Football may be the world’s most beloved sport, revered by an estimated 3.5 billion people, but here in the Philippines, we know that our No. 1 game is the one introduced to us by the Americans.
Not long after the U.S. colonized the Philippines in 1901, basketball was introduced in Manila. It was a new game, developed a decade earlier (1891) by a P.E. teacher named James Naismith.
By 1910, the Philippine public schools included dribbling and rebounding as forms of exercise. By February 1913, when we hosted five nations in the Far Eastern Championship Games, we won gold in basketball, besting China and Japan. We were so dominant in Asian basketball that we won nine out of 10 of those biennial events from 1913 to 1934.
When the 1936 Olympics were played in Berlin and Adolf Hitler stood as Fuhrer, basketball was introduced as a medal sport for the first time. Led by team captain Ambrosio Padilla (who would later become a senator), we beat Italy, Mexico, Estonia and Uruguay and lost only to the U.S. Our team (photo below) was called “The Islanders” and we placed fifth — a standing that remains as the highest-ever for any Asian country in Olympic basketball history.
Given our dominance, when the first Asian Games was organized in 1951 in New Delhi, India, you don’t have to guess who stood tallest. Led by Caloy Loyzaga, Lauro Mumar and Moro Lorenzo, the Philippines won gold.
We won the first four Asian Games basketball tournaments, including 1954 (Manila), 1958 (Tokyo) and 1962 (Jakarta). Sadly, in the 14 succeeding Asian Games, we have not snatched another gold, settling for one silver and two bronze medals.
Fast forward to 1975, the Philippine Basketball Association was established. The PBA is not only Asia’s first pro basketball league but is also the world’s second oldest, bested only by the NBA (founded in 1946).
Since the PBA was organized 45 years ago, some of the most famous Filipinos are ballplayers. We have Ramon Fernandez, our fellow Cebuano and now PSC commissioner. Robert Jaworski, James Yap, Alvin Patrimonio, Johnny Abarrientos, Allan Caidic, Atoy Co, Jimmy Alapag, Jojo Lastimosa, Samboy Lim, Hector Calma, Chito Loyzaga — these names, especially to those who followed the game in the ‘80s and ‘90s, are superstars. Today, there’s (our own) June Mar Fajardo, Terrence Romeo, Jayson Castro, and Arwind Santos.
Dondon Hontiveros, who played for famous teams like the University of Cebu, the Cebu Gems, and PBA squads Alaska and San Miguel, is not only well-known but a dedicated public official. Hon. Hontiveros is a Cebu City councilor.
Why this basketball history and talk? Because, as the NBA season restarts this Friday, I’m reminded of my chat yesterday while biking with Dr. Ronnie Medalle and James Co.
Never, in our basketball history that spans 109 years, has a homegrown Filipino played in the NBA. But there’s one who will, I dare say, play in the NBA by 2026. His name: Kai Sotto.