippines trailed by four in the last two minutes, then managed to seize a two-point lead with back-to-back 3-pointers. After a defensive stop with 23 seconds remaining, Philippine point guard Olsen Racela, who had just scored the go-ahead basket, was fouled. Racela, a career 84 percent free throw shooter, stepped to the line with a chance to make it a two-possession game, and he missed both shots. South Korea grabbed the rebound with a chance to tie or win on the last possession. With about five seconds left, a South Korean guard made a move to the basket and lost the ball in traffic. Players from both teams scrambled for the loose ball, which rolled toward the sideline. A diving South Korean player recovered the ball and shoveled it to Lee Sang-min, who was standing alone at the 3-point line. Lee faked and let two Philippine defenders fly by, then sank the game-winning 3 at the buzzer.
It's the Philippines' version of the Robert Horry shot that beat the Kings in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. Except for Filipino fans, the shot didn't just beat their team — it beat their country.
Until Saturday, Smart Gilas Pilipinas was having about as good a tournament at the FIBA Asia Championships as anyone could hope. The host team had played some inspired basketball in front of frenzied home crowds, winning the top seed and a favorable draw (away from Iran and China) in its quarterfinal bracket. Then, in the semis: South Korea. To advance to the finals and clinch a berth in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the Philippines would have to beat their old tormentors. For Smart Gilas, the game meant a chance to exorcise the demons of 28 years of uninterrupted losing to their Asian basketball rivals. It also meant the possibility — or perhaps the likelihood — of another heartbreaking defeat, with yet another bogeyman carving his name into Filipino fans' hearts, alongside Lee Sang-min and Shin Dong Pa.
First, a note about this South Korea team: Over the eight years I've spent following Philippine basketball, I heard again and again about South Korea's deadly shooting and relentless execution and stone-faced excellence. From this, I developed a misconception that South Korea played a slow, precise, and boring brand of basketball, that it was similar to those Belmont or Creighton teams that limit possessions and shoot themselves into the third round of March Madness. This could not be further from the truth.
For long stretches of the FIBA Asia tournament, no team played more beautiful basketball than South Korea. Yes, it had discipline, but it used it to do wondrous things on offense: a pretty little flare cut that would leave a defender spinning around and wondering where his man went; interior passing and backdoor cuts that had crowds gasping; and a fast break that looked like it could have been dubbed from an instructional video. They made the game look simple, which is no small feat, and while trouncing lesser teams like Kazakhstan and Qatar, South Korea's chemistry and passing appeared to reach nearly San Antonio Spurs–like heights.
To top it all off, the South Korean team had great hair. The younger players would walk into the arena with a stunning variety of layered bowl cuts, some with subtle umber dye jobs, like alternate members of Super Junior. And, in true K-Pop fashion, they had one edgy, half-American teammate — Lee Seung Jun, née Eric Lee Sandrin, with a sleeve tattoo and an immaculately gelled Mohawk, who was possibly the tournament's most athletic big man and definitely the favorite player of the women in the crowd. He was like the windmill-dunking, half-Korean mix of Don Draper and Chris "Birdman" Andersen, if you can imagine such a thing.
Throughout the FIBA Asia Championship, the warm-up music at Mall of Asia Arena had been a standard mixture of Robin Thicke and Justin Bieber, but when the Philippines and South Korea took the court about 25 minutes before the semifinal, the tenor changed. Top 40 was replaced by patriotic anthems like "Alab ng Puso" and "Noypi." Suddenly, a bunch of people bopping their heads and humming along to "Blurred Lines" transformed into a near-delirious throng of almost 20,000 people thrusting their fists in the air and chanting "HOY! PINOY AKO!" (In English, this would be a very emphatic "YO! I’M FILIPINO!")
The stage was set for the Philippine redeem team, but early in the game Korea didn't cooperate with Smart Gilas's plan to reverse history. The teams appeared to be evenly matched in the half court, but anytime a Filipino player made a mistake — when a point guard over-penetrated, forced a shot at the rim, and got blocked; or when a forward threw an errant pass — South Korea flew down the court and converted open 3s and layups in transition. After a quarter, South Korea led 19-15 and appeared to be the sharper team.
Then, a few minutes before halftime, the bogeyman struck, and this time he didn't arrive in the form of a dagger 3 or some unstoppable shooter. Marcus Douthit, the Philippines' naturalized 6-foot-11 center and the team's stabilizing presence on offense and defense, aggravated a knee injury while trying to score beneath the basket, hopped and hobbled his way through a defensive possession, and then checked out of the game for good. Smart Gilas would have to protect the paint for the rest of the game with 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar, who was in foul trouble, along with Ranidel de Ocampo and Jean Marc Pingris, a pair of undersize power forwards whose heights are often listed generously at 6-foot-5. The country's long shot to beat South Korea just got longer, and the Philippines fell behind by as many as seven points in the second quarter before clawing back to enter halftime down 39-36.
Coaches tend to dislike clichés like "this team played hungry" or "they wanted it more," because execution and errors lurk behind each of those gauzy phrases. But sitting (and often standing) among the crowd during the second half, it was hard not to get the sense that the Filipino players had just collectively said "to hell with it" and decided they were going to win this game on heart and balls as much as anything else. It started with point guard Jayson Castro (who was playing as Jayson William for reasons too complicated to explain here), probably the most special talent on the Philippines roster. Compact, bullet-headed, and fast and strong as a pitbull, Castro beat his man off the dribble, drove straight down the lane, and finished over and around Korea's big men on the first three possessions of the second half.
From there, the Filipino players took turns carrying the team in stretches. LA Tenorio, another of Smart Gilas's trio of sub-six-foot point guards, hit a 3 and snuck a reverse layup under his defender's outstretched arms. De Ocampo scored on a crafty running left-handed scoop, then froze his defender with a gorgeous head-and-shoulder fake at the top of the key to buy himself just enough time to flip in a running hook over the taller man. Pingris battled forwards six inches taller than him, held them out of the paint, beat them to rebounds and loose balls, and saved possessions with putbacks and 8-foot floaters.
The Philippines built a nine-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but every time it looked like Gilas might pull away, Korean reserve guard Kim Min-goo would find space for an open 3-pointer to keep the game close. The teams traded buckets, with the Philippines maintaining a lead between three and seven points. Then, with a little more than five minutes to play, the ball swung to Kim, who hit his fifth triple of the game while being fouled, then completed the four-point play. After a quick shot on the Philippines' next possession, a South Korean big man leaked out for a dunk, and in the span of about 20 seconds Korea had turned a five-point deficit into a one-point lead. The crowd looked up at the scoreboard and saw that Kim had 27 points, although by then the fans might have already swapped out his name for "no. 4 — Bogeyman."
The next Philippines possession wasn't particularly pretty. The crowd was shell-shocked, and veteran point guard Jimmy Alapag dribbled away much of the shot clock, circling over high screens and trying to create any opportunity for his team. Late in the clock, Alapag faked his man into taking a step back, then rose for an off-the-dribble 3 that, in terms of degree of difficulty and chance of success, wasn't that far off from the shot Tony Parker made over LeBron James near the end of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Alapag's jumper gave the Philippines a two-point lead and breathed life back into the crowd. Then, with 55 seconds left and Gilas still ahead by two, Alapag came off another ball screen and hit another 3-pointer to make the lead five.
The crowd could smell it — people were already starting to hug and cry and squeeze each other's shoulders hard enough to leave fingernail scratches behind. Korea got the ball to Kim one last time, and this time Gilas's rangy stopper Gabe Norwood got a piece of Kim's final attempt. The Bogeyman was stuffed, and seconds later, as the clock counted down to zero, the Philippine players and coaches rushed the court, embraced, and collapsed on the floor in utterly spent joy. The Philippines had finally beaten Korea.
The next day, the Philippines faced Iran for the Asian championship and lost. They kept the game close through three quarters, then relented under the height and heft of Hamed Haddadi, who scored 29 points in 29 minutes. It hardly mattered, though, because beating South Korea, winning second place in the FIBA tournament, and earning a spot in the 2014 Basketball World Cup was quite literally a once-in-a-generation achievement. The last time the Philippines beat Korea was 28 years ago; the last time the country competed in a World Championship was 35 years ago.
Just like older Filipinos can recall every play down the stretch of the Philippines' 1985 overtime win over a United States team led by Joe Wolf and Jay Bilas, the nation that witnessed Saturday's game against South Korea will never forget coach Chot Reyes's passion on the sideline, Norwood's late block on Kim, de Ocampo's lefty scoop, or Tenorio darting into the lane to put back his own missed jumper.
And for at least two years, until the next FIBA Asia Championship, the bogeymen of Korean basketball will have names like Jimmy Alapag, Jayson Castro, and Jean Marc Pingris.