CLARK, PAMPANGA - I was one of seven individuals who were selected by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) to participate in the proceedings of the recently concluded 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, after having also spent over two months servicing the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup in the same venues.
While the Angeles University Foundation (AUF) Gym, for the competition, and the Quest Plus Conference Center, for the accommodations, may have looked like the same environment to us, there were noticeable differences this time around.
ESPN5's Carlo Pamintuan was now the SBP's Media Officer for the undertaking and no longer the TV correspondent he was during the PBA 'bubble' while PBA Technical Supervisor Ferdinand "Bong" Pascual did his penultimate run as referee before he does his swansong in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Much also didn't change, though, as Jun Bayais and Luigi Dulo reprised their roles as table officials while Rannie Evangelista and Ronald Urbano were once again given the statisticians' responsibilities. This writer was assigned the unenviable task of being the qualifiers' lone announcer for all 11 tiffs.
After almost two weeks witnessing the Clark qualifiers, it's safe to say that it was a much welcome step forward for sporting events in the Philippines. There were, however, some differences between this bubble and the one held last year.
For starters, the PBA 'bubble' was held over a longer period of time - from October to December, to be exact - with protocols still in their infancy. Hence, there were numerous restrictions that no longer applied in the FIBA 'bubble.'
A so-called controlled buffet was allowed for this 'bubble' with the seven teams taking their meals in the ballrooms while FIBA delegates and Local Organizing Committee (LOC) personnel, composed mostly of the SBP's team, ate in Café Mekeni. There were transparent plastic barriers in front of each viand and no one was allowed to serve themselves.
Every item that landed on plates were done by the hotel staff. During the PBA, all meals, with the exception of the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony and Ginebra's victory bash, food was served in portioned containers.
Another difference was that no outside food was allowed, something that had been a staple in the PBA 'bubble.' This particular rule, apparently, was to the dismay of one team - and no, it wasn't the Philippines. According to a team official, China was so looking forward to having their fill of Jollibee Chickenjoy. Maybe next time, Chinese friends!
Once the tournament commenced, that discipline was still expected. All of these had to be followed to a tee: stand by at the lobby 15 minutes before departure; only a maximum of seven persons per van, making for long waiting times heading back to the hotel after games; the use of the StaySafe app in every entrance and exit; strict temperature checks; and no loitering. One driver assigned to the SBP was even sent home because he had been spotted by an LOC member walking to a nearby convenience store.
Inside the AUF Gym, there was also strict adherence to protocols. Security made sure that personnel access was only what was indicated on IDs. Team practices at the second floor had a closed-door feel as well as no one was allowed to even peek inside.
The disinfection process had to be performed with sequenced precision for the allotted time: exactly seven minutes at halftime and within half an hour in between games. Gates were installed in front of locker rooms, barring teams from entering the court an hour before.
A new rule even broke tradition: having teams shooting around in front of their bench, as opposed to the ring at the other end that we've been used to, minimizing unnecessary physical contact.
Only Indonesia head coach Rajko Toroman broke protocol of not approaching his counterpart at the end of the game, later elaborating that it was his way of showing respect. "We're all in a bubble anyway," he explained.
Now that I think about it, this felt more like a business trip. Whatever it was, FIBA officials present lauded everybody's compliance.
"I love it (the strictness of protocol enforcement)," remarked FIBA's Hovsep Comodo Seraydarian after the proceedings. "It worked beautifully."
In the end, the entire experience may have put the Philippines on the map as an example of how an international sporting event can be held. It also helped that the Clark Development Council and the Inter-Agency Task Force worked very closely with the SBP and other LOC components to ensure rousing success.
In fact, there are now talks of yet another multi-nation event in another sport eyeing Clark for its 'bubble' in August. This, all thanks to the groundwork laid by PBA's Philippine Cup and then reinforced by FIBA's Clark qualifiers.