Gilas Pilipinas rocked the MOA Arena

MANILA — Here up north to attend a family wedding (in Tagaytay) and unable to join this morning’s Ironman 70.3 race (due to an Achilles tendon injury), I trooped to the SM Mall of Asia Arena last Friday.

Would you believe, it’s been 40 years since our nation hosted the FIBA Asia Championship — a smorgasbord of 15 basketball-loving Asian nations, with the top three qualifiers proceeding to Spain for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

With Smart as the main sponsor — Manny V. Pangilinan, we know, is the MVP of Philippine sports — I was able to secure a ticket. Thanks to long-time friend Desi Arana, who helped coordinate with Smart’s manager for Sports Marketing, Epok Quimpo, I stepped inside the MOA Arena at 5:50 P.M. My wife Jasmin joined me.

Iran versus Korea were on-court — the 2nd game of a four-game schedule on Friday (the event runs from August 1 to 11). In the first half, Korea dominated. Having shocked China the night before, their confidence blossomed. But, in the third quarter, Iran recovered and took the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Led by 7-foot-2 NBA player Hamed Haddadi, who topscored with 30 points, Iran defeated Korea, 76-65.

That’s when Jasmin and I met Dr. Manny Juanillo. Seated on the third row in the VIP Section just behind the ring, the top Cebuano surgeon was in Manila for a conference and, the basketball fanatic that he is, made sure to watch. We grabbed a hotdog and burger dinner when the Iran-Korea game finished at 7:30 P.M.

Aga Mulach stood behind me, waiting in line in the restroom. Also seen were many top government officials and celebrities: DPWH Sec. Rogelio Singson, DFA Sec. Albert Del Rosario, SM owner Hans Sy, Robert Jaworski (who was swarmed with fans wanting a photo at the lobby), and PSC Chairman Richie Garcia.

Joe Soberano watched with his son Franco. The long-time basketball fan (and team owner of the Cebu Landmasters squad), Joe also booked tickets for the upcoming 10-10-13 game between the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers, also in MOA Arena.

GILAS. Game on! At exactly 8:30 P.M., our Philippine players faced the strong Jordan visitors. It was a fabulous sight to see June Mar Fajardo wear our blue-and-red uniform. Having honed his skills under Gus Go and Merong Estenzo of UC, the tall Fajardo is now climbing the peak of Basketballdom.

The 16,000-seater MOA Arena (which cost over P3 billion to construct) was in near-full capacity. Tickets were sold-out weeks before. Blue and white balloons were waved by our fellow Pinoys. Drum-beaters, perched at the top balcony, banged the sound that echoed throughout the stadium and dribbled inside our excited hearts.

This was my second MOA Arena visit — the first was last October when Boom-Boom Bautista fought. The MOA Arena is the best thing to happen to Philippine sports and entertainment. It not only forced the rehabilitation of the Smart Araneta Coliseum; it also, literally, set the stage for shows like Rihanna (this Sept. 19) and sports events like FIBA and LeBron’s visit. MOA Arena is top-class and, like all of us from Cebu, I can’t wait to see the construction of our own at the SRP starting this 2015.

The game was unexciting/super-exciting. In the first half, we were clobbered. Trailing from the start until the end of the 2nd quarter, I thought we would lose. The Jordanians shot three-pointers with ease while we rotated the ball too many times, nobody mustering the confidence to take shots. The crowd was silenced.

Then, in the 3rd quarter, the exciting part arose. Our Gilas team went on a 17-0 run. Led by Jeff Chan, who sizzled with five three-pointers and a game-total 17 points, we took the lead and never relinquished it.

The crowd did the “wave.” The drums reverberated louder. Said coach Chot Reyes: “The crowd gave us a big lift.” It’s called Pinoy home-court advantage. We won, 77-71, and started a 2-0 win-loss record. Guaranteed a spot in the 2nd round, we dream of duplicating our last hosting in 1973. Then, we were champions. Abangan.

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