HANGZHOU — Jong Uichico can barely remember the deathly silence that prevailed inside the Sajik Arena in Busan back in 2002 when Olsen Racela stepped into the foul line for two free throws in the closing seconds and the Philippines up by two over host South Korea in the semifinals of the Asian Games, a spot in the final against China and Yao Ming at stake.
But that year’s national coach recalls seeing from the corner of his eye the players on the bench, their arms locked, their eyes closed in prayer.
“There was a feeling from everyone na malapit na malapit na. We were close, not yet over, but very close,” he says hours before Gilas Pilipinas was to meet host China tonight, October 4, for a seat in the men’s basketball final of the 19th Asian Games here.
“Kahit ako, nagdadasal din na mangyari.”
Racela had earlier buried a dagger three that erased a one-point deficit, 68-66, and shut down the boisterous hometown crowd. Following a miss, South Korea gave up a quick foul in penalty in a desperate bid to gain possession.
So now the Nationals’ best free throw shooter was headed for the stripe to make it a two-possession game, and the thousands in the venue, including the legendary Shin Dong Pa who was seated behind the press box at ringside [no press tribune back then], fell into a breathless quiet.
But as fate had it, Racela was a little strong on the first free throw and a tad short on the second. The ball got lost in the scrum and then popped out and rolled right into the hands of Korean Lee San-Min, who had missed his first three 3-point shots but wouldn’t go 0 of 4 that night.
“I remember vaguely the ball going to Dondon [Hontiveros], then to Olsen [Racela], I think, and it getting loose and rolling to Lee Sang-Min,” said Uichico. “Asi [Taulava] challenged the shot but it still went it. I called time but saw there was none left on the clock.”
Uichico neither remembers the bedlam that followed, but was aware of grown men in the locker room sobbing unabashedly.
“So many things should have to happen first before Korea could win, and only one or two for us, but everything went their way,” says Uichico. “Those things can happen in a basketball game.”
Uichico was referring to the two missed free throws and the Nationals unable to foul during the loose ball play when they were not yet in penalty and Korea without a time to draw a play.
“Even if to delay lang sana, although judgment call na yon,” Uichico says, smiling now. “And of course, Lee Sang-Min still had to make the three-point shot.”
While it is the 2023 national team here in Hangzhou, of which Uichico is a member of Tim Cone’s coaching staff, which has to be credited for returning the Philippine flag to the Final Four of men’s basketball in the Asian Games after 21 years, it was Uichico’s 2002 squad that last quieted the hometown crowd in the dying seconds of the semis in the Asiad.
“Sobrang ingay, grabe ang atmosphere, that’s vivid in my mind. Wala halos Filipino except for a small portion behind the bench, and the Philippine sportswriters seated across from us,” Uichico says. “The rest are all Koreans. Wala kaming kakampi.”
Uichico expects the same welcome from the hometown crowd when they walk into the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center, a 15,000-seater venue which is guaranteed to be packed with screaming Chinese fans armed with inflatable clappers called thunder sticks.
While not offering his own experience two decades ago as advise on how to deal with a hostile hometown crowd, given that tonight is the semifinals and the home team will be looking for payback following a humiliating loss to Gilas Pilipinas and Jordan Clarkson in the classification round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup early last month, Uichico is persuaded to share some of that hard-earned wisdom.
“Given na yung hometown crowd, so we need to be able to dictate the tempo of the game; we need to be the aggressors, be confident, and not be intimidated,” he said.
“Hindi tayo dapat matakot sa crowd. We go in there to win the game, like it was a championship. We need to be aggressive and play our game. We went through a lot, after all, to get here — the loss to Jordan, the Qatar win and the close one against Iran. Matindi rin dinaanan natin.”