THROWBACK: FIBA 1954—the Philippines’ pinnacle as third best in world basketball

Gerry Plaza on Aug 29, 2019 03:56 PM
THROWBACK: The Philippines’ pinnacle in world basketball
Caloy Loyzaga, arguably the best Philippine basketball player, was the mainstay of the Philippine squad that placed third in the 1954 FIBA World Championships in Brazil (Photo courtesy of @pbaconnect on Twitter)

No other Asian team could eclipse what the Philippines achieved in 1954.  And this is what is considered an accomplishment that spoke of the glory the country once had—something that we had long desired to duplicate. 

Sixty-five years since this stellar bunch of Filipino basketball icons first strode into Ginásio do Maracanãzinho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on October 23, 1954, we still long for that moment, but have since made gargantuan steps in regaining that world basketball glory.

It was the second FIBA World Basketball Championship, four years after the inaugural tournament in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At that time, Asia wasn’t even in the map of international basketball, with only Europe and the Americas battling it out for dominance. It wasn’t really a surprise, considering how the sport hasn’t really reached that kind of popularity in the region for it to produce a world-caliber team.

Favorite pastime

Except of course in the Philippines, where basketball has already been the most popular pastime and already the source of national idols people fancy. Collegiate and commercial leagues were already drawing crowds, not to mention the everyday Filipino finding extreme joy swooshing that ball in a ring with an attached net—be it at the backyard or the neighborhood street—thanks to an overwhelming American influence that continues up to this day. 

But what they really find so much delight is watching the country’s best players and ballclubs going at it—a sort of primetime top rating action drama in today’s parlance. And the main cast steps in while everyone howls or cheers, seeing San Beda’s Carlos Loyzaga’s “Big Difference” in scoring baskets with impunity from everywhere on the court or watching Letran’s Larry “The Fox” Mumar with his sly and cunning moves, running rings around the opposition for that easy two. 

And, a Philippine team of basketball demigods? Insane.

Silva’s 12 picks

They did prove their wizardry and magic in their first shining moment—when they were called upon to play in the 1954 Manila Asian Games. True enough, they were unstoppable clinching the Gold against the Republic of China and earning the first-ever Asian slot in the Rio FIBA World Basketball tourney. 

It was a team coached by the legendary Herminio “Herr” Silva, who despite his failing health, became that ingenious and innovative tactician who devised the “dash-and-dribble” and the vaunted zone and “freeze” defense that sent opponent plays in disarray.  Joining the Loyzaga and Mumar in Silva’s 12 picks from the original 24 selected by the country’s governing body were the “Rajah of Rebound” Francisco Rabat, skipper Tony Genato, Benjamin Francisco, Nap Flores, Florentino Bautista, Pons Saldana, Bayani Amador, Rafael Barretto, Mon Manulat, and Mariano Tolentino.

Their poise even at the start of hostilities were already world-class. They would pound Paraguay without let-up behind Loyzaga’s 15 points in a 64-52 drubbing on opening day.  Their intensity in the first game, however, left them gasping in their second game the next day, facing a mighty host team and lost, 62-99. Despite the loss, however, they still advanced to the final round with their 1-1 slate in Group A, after Brazil ousted Paraguay, 61-52.

The Filipinos will soon have its first acid test and face the United States on October 27 for its first assignment in the Final Round. The Americans, who lost to Argentina in the Gold Medal match in 1950 was definitely hungry for their first World title, but facing the Philippines proved to be their most challenging match. 

Challenging the US

It was a close match in the first half with the Filipinos giving the Americans a very hard time in executing their offense, trailing by a mere three points at halftime, 25-22, and even led with its largest margin at 31-26 at the start of the second half. But the US, bannered by the Illinois squad Peoria Cats, adjusted their offense and pulled away at 49-30, with three minutes left to play. The game ended with the US winning by a mere 13 points, 56-43, their lowest winning margin in the tournament.  Mumar topscored with 14 points, Loyzaga added 12, and Tolentino had 11, but the rest each had at most two points.  Eventual MVP Kirby Minter led the US with 15 points.

The Philippines, despite the setback gained the respect of the world with their performance against the Americans that sent shockwaves across the tournament. Led by Flores, the Filipinos would then cruise past Formosa (now Chinese-Taipei), 48-38, on October 29. The following day, Loyzaga and Saldana each scored 20 points and Philippines clobbered Israel, 90-56.

They would however lose to their Group A tormentors and hosts Brazil, 41-57.

Sealing glory

What really sealed their glory and place in history, however, was their successive victories against Canada, 83-76, behind Mumar’s 24 points, France, 66-60 with Loyzaga leading all scorers with 19 points, and the hotly contested match against Uruguay, 67-63 with Loyzaga bombarding 31 markers.  The match against France was memorable when Mumar had an altercation with the French behemoth 7-footer Jean-Paul Beugnot, who took issue with Mumar’s sly tactics as he defended him in a drive to the basket. Rubbing his eyes after he claimed to have been spat on, Beugnot could not do anything but notice Mumar scoring on a lay-up unmolested that sealed the win. 

Already assured of the bronze, the Philippines still engaged Uruguay in a tough battle. In fact, Uruguayans had complained about the Filipinos’ rough play throughout their game.  It however spoke of the Philippines’ tenacity in getting the win, as Genato made the biggest defensive gem of all, limiting Uruguay sniper Oscar Moglia, who buried 37 points in a previous match against Canada, to a mere nine points. Loyzaga’s monster game was the key factor in the four-point win, with Mumar scoring nine, Tolentino and Barretto contributing five each, with Bautista and Manulat both had four, Rabat two and Amador one. 

The US would eventually cop their first World title, manhandling Brazil in the final, 62-41.

Loyzaga part of World’s Mythical Five

Loyzaga ended the tournament as the second top scorer with a combined 148 points, with a 16.4 average, behind Canada’s Carl Ridd, who totaled 164, and became part of the World’s Mythical Five. 
Looking back, the stature of this Philippine squad seems too lofty to even emulate, but we are slowly, yet even at a painstaking grind, getting close even with small baby steps to achieving that feat. With today’s Gilas Pilipinas already reaching unanticipated heights in this more challenging and competitive arena, especially with open basketball coming into play, the Philippines’ lost world basketball glory may soon reemerge. 

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