From tragedy to triumph
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 1, 2020 - 12:00am

There was something special in the way Aric del Rosario took the challenge of coaching the Philippine national basketball team at the Southeast Asian Games in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 6-13, 2003. He was coming off a tragic showing at the FIBA Asia Cup in Harbin, China, only a few months earlier, Sept. 23-Oct. 1 to be exact and the disaster would’ve made an ordinary man disappear into oblivion.

But not Del Rosario who was far from ordinary. Philippine basketball was under fire from FIBA at that time because of the leadership crisis in the BAP (Basketball Association of the Philippines). In fact, the Philippines was suspended from playing in the previous FIBA Asia Cup in 2001 because of the BAP’s inadequacies. All Del Rosario wanted to do was to put Philippine basketball back on top, at least in the SEA Games. His motivation was strictly to uphold the country’s honor, nothing else.

In Harbin, Del Rosario brought in a team made up of ex-pro Ricky Calimag, Celino Cruz, Dennis Madrid, Bernzon Franco, Emer Oreta, Richie Melencio, Willy Wilson, Bitoy Omolon, Marc Pingris, Romar Menor, Jonathan de Guzman and Chris Nicdao. The BAP wouldn’t allow Ranidel de Ocampo and Ervin Sotto to join because it had issues with the Universities and Colleges Athletic Association where they played for St. Francis of Assisi. There were other players in Del Rosario’s wish list but for one reason or another, they weren’t available to play in Harbin. His wish list included the likes of collegiate stars James Yap, Paul Artadi, Gary David, Rich Alvarez and Wesley Gonzales. The PBA wasn’t involved in the recruitment of players because of differences with the BAP.

In a pre-Harbin pocket tournament in Hong Kong, the Philippines got a taste of what was to come when it lost to the hosts, 80-68, in the championship game. In Harbin, the Philippines finished 15th of 16, the worst placing ever for the country since the FIBA Asia Cup was inaugurated in 1960. A 78-63 win over Malaysia saved the Philippines from landing in the cellar. Overall, the Philippines posted a miserable 2-5 record with stinging losses to Hong Kong, 66-58, Kuwait, 79-66, Syria, 95-77, Qatar, 77-69 and Japan, 66-64. Calimag was Del Rosario’s top scorer, averaging 12.1 points. After the debacle, Del Rosario offered no excuses and said the national team will just have to work harder if it hopes to retain the SEA Games championship.

For the SEA Games, Del Rosario retained the services of Calimag, Cruz, Madrid, Melencio, Pingris and Wilson. But he got a boost with the addition of David, Alvarez, Artadi, Yap, De Ocampo and Sotto. Del Rosario was determined to make up for the Harbin disaster. Sure enough, in Vietnam, the Philippines steamrolled the opposition in an emphatic juggernaut. First to fall was Thailand, 85-49, with De Ocampo scoring 18 points. Then, Vietnam capitulated, 117-53 with Yap and Sotto delivering 17 points each. Singapore was next, 97-56 as De Ocampo tallied 17. Indonesia put up a struggle before bowing, 75-70, as Yap erupted for 22 points. And finally, Malaysia went down, 90-61, with Yap once more netting 22.

Two years later, the Philippines was once more suspended by FIBA because of the squabble between the BAP and the newly-organized SBP (Samahang Basketbol Ng Pilipinas). The conflict was finally resolved when the SBP was given unconditional recognition by FIBA and POC as the NSA for basketball, ending the BAP’s reign of infamy. In 2007, the Philippines was back in competition at the FIBA Asia Cup and the journey onwards has been marked by historic milestones, including the return to the FIBA World Cup in 2014 after a 36-year absence, two finals appearances in the FIBA Asia Cup in 2013 and 2015, qualifying for the FIBA World Cup in 2019 and clinching the lead staging rights for the 2023 FIBA World Cup in a consortium with co-hosts Indonesia and Japan.

Del Rosario, an institution in Philippine basketball, passed away last week at 80, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and an unflinching spirit of nationalism. He was the architect of UST’s four-peat UAAP dynasty in 1993-96 and won championships in the MBA, PBA (as an assistant coach) and of course, the SEA Games in the unforgettable recovery from the Harbin tragedy. It’s a rare coach to display the heart and guts of rising virtually from the grave to bring a team to the top over two international competitions just two months apart.

Del Rosario was a no-nonsense coach who let his players know if they were out of line and if they deserved a pat on the back. As a former NCAA and Filoil Flying V commissioner, he showed impartiality, an admirable trait. He was a friend who never turned down giving advice or insights whenever asked. His love for the game was extraordinary and he will always be remembered as a man of integrity, sincerity and humility.

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