GILAS Pilipinas may have enjoyed considerable success in Asia for the better part of the past decade, but let's not forget that almost two decades ago, the Philippine national basketball team hit rock bottom.
A team that fancied itself as one of the top nations in basketball in Asia slumped to a 15th-place finish in the 2003 ABC Championship in Harbin, China.
It was easily the nation's worst performance in the continental showpiece that the Philippines had won five times before, the last in 1985. The fall proved to be a harbinger for the gloom that was about to rock Philippine hoops.
Coming off a suspension that prevented the country from fielding a team in the 2001 ABC Championship in Shanghai, the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) fielded an RP Team backed by Cebuana Lhuillier in its return to the precursor of what is now known as the Fiba Asia Cup.
Then-BAP secretary general Graham Lim decided to hand the keys to coach Aric del Rosario, who then tapped amateurs to carry the country's flag there.
However, even their best laid plans fell apart.
Del Rosario could not secure the commitment of sweet shooting Gary David of Montana Pawnshop from the Philippine Basketball League (PBL), with Lim then claiming that the club prevented the Bataan gunner from joining the national team.
College standouts like James Yap and Paul Artadi of University of the East, Rich Alvarez and Wesley Gonzales of Ateneo, and Ranidel de Ocampo and Ervin Sotto of St. Francis of Assisi also weren't given clearances by their alma mater for the tilt.
That left the BAP with an RP Team led by Far Eastern University's Celino Cruz, with Ricky Calimag, Dennis Madrid, Emmerson Oreta, and Richie Melencio among the team's leaders.
Marc Pingris, Willy Wilson, and Nelbert Omolon were also part of that crew, with Romar Menor, Jonathan de Guzman, Bernzon Franco, and Chris Nicdao completing the team.
Bracketed in a tough Group D, the Philippines narrowly lost, 66-64, to a Japan side mentored by Croatian coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, before losing to Qatar, 77-69. The RP Team did blast Jordan, 83-67, to finish with a 1-2 card, but only the top two teams in the group progressed to the next round.
The worst, however, was still to come for the Philippines as it went 0-3 in the next phase, losing to Hong Kong, 66-58; Kuwait, 77-69; and Syria, 95-77.
That winless outing in the quarterfinals relegated the RP Team to a battle for 15th place in the classification phase where it met Southeast Asian foe Malaysia.
Luckily, Oreta pumped in 21 points, Calimag added 18, and Pingris and Melencio both had 12 for the Philippines as it avoided last place with a 78-63 win to cap off the tournament.
It's a small consolation for the country then as it maintained its position as the best basketball team in the region, but surely, that 15th place finish was no cause for celebration.
To this day, it's an eerie reminder of what happens when the country's basketball stakeholders fail to come together for one common cause - one that we hope won't repeat itself in the near future.
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