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Looking back at the 1998 Centennial Team

The Asian Games are upon us again. Standing out, as usual, as one of the most eagerly anticipated sports to follow, is men's basketball. While just three weeks ago, it seemed as though the Philippines would not be sending a team for the basketball competition, some last-minute manoeuvrings produced the formation of a team composed of six players from the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and six more from other PBA teams, with Yeng Guiao as head coach.

Unlike the present team, however, the Philippines fielded a men's basketball team back in 1998, which had several months of preparation before the Asian Games held in Bangkok, Thailand in December 1998. The team was led by coach Tim Cone, then coach of the dominant PBA team of that era, the Alaska Milkmen, with assistant coaches Chot Reyes and Aric del Rosario, with Joaqui Trillo as team manager. Because the Philippines was celebrating 100 years of independence, a centennial of freedom, the team was dubbed the "Centennial Team".

The composition of the team was practically set as early as June 1998. It was perhaps the tallest team in terms of average height in Philippine basketball history at the time. The team began competing by playing twice against PBA All-Star selections in July 1998. It won both competitive games. Then, preparations for the 1998 William Jones Cup began. In the past, the Philippines had won the tournament twice (1981 as Northern Consolidated and 1985 as San Miguel Beer), but similar success had not come in quite some time. Rigorous training and familiarization with Coach Tim's system ensued, such that when the tournament began in late August 1998, the Centennial Team was ready. It won six straight games, including back-to-back games at the end versus rivals South Korea and Chinese Taipei, en route to the championship.

Just days after winning that championship, in early September 1998, the team was immersed in the PBA's 1998 Centennial Cup as a guest team. The results were a stark contrast to that of the Jones Cup, as the team struggled, tasting victory only once, against the Sta. Lucia Realtors, while getting routed in its other seven games, by an average of 16 points. Coach Tim and his squad, however, treated the PBA tournament as a learning experience, something to build upon, as well as a wake-up call for the competition that lied ahead. The preparation continued.

The team took a trip to the U.S. to play tune-up games against several U.S. NCAA collegiate teams. The game most recall was against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on 17 November 1998, where tempers flared and a bench-clearing brawl occurred and several players were ejected. The Centennial Team lost the game, but ended up on ESPN SportsCenter.

As the Asian Games drew near, the team knew it still had much work to do. There were almost daily practices leading up to the Games, and the Philippines finally plunged into action on 08 December 1998 versus Kazakhstan, where it won a close one, 53-52. Three more victories followed, against Kyrgyzstan (91-50), United Arab Emirates (93-57), and host Thailand (86-60). However, back-to-back losses against South Korea (83-103) and China (73-82) relegated the Philippines to the bronze-medal game against Kazakhstan, where the team won, 73-68 for a podium finish.

We were able to chat with two members of the Centennial Team, whose experience at that time were on opposite sides of the spectrum - four-time Asiad veteran Allan Caidic and then-Asian Games first-timer Olsen Racela. Due to the passage of time, their memories of the entire 1998 experience are not vivid, but their insights tell us a story of hard work, intense preparation, and what they consider as a great achievement, even if others may have been disappointed.

Both players recall that the selection process and the announcement of the final roster were not quite as elaborate as they are nowadays. Racela remembers that he just learned of his inclusion "through the coaches. It was a simple announcement, not like now where it's televised." Caidic, aptly nicknamed The Triggerman, said that he was just a "last minute addition." Apparently, famed American Coach Ron Jacobs, then coach of San Miguel Beer in the PBA, for whom Caidic played, mentioned to Coach Tim that he "would be needing Allan", because he needed a shooter on the team. Caidic was already 35 and was pleasantly surprised to be included again. It pays to be the best three-point shooter Philippine basketball has ever had.

Both players downplay their roles on the team. Racela knew he would be the back-up to starter Abarrientos. He was surprised to be chosen because "they were running the triangle and didn't need a point guard. The triangle is 'positionless', so he (Coach Tim) could use Kenneth or Jeffrey. I wasn't really expecting it. I was a relatively young player and there were more established players who were more experienced, but I guess Tim and Chot were looking for a player to provide energy coming off the bench, who didn't care if he was used for two minutes or for twenty minutes."

Caidic says he was chosen "as a 12th man. Not a starter, just a role player. Someone there so if the opponent played zone, he (Coach Tim) had a back-up on the bench [that could shoot]."

Both agree though, that being called the "Centennial Team" was big. First, the nation was celebrating. Secondly, the Philippines did not win a medal in 1994, after winning bronze in 1986 and silver in 1990 - this team had to finish with a medal. "Centennial team, so expectations were big. When we won the Jones Cup, that added to the expectations. We ourselves, as a team, as individuals, we expected that we would perform and do well," said Racela.

The preparations were hectic. Most of the players were not used to the triangle system that Coach Tim employed, so they had to do extra work. For many, it was their first time to be under Coach Tim. Both Caidic and Racela said that, for them, it was not hard to adjust to Coach Tim since they had both been under an American coach in the past, Jacobs. "My coach then was Ron Jacobs," Racela mentioned, "so I was used to having an American coach. The system was new, but that's alright with me because I like playing in a system instead of open court, which wasn't my skill as a point guard. I adapted quickly to the triangle, I knew my role right away."

Both players have scattered memories of all the preparations done before the Asian Games in 1998. Caidic remembers the two games versus the PBA selections, but cannot even recall participating in the PBA Centennial Cup. Of course both players have concrete memories of the Jones Cup victory. "For me, the Jones Cup was memorable because we won, but also, I had been part of the last team that won the championship there (in 1985), and I was able to win again - that's something I never would've imagined," said Caidic.

Caidic also remembers fondly the team's trip to the U.S. for the exhibition games against college squads. "It was my first time to experience that, to play on tour in the U.S. I was already a senior member of the team so I consider myself fortunate." The trip was called the "Centennial Tour", and Caidic mentioned that it helped the team bond. Now, many collegiate teams go on tours to play U.S. teams during the off-season. Racela recalls, "We went to the states in November, I remember that's where I celebrated my birthday (November 1). We had been playing together since July."

When asked to recall the Asian Games proper, both gentlemen immediately mentioned the two losses - to South Korea and China - before mentioning anything else. The more bitter memory for them is the quarterfinal matchup against South Korea. "South Korea, wow...really different kind of basketball. We were always chasing. I was known to be one of the quickest, with Johnny, but we just had to keep chasing...their spacing was superb, their shooting was amazing, so you see yourself really helping and chasing. Their ball screens were good, even then. Lee Sang Min, those guys," said Racela.

Caidic weighed in on the South Koreans as well. "Korea was really strong. We struggled against their zone. Questions came out on whether the triangle could beat their zone. Some doubted the system. But, honestly, that time, we were shooting blanks. All of us were not playing well. We were out-played."

Then, after the loss to South Korea, the pressure was really on to beat China in the semi-finals. "The pressure was really heavy to beat China, to enter the Finals. In 1990, we were able to avoid Korea when we played Japan in the semis. The big game was against Korea, but we weren't able to deliver overall as a team against their zone...we struggled against the zone. We would take one shot, miss, then they were in transition for a lay-up. Our one-on-one guys, Vergel, Kenneth, Johnny, they struggled. That's why we were thoroughly beaten," according to Caidic.

Despite the losses to South Korea and China, the team had to re-focus for the bronze medal match against Kazakhstan. "The morale was low. I remember the game with Kazakhstan. We were playing catch-up the whole game. Coming off back-to-back losses, it took a veteran to bring the morale of the team up. Jolas (Lastimosa). He wasn't used in the first half I think, then when Coach Tim pulled him off the bench and inserted him, the veteran that he was, he was the spark, and we won that game because of Jolas," as per Racela.

We always hear about the brotherhood that is formed whenever a national team competes. For the Centennial Team, it was no different. Racela remembers becoming very close to Cariaso in 1998. He had been teammates with Patrimonio on Purefoods, and with Limpot and Meneses on the Youth team before, but this experience made them much closer. Caidic remembers rooming with Patrimonio at one point, the two veterans of three previous Asian Games battles. He remembers that during a game played in Ormoc, he was paired with Duremdes. Caidic believes that Coach Tim rotated the room assignments so the players could get to know each other better along the way.

When asked which particular game for the Centennial Team they recall where they played well, Racela quickly replied, "UAE (in the Asian Games). That was my big game. I provided the energy coming off the bench. We didn't start well, then Coach Tim used me, and that's the reason we pulled away. I also remember playing well versus China, with those big guys like Wang Zhizhi, Gong Xiaobing, Menke Bateer."

For Caidic, it was against Thailand in the Jones Cup. "Coach Tim would use me from time to time against the zone. I would score, but not much. I was a marked man, I was slower because of my age and injuries. But there's one game, Jones Cup versus Thailand, that's where he used me for a longer period. I was shooting well and some of the other guys were resting for the more important games." He ended up with twenty-five points, with six three-pointers.

Both players did not play heavy minutes for the Centennial Team. Racela remembers that it was Abarrientos and Duremdes who played a lot. Caidic agreed, and added the name of Meneses as one of the go-to guys on the squad. He also went down the entire roster, recalling who started and who backed up whom, and how tall the line-up was, smiling as he reiterated how glad he was to just be included once again.

The current team about to participate in the Asian Games will surely have similar memories of both Caidic and Racela from their 1998 Centennial Team experience. Of course the preparation and time spent together of the current one will be nothing like that in 1998. One thing is for sure though - many years from now, after going into battle with their teammates, wearing the colors of the nation, win or lose, the 2018 Asian Games players will have much to reminisce about and cherish.