Gilas Pilipinas had an unusual opportunity to qualify for the men's basketball competition of the upcoming 2021 Olympics when it was invited to be a replacement team to New Zealand which had pulled out of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) at the start of the year. Had the young squad hurdled the opposition, it would have marked the first time in 49 years that the Philippines would be playing basketball at the Olympics.
This means the drought has now spanned 12 stagings of the Games, eight Philippine presidents and almost five full decades since the likes of Freddie Webb, Danny Florencio, Bogs Adornado and Jimmy Mariano donned the Philippine colors in the last Olympic basketball appearance by the country in Munich, West Germany.
The 1972 Olympics were unfortunately marred by a terrorist attack which claimed the lives of several Israeli athletes. It ushered in more stringent security measures around future Olympiads and during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games, a ceremony initiated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and led by Brazilian and Israeli officials done to honor those who died in the incident.
It was an experience Mariano will never forget, but wishes he could.
"I remember it was six in the morning when a siren went off in the Olympic Village," the now 80-year-old recalled last year in his guesting on the nostalgia vodcast An Eternity of Basketball. "There was an announcement that instructed us not to go around in groups but only one by one or in pairs because no one knew if there were terrorists still waiting to do something. We only found out towards noon time what had happened."
In the end, five of the eight members of Black September, all the hostages and a West German policeman lost their lives in what is to this day the darkest moment in the history of the Games.
"It's something I wish I could forget," said Mariano, who was the flag bearer for the Philippine delegation during the opening ceremonies.
"I hope that does not happen again," said Webb during his own guesting on the show last year. "We were just three buildings away from the building of the Israelis."
Webb initially thought the gunfire he heard came from some athletes in shooting getting in some practice rounds. "I thought they were just practicing so I didn't think much of it." But when he saw helicopters arrive, that's when he knew something was up.
Prior to the incident, the preliminary stages of the men's basketball competition were held at the Rudi-Stedlmayer-Halle in Sendling-Westpark, Munich (now known as the Audi Dome).
It was a harrowing process for the Philippine basketball contingent leading up to the Olympiad after the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP) imposed a lifetime ban on two national team mainstays for physically assaulting a referee during a game. "Because of an untoward incident (in a MICAA game), (Robert) Jaworski and (Alberto "Big Boy") Reynoso were not included in the national team and that allowed (1960 Olympic cager) Ciso Bernardo and (21-year-old) Marte Samson to join," Mariano said. "He (Samson) ended up being my roommate."
The ban was later downgraded to a long suspension for Jaworski and Reynoso, both of whom were eventually able to play in the 1973 ABC Championships won by the Philippines.
Others who made the roster were legendary point guards Ed Ocampo and Yoyong Martirez, forwards Rogelio "Tembong" Melencio and Ricardo "Joy" Cleofas", shooter Jun Papa, and center Manny Paner. The team was coached by Ignacio "Ning" Ramos.
The Philippines had qualified for its second straight Olympiad by finishing in the top two in the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) Championship for Men, the predecessor of the FIBA Asia Championship (now known as the FIBA Asia Cup). Beginning in 1967, the Asian Olympic berths were determined by this tournament and the silver medal won by the country in the 1971 competition in Japan led to a slot in the Munich games.
The preliminaries saw 16 competing nations split into two groups playing a single round robin affair to determine which teams advance to the knockout stages. The Philippines was placed in Group B along with five European countries in host nation West Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland and eventual titlists the Soviet Union while Puerto Rico and Senegal represented the qualifiers from the Americas and Africa, respectively.
"We were always in the contest in the first half," Mariano recalled. "By the second half, (the opponents) pulled away." Poland was the first assignment and the Filipinos lost by only 15 after leading in the early portion of the second half. But by the time the match up against the Puerto Ricans took place, it became apparent that the team's lack of ceiling was not going to be compensated for by its impeccable shooting as the Philippines lost 92-72. That was followed by a 93-74 drubbing at the hands of the hosts and a 41-point rout versus the Yugoslavians.
September 1 saw the Philippines snaring its first victory in Munich as it defeated Senegal, 68-62, before being blasted by the Soviets, 111-80, less than 24 hours later. The final tiff in the prelims against Italy had the crowd pulling for the underdog Filipinos as the team held the lead well into the second half. Mariano starred for the Philippines as the puny squad from the Far East gave the Italians a decent fight.
"The crowd was pulling for us, so much so that when we'd gain a possession, they'd already be cheering," Mariano recounted. "Anywhere in the world, people always root for the underdog." The Italians began hitting their stride and came away with a 101-81 triumph.
Italy's win propelled them into the knockout stages, but they were eventually waylaid by the top seeded Americans, 68-38, with a lineup that included future NBA talent like Tom McMillan, Robert Jones, Jim Brewer and Doug Collins.
The incident with the Israeli athletes also affected the basketball competition as the Philippines was awarded a walkover win after their first opponent in the classification stage, Egypt, withdrew from the Games.
"We were there, we were ready," Webb said, recalling that the team was already at the venue when they were informed of their opponents' withdrawal.
The Filipinos closed out their campaign with a gratifying an 82-73 win over a Japan whose coach, Shigeyoshi Kasahara, claimed his team could beat the Philippines "even with blindfolds around our eyes". Paner and Adornado led the charge to close his trap.
"We were really upset (at Japan)," Webb recalled. "Ning Ramos asked us, 'Will we allow Japan to beat us?'" and we all shouted 'No!'"
The men's basketball tournament ended in controversy after the Soviet Union ended the United States' Olympic reign by a single point. The Soviets were given three chances to inbound the ball from the opposite baseline, and on the third try Ivan Edeshko successfully issued a long pass to Alexander Belov, who laid it in at the buzzer. The Americans refused their silver medals, which are still locked in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The 1972 Philippine men's basketball team's run marked the end of a golden era in Philippine basketball as three years later, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) was founded and became the first professional basketball league in Asia. The PBA lured the best players out of the amateur ranks and all but depleted the talent pool.
Some members of the team went on to have meaningful careers in the PBA, with Adornado becoming the most successful as he eventually bagged three Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards while Paner and Florencio joined him when the PBA named its 40 greatest players.
The IOC has since trimmed tournament slots in men's basketball from 16 to 12, including just one slot for Asia, making it more difficult for the Philippines to return to the Olympic stage. The closest the country has come to returning to the Olympics was in 2015 when Gilas Pilipinas finished runner-up in the FIBA Asia Championship.