How the first all-PBA national team made history in the 1990 Asian Games

Before the first-ever collection of professional players from the NBA, known as the Dream Team, represented the United States in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Philippines, bannered by PBA stars and coached by Robert "Sonny" Jaworski, became the first country in world basketball history to send an all-professional team to an international competition.

The historic basketball moment happened 30 years ago during the 11th edition of the Asian Games in Beijing, China. The open basketball era was in its infancy stage back then. Yet, the Philippine national team already carried the hopes of over 61 million Filipinos.

With just two weeks of training and preparation, the national side that had four-time Most Valuable Player Ramon Fernandez taking the lead as the senior citizen of the team finished second behind host China.

Best PBA players

The idea of tapping professional players to represent the national team was a no-no before the open basketball era. For decades, only amateur players played for flag and country.

In fact, before the first PBA-backed national team played in Beijing, the Philippine quintet managed to reach the zenith of regional basketball behind coaching brilliance of American coach Rob Jacobs.

Jacobs, a former US NCAA coach, was tapped by then basketball godfather ambassador and businessman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco to plot the country's return to Asian prominence in 1981.

By recruiting some of the top collegiate standouts, the Philippines regained the Asian Youth championship in Manila after beating powerhouse China in 1982 behind Hector Calma, Alfie Almario, Jong Uichico and big man Teddy Alfarero.

The international success reached its peak when the national team, known by its corporate backer NCC, won the 1985 William Jones Cup, followed by the ABC men's championships (now known as FIBA Asia), the latter while reinforced by two naturalized players in Jeff Moore and Dennis Still.

Things eventually changed in 1986 when Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in the People Power revolution. The national basketball program was eventually dissolved and the members of the Philippine team moved up to the pros.

The scrapping of the NCC-backed national team saw the Philippines flounder in the international front. Save for its bronze medal finish in the 1986 Asian Games in South Korea, the Philippines fared poorly abroad and nosedived in the Southeast Asian Games when it lost its cage crown to Malaysia in 1989.

No wonder, interest heightened when news came out that the first all-pro national team would be campaigning for the first time in the 1990 Asian Games.

The idea of seeing Fernandez, an iconic basketball figure for close to two decades in the PBA, leading the national team appealed to the pro basketball fans in the country. Jaworski, with whom Fernandez had a much-publicized feud, was named the head coach of the first all-pro squad.

Making this even more interesting was the fact that Fernandez would be joining forces with Benjie Paras, the first PBA player to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, Alvin Patrimonio, Allan Caidic, Ronnie Magsanoc and Samboy Lim. All of them were the superstars in the pro league at that time. Other members of the team included Calma, Dante Gonzalgo, Rey Cuenco, Chito Loyzaga, Zaldy Realubit and Yves Dignadice.

On paper, the Philippine team looked formidable indeed. But as far as Norman Black was concerned, the national team was in a race against time.

"Back in those days, we didn't really have much preparation for the national team tournament. So we took the best players available at that time from the PBA teams," Black said in a chat with An Eternity of Basketball on Tuesday.

Black, who had coached the San Miguel Beermen to a PBA Grand Slam the year before, served as one of Jaworski's assistant coaches in the Beijing Asiad.

"Let's face it, you say it's the Dream Team, almost like the All Stars that come from the PBA where the best players were all part of it. We knew we needed a big man, but of course we weren't that big," shared Black.

"We had Benjie Paras, Mon Fernandez and Chito Loyzaga, and he (Loyzaga) did most of the heavy work against the centers of other teams despite the fact he was only 6-3."

The PBA during those years didn't really have tall and agile players standing above 6-7. Paras, who stands a shade below 6-5, used his athleticism, jumping ability and youthful zeal to dominate the painted area. Black said Paras, then a 22-year-old, easily flourished in the Asian competition.

"One thing going for Benjie was he was more athletic than almost anybody on the floor," explained the 62-year-old Black. "He was aggressive going to the basket. He goes for the set shot more than the jump shot which he was accurate with. And he was a fun guy who loved playing the game. I thought he was more athletic than most players from other Asian countries."

As for Fernandez, who also guested on the episode, even with just a two-week preparation, he felt they were competitive and ready to wage war against the top Asian teams in the quadrennial games.

"Although I was with a very young team and we only prepared for 14 days, I was pretty sure we would be very competitive and I knew we could beat the other countries," Fernandez said, whose only other stint in the Asian Games before was in the 1974 edition in Tehran, Iran.

But he was also the first to admit that even the best players from the PBA simply couldn't beat host China, which was already a force to reckon with in the Asian region back then.

"Except China, really. I've seen the Chinese team since way back in 1974 so China was really our main problem," he stressed.

"We lost to them twice in that tournament," Fernandez added, referring to the 65-point drubbing the Philippines got in the quarterfinals, before bowing again to the Chinese, 90-76, in the gold medal round.

Struggles in the Asiad

Competing in the Asian Games was a whole new experience for the all-pro national squad. And this was more pronounced when the Philippine team struggled early when it faced familiar Asian foe Japan in just the second game of the preliminary stage.

The Philippines made short work of Pakistan, 129-81, in its Asian Games debut. But the real early test came when the Filipinos faced long-time Asian basketball nemeses, the Japanese.

Looking to sweep its group stage play to get better quarterfinal seeding, the Philippines hoped for a strong start against Japan.

But Allan Caidic admitted their offense was out of sync during the first 20 minutes of action, which allowed the Japanese to take a 14-point halftime lead.

"We just had to perform well and do better because for us, it (beating Japan) was very important for the placing in the quarterfinals. If we lose that game, we won't be the no. 1 team in our group and we will be bracketed in the other group and most probably we end up with China in the crossover," explained Caidic.

After some pep talk from Jaworski at halftime, Caidic waxed hot from the outside, knocking down consecutive three-pointers, triggering a 22-0 start to kick off the second half that enabled the Philippines to seize control.

Caidic, who would go on to be named PBA MVP later that year, exploded for 34 markers, laced by six triples, as the Philippines scored a come-from-behind 86-78 win against Japan.

For the left-handed hotshot, he believes their victory was considered a "statement game."

"Of course, that was a statement game because almost every team was looking up to us because there was too much publicity going on for us being the all-pro national team. We kind of got hyped during that," recalled Caidic, whose first Asian Games stint was in 1986.

Black couldn't agree more.

"The game against Japan was a big question mark because it was one of those games we had to win if we wanted to make finals," Black shared. "I thought we played very well. We stepped up the plate. That was very important because we had to get past Japan to get to the game against China."

Asked if he was surprised to see Caidic shine in the big Asian basketball stage, Black had this to say: "I don't think his teammates were surprised. This was a guy that scored 79 points in a PBA game. He's the Triggerman. We were just happy to see that because that's our way of getting to (better) position."

Come the second round, the Philippines faced a relatively unknown North Korean squad.

Bannered by 7-foot-8 giant Ri Myung-Hun, considered the tallest basketball player in the world back then, North Korea held the lead for much of the first half as the East Asian squad relied mostly on its top slotman, who scored 28 points.

But the 6-3 Loyzaga, the barrel-chested forward from Ginebra, showed his defensive skills to slow down Ri and eventually get the celebrated North Korean big man into early foul trouble. With North Koreans playing without a foul-plagued Ri for a big chunk of the second half, the Philippines made its move, outgunning and outshooting its opponents en route to a 98-82 win.

Black admitted Loyzaga had given him fits on defense during their numerous PBA battles. But his respect only grew upon seeing the son of the legendary Caloy Loyzaga flash his defensive skill against Ri, who was a foot and a half taller than the Filipino forward.

"Chito was used to playing the imports in the PBA. And he was used to guarding bigger guys, but of course, not 7-8. But the advantage Chito had was, one, he had strong forearms and he had a barrel chest, so if the 7-8 guy wanted to score on Chito, he pretty much had to try to get around him and not simply come through him," observed Black.

Reality check

The national team's first face-off with host China, though, was a rude reality check for the PBA-backed squad. China unleashed its full offensive might to embarrass the national team, 125-60.

Fernandez admitted beating China would really be a tall order considering its size and shooting. In fact, when China burst into the Asian scene in the 1970s when Fernandez was still a budding young basketball player, he felt the Philippines would be in serious trouble.

"From the very beginning, I always felt that with the coming in of China, we would really have a hard time winning the championship in the Asian Games. I know that's the reality that time," shared Fernandez, whose decorated basketball career include winning gold medals in the 1972 Asian Youth and the 1973 ABC men's championships.

While he meant no disrespect to Philippine basketball back then, he felt that if the national team faced China 10 times, at best, the Filipinos could only beat the many-time Asian champion thrice.

"We'll be lucky if we can beat them two or three times because the Chinese were just on top of their game at that time," he reasoned.

Caidic seconded Fernandez's thoughts, noting that China's huge size advantage was something the Philippines had to deal with.

"The domination of China had a lot to do with their height advantage. That's really a huge factor in an international competition," said Caidic, who would go on to play in the 1994 and 1998 Asian Games as well.

But China, which had two seven-footers in Shan Tao and Wang Zhidan, was not just about size because the host squad also had quick 6-foot-7 forwards and hot-shooting guards that gave the Filipinos fits in the two games they played in 1990.

"It's just that China is the better team with superior height advantage. And then consider their wing guys, 6-7 Hu Wei Dong, then they had Wang Fei, so it's very hard to stop them plus they also had the homecourt advantage," noted Caidic.

The Philippines made it to the gold medal game after repeating over Japan, 94-90, in the semifinals. But the Chinese were just too much, overpowering the Filipinos 90-76 to win the gold.

What could have been

While the first all-pro national team failed to bring the Asian Games gold back to the country, that silver medal finish remains to be the best achievement in the last 30 years. The next best finish of any PBA-backed squad from there was a bronze medal in 1998 in Bangkok, Thailand.

For Black, a longer preparation of say two months would have made a huge difference for the 1990 national team in the Asian Games.

"No question, it would have made a huge difference," Black said. "But against China? I think we could have done a lot of things differently because we didn't scout them at all which we should have done but again, the preparation time was quite short."

Black though believed the way the Philippines prepares for international tournaments over the last decade has changed, especially when the Gilas program was set in motion in 2009. The entry of Serbian coach Rajko Toroman and eventually the tapping of naturalized player Marcus Douthit revitalized the Philippine basketball program.

"Things have changed a little bit, right? Even against the Japanese and Koreans, we still lacked the size like some of other teams have but we made it up because we have a naturalized player who has the size and who could help us," shared Black, who in 1994, coached the second PBA-backed national team to a fourth-place finish in the Hiroshima Asian Games.

"There are other things we could have done as well, but remember in that particular time we had just been going back to international tournaments. And before that, we had been using NCC teams because pro players hadn't been participating so we were learning to compete with teams like China, Korea, and I think we did our best," he explained.

"So we need to learn our lessons first before we can compete against other teams."

Asked if by some twist of luck and the Philippines ended up facing South Korea, would the Filipinos have beaten the Koreans for the gold?

"It would have been more difficult if we faced South Korea. I think they were a stronger team that year, but why worry about that?" said Black.

"The thought process that time was to just beat Japan (in the semis) and just get another chance at beating China. But there's no question in my mind, with scouting, South Korea was the team to beat," stressed the American coach. The South Koreans had given the hosts a scare in their semifinal match-up, dropping a close 88-92 decision.

For now, the Philippines quest for an Asian Games gold medal remains a dream. It has been 58 years ago since the country bagged its last basketball crown in the Asiad. But there's little doubt that the first all-pro squad of 30 years showed it could be done.