The Philippine national team that participated in the 1978 FIBA World Championship may have ended the tournament without a win, but no one will ever dispute how hard the players fought for glory in front of their countrymen.
For the opening day of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 on Aug. 25, Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas President and Head of the Local Organizing Committee for the tournament, Alfredo Panlilio, personally invited the members of the 1978 fighting World Championship RP Team to be present at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan, to witness the opening game of Gilas Pilipinas.
Forty-five years since battling for the country in its last hosting of the world tournament, Ramon Cruz, Padi Israel, Steve Watson, Pol Herrera, Marty Tierra, Rico Acuña, and assistant coach Nemmie Villegas are expected to grace the occasion.
Culled from different MICAA teams, the team was led by skipper Alex Clariño.
The offense came from Cruz, Herrera, Watson, Federico “Bokyo” Lauchengco of Frigidaire, and Steve Watson.
Other members of the team were Israel, Greg Gozum Nathaniel Castillo of YCO, Edward Merced of Frigidaire, and ITM’s Cesar Yabut.
Clariño played in the BIBLE tournament for Sunrice, and Cesar Teodoro was with Villar Records, a team that competed in the Interclub.
Tierra of San Miguel and Acuña, who suited up for Presto in the MICAA, were the alternates, with Nicanor Jorge as head coach, backstopped by Villegas as his assistant.
As hosts and defending champions, respectively, the Philippines and the Soviet Union were automatically seeded in the quarterfinal round. Joining them were the national teams of Yugoslavia, Brazil, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Cruz, one of the most prolific players in the amateur ranks, led all Philippine scorers with an average of 16.8 points per game. In their game against Canada,
Cruz led all scorers with 33 markers, Canada winning 99-88. In their debut game in the tournament against the eventual champions, Yugoslavia, Cruz scorched
the nets with 31 points.
Watson followed with 11.2 points per game. Watson’s teammate at Ateneo, Carpio, the youngest player on the team, also tallied twin digits with 10.4 points per game.
He and Herrera were the team’s legitimate big men at 6’3, contending with much taller and heftier players.
Herrera also contributed a respectable 7.6 points per game, slightly behind Clariño’s 9.9. Other significant contributors included Yabut (6.4 points) and Castillo (6.0 points), the tallest player on the roster at 6’4.
One key player, Lauchengco, only suited up for 4 games, scoring 6 points, after suffering an injury. The team lost a scorer who could have helped Cruz in the scoring department.
The team had to overcome several obstacles, one of which was the lack of preparation. A perennial problem whenever national teams are formed, the governing body Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) struggled to bring the team together as the players were committed to playing for their mother teams in the MICAA.
Despite the odds, this brave bunch of young, up-and-coming basketball stars made local fans proud, especially in their game against eventual champions, Yugoslavia.
They lost, 117-101, but gave a good account of themselves while earning the collective respect of the discriminating Filipino basketball fans.