Back in 2018, the Philippines went down with a massive case of Korean Drama fever. Filipinos were massively addicted to the Korean soap operas (also known as K-Dramas), and would watch them religiously every single day. They would laugh and cry along with the characters, feeling their pain as we often do with our soap operas. Many young women would get their hearts broken by their Korean oppas.
Filipino basketball fans looked at all the heartache caused by these Korean men, and said with a knowing smile: FIRST TIME?
The Philippines has long only known heartbreak when facing off against South Korea in basketball. But on two separate occasions, Gilas Pilipinas found a way to defy history and beat their Korean rivals. On the eight-year anniversary of Gilas’ historic win against South Korea in the FIBA Asia Championship, we look back at Gilas 2.0’s win and the emotions behind that game.
August 10, 2013. The scene: Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay City. It’s the semifinals of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship. It’s a big game: the winner gets an automatic slot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, as well as at least a silver-medal finish in this tournament.
But for the Philippine team, there’s another storyline in play: a chance to defy history. See, the Philippine team has been tormented by South Korea over and over again. The ’02 Asian Games heartbreaker. The 2011 bronze-medal game in the FIBA Asia Championship. These defeats and more have led fans and analysts to say that the Philippines were “cursed” against South Korea. It was an unbreakable wall that the program just couldn’t break through.
Gabe Norwood knew how important this game was for the Filipinos fans. But for the team, they were out for redemption: earlier in the tournament, the Philippines lost against another old rival, Chinese Taipei. “To lose that game, I think was really crushing for us, in a sense like we felt we let the country down,” Norwood says. “So in order to make things right, we knew we had to go out there and play better and find a way to get to the World Cup. And of course, in a perfect story, Korea would be there.”
The game started out tense, as most matches between the two Asian rivals went. From the opening tip, it was a back-and-forth affair, neither team giving an inch against the other. And then, disaster struck. Marcus Douthit, or Kuya Marcus to Filipino fans, reinjured his knee in the second quarter.
Immediately, fans were devastated, seeing a fellow Filipino go down. “Syempre sad, mabigat,” says SJ Belangel, who remembers watching that game from his home computer in Bacolod. “Kasi for us viewers, fans, we can’t afford na makita natin ‘yung kapwa Pilipino natin na injured.” Losing a key member of the team seemed like just another manifestation of the “curse,” the Lee Sang-Min three moment of this game.
But Norwood gives a lot of credit to the mental toughness of that team, especially to Douthit, who contributed to that team despite being injured. “His voice wasn’t gone, as much as he wasn’t on the court, his voice was still very present,” he recalls, saying how important that was in keeping the team together. Korea went up by as much as seven during that quarter, but Gilas was able to cut it to three entering the break, thanks to Marc Pingris holding it down in the paint.
Still, things looked grim for the Philippine squad. Marcus Douthit was a vital cog of that lineup, a jack-of-all-trades that the team could lean on. “He was our defensive anchor, he was a facilitator, a scorer, a screener, and a veteran as well.” Norwood says about Kuya Marcus. It would take a monumental effort to wrestle this victory away from history.
The Filipinos were up to the task. After a scintillating third quarter from “The Blur,” Jayson Castro, the Philippines held a nine-point lead into the final frame. Despite that “near-perfect quarter” (in the words of Norwood himself) from Castro, the Koreans clawed back into the game thanks to the hot shooting of Kim Min-Goo. The teams traded basket after basket, big shot after big shot. For every Ranidel de Ocampo three, Min-Goo was there to one-up him with a four-point play. The Koreans nipped at the heels of the Philippines, sensing another chance to break the Filipino spirit in front of their own fans.
But the captain of the said politely and firmly said, “NO.” With a minute left, Alapag drilled an ice-cold three-pointer off a Pingris screen. Everybody went wild: the crowds, the viewers at home, even the players on the court were really hyped. Belangel just remembers being extremely overjoyed at that moment. Belangel, who was still glued to his screen, just felt extreme happiness. “Sobrang saya pala, parang ikaw din nanalo… buong bayan nanalo.”
Norwood perhaps had the best view of that shot, being under the basket, but heading into the huddle, he said there was a lot of “settle down.” “I think we all understood that we have to keep our emotions in check and find out a way to get a stop,” he recalls, knowing all too well that Korea is no stranger to hitting miracle shots against the Philippines.
And get a stop he did. After the timeout, Gabe clamped down on the white-hot Min-Goo, capitalizing on his hesitation to partially block that shot. He remembers being caught on another screen to get the Korean shooter often, but he just thought, “Let me see if I can get a hand up, if I can disrupt it.” He says he wasn’t trying to block the shot, but rather wanted to disrupt it, get Min-Goo off-kilter a bit.
The rest was history. Pingris sealed the deal on the next play with a signature put-back after a Castro drive, securing a spot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. For Gabe, those last few moments were euphoric almost. “Man it was just an overwhelming sense of joy and relief and success, like it was all rolled into one,” he reminisced. “I don’t think I even ran back on defense. I’m just running up and down the sideline, pumping my fists, looking at the crowd, spotting my wife and my kids. There’s nothing like it, it’s still up there in terms of my great basketball memories.”
This line right here is perhaps one of the most iconic play calls in Philippine sports history, courtesy of the legendary Magoo Marjon:
“And the curse of Korea is about to be broken here inside the MOA Arena!”
It was a release from all the frustration and heartbreak the Koreans have inflicted on us. However… looking back, the curse wasn’t quite broken just yet. After that win, Korea proceeded to play Gilas five more teams in the next eight years, with Gilas not winning a single match. Even when the team had Jordan Clarkson in tow, they weren’t able to get over the Korean hump. It felt like history was repeating itself all over again.
But then, on a cold June night, the most unlikely Gilas squad defied the odds and beat the Korean team. Twice, in fact.
PART II TO BE CONTINUED…
(Thumbnail photo by Glenn Michael Tan)