“I ONLY knew that I made their whole national team cry, but it’s only now that I was told how I broke the hearts of millions of Filipinos in 2002.”
Those were the words of great South Korean gunner Lee Sang Min, who is remembered, bitterly shall we add, by most Filipino fans for hitting the last-gasp three-pointer that denied the Philippines a win in the semifinals of the 2002 Asian Games in Busan.
Now retired and working as a coach back home, Lee is in the Philippines for the first time to scout players for his Samsung Thunders team in the Korean Basketball League, going largely unnoticed and unrecognized by the crowd or the television crew.
Lee was sitting comfortably in his lower box section of the Smart Araneta Coliseum accompanied by his team staff and former Asean Basketball League (ABL) Coach of the Year Ariel Vanguardia when Spin.ph caught up with him.
Seeing the immense popularity and passion of the Filipinos for the sport, Lee finally got a grasp of the impact his clutch three-pointer 13 years ago had on this basketball-crazy nation.
For those who don't remember, here was how it went.
The Philippines was leading 68-66 and was 23 seconds away from reaching the finals of the 2002 Asian Games against a Yao Ming-led China team when Olsen Racela's two missed free throws kept the door slightly ajar for Korea.
Lee took advantage, burying a last-second three pointer to give the Koreans a 69-68 win and leave the Filipinos stunned.
Talk 'N Text coach Jong Uichico, who handled that Philippine team in 2002, certainly can't forget Lee.
“I can never forget that man and also Korean legend Shin Dong Pa. I always think of three points every time I hear his name. It was a painful memory pero wala na 'yun,” Uichico told Spin.ph.
Now 42, the longtime member of the South Korean national team said he considers that three-pointer against the Philippines as the highlight of an accomplished career.
“That’s the best memory of my career. I was already a star in Korea during that time. I was famous already. But it helped me more (to be popular),” he said through his interpreter Scott Rim.
See video of that fateful play and interview with Lee Sang Min:
Lee nonetheless claimed that the Philippines will always be one of his favorite teams he played against, recalling fondly the Philippines' No. 8 (Allan Caidic) and No. 88 (Asi Taulava) as his favorites.
“That No. 8, he is a deadly shooter. He can shoot anytime he wants,” said Lee recalling Caidic.
As for Taulava, Lee said he is so surprised to see his fellow 42-year old cager still playing professional ball.
“I can never forget that No. 88 guy. The big guy. Not only was he very strong and a good player, he was a very impressive player and he hurt my finger,” he said laughing while sharing how Taulava hit him with a karate chop during one of their scrimmages.
“It’s very interesting to see him play on the court. He probably took care of his body very well,” he said of Taulava.
As for his role in one of the most heartbreaking moments in Philippine basketball history, Lee said he never imagined how big basketball is in the Philippines.
“It was only on my visit now that I realized how passionate the Filipinos are for basketball. And I didn’t know that once in my life, I made a whole nation cry,” he said.
“I hear a lot of stories about basketball in the Philippines now, and I am surprised that a Korean legend, Shin Dong Pa, is still very popular here in the Philippines. That surprises me,”Lee said.
Asked if he is not afraid to walk around in Manila and being recognized as the same man who broke the hearts of the Filipinos, Lee cracked up.
“Luckily, no one recognizes me in Philippine streets, but Filipinos in Korea, in Seoul recognize me. And they tell me of the story (my fateful three-pointer) over and over again,” he said with a smile.
Lee said he is Manila to scout American imports which they hope to tap for the coming season of the KBL, which has changed its reinforcement height ceiling to 6-foot-4.
The legendary Korean cager also praised the PBA’s move to bring in Asian imports for the Governors’ Cup.
“It’s a good idea. It opens door to new talents and the potential for Asian basketball is very huge,” he said.