The greatest of them all

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2021 - 12:00am

Sen. Alberto Romulo phoned recently to say he enjoyed reading about Ramon Manulat, who played on the Philippines’ 1954 FIBA World Cup third place team in Brazil, in the Dec. 31, 2020, issue of The Philippine Star. Romulo was 21 when the Philippines became the only Asian country to land a podium finish in the FIBA tournament. Caloy Loyzaga was on that team with Manulat and Romulo, now 87, recalled the glory days of the Philippines’ supremacy in Asian hoops. It was an era where Romulo celebrated the exploits of Loyzaga who is arguably the greatest Filipino basketball player of all time.

Loyzaga was 24 when he was named one of the world’s best five players in a poll of international sportswriters after the FIBA World Cup in 1954. He was the only Asian in the mythical five. Uruguay’s Oscar Moglia topped the voting by garnering 37 of 43 first-place ballots but was outscored by Loyzaga, 31-9, in the Philippines’ 67-63 win to end the competition. Moglia had the highest scoring average of 18.3 but was third in total points behind Canada’s Carl Ridd (164) and Loyzaga (148). Loyzaga finished with a 16.4 clip. In a game against France, Loyzaga battled 7-foot Jean Paul Beugnot and stood only up to his chin. Loyzaga scored 19 points, including 8-of-8 free throws, and Beugnot 10. The game was delayed about 10 minutes after Beugnot brought down the basket in a frightening display of strength.

Uruguay was a bitter Philippine rival during Loyzaga’s prime. It was climactic that Uruguay and the Philippines played their last game against each other in the 1954 World Cup. By then, the Philippines was assured of the bronze so the outcome was inconsequential. The Philippines had beaten Paraguay, 64-52, Israel, 90-56, Formosa (now Chinese-Taipei), 48-38, Canada, 83-76 and France, 66-60 to nail third place despite losses to the US, 56-43 and twice to host Brazil (99-62 and 57-41). But prestige was at stake and coach Herr Silva was determined to end the journey on a high note. Loyzaga was out to prove he was the real “Big Difference” in his matchup against Moglia. When the smoke of battle cleared, it was Loyzaga who stood tall.

“It was a physical game and Uruguay played dirty,” related Tony Genato, the only living survivor of the Philippines’ 1954 squad. “The score was tied 32-all at the half. Before the start of the second half, the referees called the captains to the middle of the court. The Uruguay captain complained to the referees that we were playing dirty and spoke in Spanish. He didn’t think I understood. So I immediately interrupted, saying they started it and if they continued to play dirty, we would play dirty, too and they better not cry about it.” No Asian referee was assigned in the tournament. The referees came from Italy, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Israel and the US.

In a 2013 interview, Loyzaga said his biggest honor was playing for the country. “When you wear the colors of your country on your uniform, your country comes first before yourself,” he said. “You look at what’s in front, not your name at the back of your jersey. It’s not about money. When we played for the national team, we got an allowance of $3 to $5 a day during the Asian Games and $10 a day for the Olympics. We weren’t promised any bonuses. We went out there to play for our country, we played for honor, for the love of our country, for the love of the game, nothing else.”

Loyzaga saw action in two FIBA World Cups and two Olympics. He led the Philippines to the gold medal in four Asian Games and two FIBA Asia Cup championships. After retiring from playing at 34 in 1964, Loyzaga made a smooth transition to coaching and piloted the Philippines to the FIBA Asia Cup title in 1967 and to 13th place in the 1968 Olympics. He passed away at 85 in 2016. Surely, Loyzaga deserves to be in the FIBA Hall of Fame where only one Filipino, Chito Calvo, has been enshrined.

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