Pinoy Basketball

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.

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.

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Kai Sotto

Less than 3,000 people worldwide, it is estimated, stand over 7-feet-tall. That’s 0.000038% of the planet’s population of 7.8 billion. The likelihood of being taller than your door frame (which has a 6-foot-8 clearance) is so miniscule that even in the NBA, where giants breathe and cohabitate, there are only 15 active players standing over 7-feet-tall. Famous names include Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert, both 7’1.” The tallest is Tacko Fall of Senegal; he’s listed at 7’6”.

Kai Zachary Sotto stands 2.18 meters tall. In inches, that’s 86”. In feet, he’s 7-foot-2. He’s the same height as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dikembe Mutombo. And Kai turned 18 years old just last May 11. He may still add an inch, standing equal to a player he idolizes most, the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis.

Born in Las Piñas in 2002, Kai played — surprise — basketball for the Saint Francis of Assisi College in elementary. In high school, he moved to Ateneo, towering over teenagers and leading the Blue Eaglets to the 2018 UAAP junior title. He was named Finals MVP after averaging 17 points, 13 rebounds and 6.3 blocks per game in the Finals. The next year, he led Ateneo again to victory, averaging 25 points, 14 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per outing. He was the league MVP.

(Spin.ph/Jerome Ascano)

For college, every university on earth lured and tempted Kai Sotto. But he resisted playing collegiate varsity. Yes, he still traveled to the land where basketball was invented, but instead of an Ivy League scholarship, Kai joined The Skill Factory in Atlanta, Georgia. 

What’s TSF? It’s Mission Statement reads: “An organization providing the sports community with best in class professional services that engage each athlete uniquely and appropriately. TSF delivers transformative athletic experiences to athletes..”

After TSF, Kai posted this Facebook update last May 14: “There has been a lot of speculation about my next step towards my dream of playing in the NBA.. I understand that I have a lot of responsibility for all my fellow countrymen who are dreaming of seeing a Filipino in the NBA.

“In the last year I have been here in America, I have learned so much. I worked on improving my basketball skills, building up my body and gaining the confidence to play against the best basketball players around the world..

“Now, I have to take the next big step towards my NBA dream. We have many options available but after much thought, I believe this option is the best route for me to get closer and faster to that dream.. 

“I’m very proud and excited to start my professional career with the NBA G League Select Team.”

Based in Los Angeles, this is a new concept by the NBA. Instead of college basketball, the best young prospects, which include Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd, are mixed with veteran players. They train, practice and compete in exhibition games against other NBA G League squads.

Kai, whose mom Pamela is a 6-footer and dad Ervin is 6-foot-8, looms very tall in becoming the first full-blooded Pinoy to join the NBA. 

Kaya mo ‘yan, Kai.

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2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Thirty two teams joined the FIBA World Cup and the Philippines placed 32nd. How worse could it have gotten? Well, as dejected as we’re feeling, there’s one other nation that’s more heartbroken: the United States.

With the U.S., anything less than gold is a failure. After back-to-back losses to France and Serbia, the Americans placed 7th. This is the worst international showing they’ve ever had. I repeat: Worst in history. 

But as Michael Jordan once said, “Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.”

Which brings me to the excellent Facebook post last week of our new SunStar teammate Jonas Panerio: “The good news for basketball? There’ll be a new World Cup champion. The bad? Team USA’s VERY BEST will be at the 2020 Olympics.

Agree. Given this painful and embarrassing loss, the U.S. will assemble an All-Star cast and they’ll be unbeatable in Tokyo.

With Gilas Pilipinas, apologies have been given, starting with head coach Yeng Guiao, who resigned after the tournament.

Manny V. Pangilinan, the SBP chairman emeritus, said this upon his arrival from China: “We express our apology to the Filipinos because SBP is one with the national team. It’s our duty to apologize.” 

This is humbling. It’s also a reality check for our Pinoy players and fans. Prior to the event, we were given false hopes on how we’ll be competitive and maybe even score an upset (against Italy). In the end, Pres. Duterte was correct when he said that we have no chance against the Italians.

Despite our last place finish, the coming years will be exciting. Because even if we end up among the worst-performing teams again in the 32-squad line-up in 2023, what matters most is that we’re hosting. 

“We need to supply spectators and guests an experience like never before and demonstrate Filipino hospitality,” said the 73-year-old Pangilinan, who received the FIBA flag from Yao Ming (with Kobe Bryant nearby) in the turnover ceremony last Sunday. “Much pressure on our Gilas team though – which is good. Ergo, let’s do better.” 

The 2023 FIBA World Cup will be the second time that we’re hosting. The first was in 1978 when Yugoslavia defeated the Soviet Union. We had two venues then: Rizal Memorial Coliseum and Araneta Coliseum.

Four years from now, it’s back to the Smart Araneta Coliseum plus three more locations (MOA Arena, Philsports Arena and the 55,000-seater Philippine Arena, which will host the Final).

Officially, there are three host countries. But the main hosts will be the Philippines as Japan will only have one venue, a 10,000-seater in Okinawa, while Indonesia will have a small 7,000-seater in Jakarta.

Come 2023, we’re assured to win… thanks to our unrivaled Filipino hospitality.

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19

This 2019, the significant number for tennis is 19. That’s the age of the US Open women’s champion Bianca Andreescu. And that’s the number of grand slam titles compiled by Rafael Nadal.

19. This ‘19.

Bianca Andreescu, to the non-tennis follower, is a new name. That’s because she’s only a teenager. And would you believe this: the US Open trophy that she won the other weekend? That was momentous because it was the first time ever for Andreescu to join the US Open. Imagine setting foot to play at the Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time — and beating Serena Williams in the final!

This 2019 is also the Year of Canada. No Canadian male or female has ever won a grand slam title ever since Wimbledon started it all in 1877 — that’s 142 years ago. And lest we forget, the reigning NBA champions are the Raptors of Toronto. Hail, Canada!

With Andreescu, she started 2019 with a ranking of only 178 and now she’s world No. 5. 

As for Serena Williams, what a devastating loss. Of her last four appearances in a major final, she lost all four. 

A personal story on Serena: Twenty years ago last weekend, my dad Bunny and I were in New York City to watch her win her first major trophy. That was in 1999 and Serena was only 17. Since that moment two decades ago, she has won 23 majors. But the record-tying 24th (Margaret Court has 24 majors) will have to wait. Because of the 19-year-old Bianca.

That 1999 US Open is similar to 2019. Then-teenager Serena upset Martina Hingis to win her first major. Two decades later, teenager Bianca returns the favor and beats Serena. 

RAFA. 19 also refers to the man from Spain. What a final. Just when everybody thought that it would be an easy 3-sets victory for the lefty, the 6-foot-6 Daniil Medvedev resurrected from the NYC abyss to nearly score a major upset. 

I rank that championship as one of the most special for Nadal. When the 5th set started and Medvedev led 1-0 and had those break points, Rafa was at the precipice of losing. Fatigued and downtrodden by Medvedev’s net play and aggressive moves — and being pressured by the umpire with the shot clock — Rafa was so close to defeat. 

But the gladiator that he is, Rafa persevered and triumphed.

Had Nadal lost, it would have been devastating. As desolating as the loss of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, when he squandered two championship points and lost to Novak Djokovic. 

Viva, España! Speaking of Spain, it’s the FIBA World Cup final tonight and we’ll know if Nadal’s countrymen will be victorious against Argentina.

Spain vs. Argentina? FIBA or FIFA (football) World Cup? Ha-ha. Can be either. The final is set at 8 p.m. tonight. I know that Anton Perdices, the honorary consul of Spain, will be cheering for Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio.

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3×3 Basketball

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsZfcdXLR1s[/youtube]

Kobe Paras, Jeron Teng, J. R. Quiñahan. Kiefer Ravena. They comprise our Philippine squad for the 3-on-3 World Championships in Nantes, France.

What’s 3×3? It’s fast. It’s quick shooting and rebounding. It’s a half-court game played in 10 minutes with the first team to score 21 points the winners.

In our first game against Romania, Team PHI won, 21-15. Our best player? The 6-foot-6 son of Benjie Paras who’s the namesake of Mr. Bryant. Kobe Paras is good. He’s tall. He can shoot from beyond the 2-point line. He can dribble behind-the-back and sprint towards the goal for a layup. 

Thanks to YouTube, you can watch all the basketball action. In Game 2, we faced the host nation France. While we competed strongly in the early minutes, our defense was weak and it allowed the tall Frenchmen to score uncontested shots. They were also terrific from beyond the arc. The final score? An easy 22-11 victory for the hosts.

Next, we play Slovenia. Seeded No. 2, they’re strong. And it’s a must-win scenario for us because only the top two teams in Group B (of five teams) advance. France and Slovenia are the favorites. (After Slovenia, we play El Salvador.)

This sport is gaining popularity, thanks to this announcement: 3-on-3 will be a new sport in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This is an outstanding decision by the IOC. Not only is basketball one of the planet’s most followed of games, but 3-on-3 is exciting. I’m 101 percent sure that it will be one of the most popular events when the Olympics begin in July 24, 2020.

Are professionals allowed? Absolutely. Can you imagine if the U.S. will pick its best to join? I did a little online research and some have suggested this team: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. (As to why there are four players, there’s a substitute: three on the court and one on the bench.) Can you imagine these four playing in Tokyo?

“Your ideal 3-on-3 player is really a guard-skilled big,” said Troy Justice, the NBA’s senior director of international basketball. “Kevin Durant would translate very well. A 3-point shot is worth two points, and inside the arc is worth one point. So the teams I’ve watched — I’ve done a lot of scouting globally with 3-on-3 and watched some of the best players and teams and the strategies they implement. It’s a lot of 3-point shooting and getting to the rim. The one other thing you need is a good rim protector, a strong big that can rebound and defend. Then you need three knock-down great shooters. But because there’s so much space on the floor, everyone needs to have the ability to put the ball on floor and create their own shot.”

Matt Santangelo, the executive director of Hoopfest, the world’s biggest 3-on-3 event, added: “The game of 3-on-3 basketball is all about spacing, passing angles, screening, motion without the ball and strategy, because you’re in such a confined space. Each player in 3-on-3 needs to have a hybrid skill set, because everyone has to do everything—score, rebound and pass.”

Another thrilling announcement is the news of the 2018 FIBA 3×3 World Cup hosting. It will be in Manila! No venue selected yet but it will be held in May 2018. Like the WC in France now, there will be 20 teams each for the men and women and there will be individual events that will include a men’s dunk contest, a women’s skills event and a mixed shoot-out.

This is a triple celebration: We get to watch the WC now (on YouTube); Manila hosts next year; and it’s an official Olympic event this 2020.

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Green and blue clash in UAAP 79

No rivalry in Philippine sports rivals the confrontation between La Salle and Ateneo.

In academics, they wage mental warfare. In business, one school brags that Danding Cojuangco started kindergarted in 1940 and finished high school in a green-colored campus; the other school boasts of Manny Pangilinan graduating cum laude (Economics). In the halls of power, Michael Dino and Bong Go finished management courses from DLSU while Carlos Dominguez III and Silvestre Bello III received diplomas whose leather covers are colored blue. But above all, the tug-of-war is best exemplified in the arena called sports.

Yesterday at 3:30 p.m., the dream finale that both campuses envisioned became real. (I did not have time to write this piece chronicling Game 1 but will focus on their history.)

The first La Salle-Ateneo skirmish happened in 1939. In the final of the NCAA men’s championship, La Salle won, 27-23. Yes, no wrong typing there; the score in that contest 77 years ago was that low. Since then, the duel has flourished.

Since 1939, the two schools have taken turns winning. The next time they met in the NCAA finals was in 1958; on this occasion, the game was high scoring (105-103) with Ateneo claiming victory. In 1974 (the last time they’ll meet in the NCAA Finals), it was La Salle’s turn, 90-80.

When the battle shifted to the UAAP, they met four times in the championship. In 1988, ADMU bested DLSU in only one game because they held the twice-to-beat advantage. Three years later, La Salle recovered the trophy, winning the Game 3 decider, 93-88. The following year (2002), it was another third-game thriller but with Ateneo victorious, 77-70. And finally, in 2008, it was a clean two-game sweep as the Chris Tiu-led Blue Eagles (with Rabeh Al-Hissaini, Nonoy Baclao and Ryan Buenafe) won with Norman Black as head coach. It would be the start of an incredible five-year winning streak for the Blue Eagles.

The next year, in 2013, who would dethrone the champs to claim bragging rights? Who else but the Green Archers. In all, both squads have won eight UAAP men’s collegiate basketball crowns. How closer can this rivalry get?

With the 2016 season, La Salle dominated. Led by the MVP (and former Cebu cager) Ben Mbala, the green team were unbeatable. In the first round, they not only demolished all their opponents but embarrassed the blue squad, 97-81. That was in Oct. 2. Then, it looked like La Salle was en route to a clean sweep of the eliminations… before one team slapped their daydream and woke them up. It was, of course, Ateneo who scored the lone upset (83-71).

Who’s favored to win the trophy? Ateneo has the momentum. They won the last time they met and have won their last six elimination games and, including the escape over FEU last Wednesday, they’ve won six of their last seven. Plus, maybe the Archers are rusty after a 10-day gap before yesterday’s Game 1.

La Salle? Heavy favorites. Prior to the Final Four, they finished with a 13-1 slate. Ben Mbala is unstoppable, playing with these regular-season averages: 20.6 PPG, 16 RPG and 2.4 BPG — all first in the league. When you study the team statistics, La Salle leads in all but one of the nine departments, including points per game (88.1 average) and rebounds (52.3 per game).

My pick? It’s hard to bet against the university located along Taft Avenue. Plus, I’m biased. I studied eight years in La Salle Bacolod and suited the green jersey as we won the city-wide elementary title. Also, my uncle Rey Pages, my dad’s younger brother, played for the Green Archers in the 1970s before he turned pro with Crispa and Utex.

My head (analysis) and history (past schooling) go with La Salle. But times have changed… since our only child Jana Marie has enrolled in the campus along Katipunan Avenue, my green mind has turned blue-blooded.

A tall order, Gilas falls short

Gilas-vs-Japan-October-2-2015-2

(Fiba.com)

To win gold, we knew what we had to do: Play near-perfect basketball. And for the first four minutes last Saturday night, we performed like we did against Iran.

Jayson Castro scored two in the 50th second. Dondon Hontiveros unleashed an intercontinental ballistic missile against Beijing that detonated in Changsa. We were up 5-0 after 90 seconds. Then, after an avengeful three from Y. Ding, our Gabe Norwood uncorked a jumper to move us forward, 7-3. Back to back threes from both squads advanced the score. We led 10-6. Then, 12-10. And after Norwood converted on a surprising three-pointer, our beloved Pilipinas, after 3:58 elapsed in the game, commanded a 15-10 lead!

Was it going to be this easy? Were we flying to Rio de Janeiro, our first Olympic trek since the 1972 days of Bogs Adornado and Manny Paner? As “prize,” were we going to claim the Spratly Islands?

Too bad, our luck evaporated. The Chinese accelerated on 12 unanswered points. Within minutes, our advantage disappeared and, by the end of the first quarter, we trailed 23-19. We would never draw closer — trailing by as much as 16 before the final score, 78-67.

What happened? Simple. Had we played like we played in those first 3:58 minutes, we’d have claimed victory. That was the only path. Our 31st-ranked Philippines battling the world’s 14th-ranked nation, our average old age (31) versus China’s youthful average of 24, our height disadvantage, with the Chinese averaging 6-foot-8 — the only way to beat the world’s most populous nation (our 100 million-strong population versus their 1.3 billion) was to play like we did in those first 238 seconds.

We did not. We couldn’t sustain it. Here’s the most telling statistic: Castro scored five quick points after the game’s first two and a half minutes. You know how many more he scored in the rest of the game? Three. In all, Castro attempted 14 times and converted only thrice for a lowly 21.4% clip. There’s no way we’re going to win if Asia’s best point guard scores a measly eight points.

And we blame poor officiating for the loss? Come on, guys. We lost because we played perfectly for four minutes and subpar and unsatisfactorily for the next 36.

Here’s another disappointing statistic: our free throw percentage. In one stretch, Calvin Abueva missed four in a row and five out of six. In those moments when no seven-footer is fronting us, we miss. In all, we missed nine free throws while making 15. (Reminds me of the three straight free throw misses of Kiefer Ravena in last Sunday’s Ateneo loss to La Salle.)

Overall, our field goal percentages were lowly: We shot 6-of-24 from three point range (25 percent) and 23-of-65 total for a 35.4% field goal percentage.

Why such a terrible outing — possibly our worst showing apart from that loss to Palestine — on the tournament’s most important game?

I’ll answer this query based on my experience as a tennis player. There are moments when, faced with a weak opponent, I’m scoring winners and playing like Roger Federer. But when up against, for example, a Johnny Arcilla, I may look like a beginner, losing 6-0.

My point? It depends on the opponent. And the Chinese were unstoppable. First, their height. They possessed double twin towers: two 7-footers in Yi and Wang while Zhou stood at 7’1” and Li at 7’2”. When those long legs jump and those long arms outstretch, to a 6-footer like Terrence Romeo, they look like a forest packed with giant Sequoia trees.

Andray Blatche, standing 6’11”, soared tall against the likes of Japan and Lebanon. He received the ball at the top of the key; he’d back up, cross-dribble, turn and sprint towards the goal for an uncontested two. In previous games, he dominated with his height. Not against China, where he was intimidated to penetrate, getting blocked by gangly Chinese arms.

Our one-two punch consisting of Castro and Blatche inflicted only jabs instead of uppercuts. They scored a combined 25 points (compared to 44 against Iran). Not good enough. Good enough for silver — but not gold.

Gilas defeats Iran’s ‘Great Wall in China’

gilas-vs-iran-20150928-019_7D0A8FF665C2415795560BB8A3F8F112

(Photos from Rappler.com)

It wasn’t The Finals. It wasn’t a win in China that will transport us to Brazil. It wasn’t even the quarterfinals. It wasn’t an Olympic berth to propel Dondon to face LeBron.

It was historic. It was a game that was unexpected and shocking; a 14-point rout that should have favored the Middle Eastern squad.

Prior to yesterday, Iran had annihilated its enemies. In its first game against Japan, they embarrassed our neighbors up north, 86-48. That’s a 28 point spread. In Game 2, they decimated India by 22 points. In their third outing, they slaughtered the Malaysians by 80 points: 122-42. And last Sunday, the Iranians obliterated Hong Kong, 111-56.

In all, Iran defeated their opponents by an average of 46 points. Can you believe that disparity and dominance?

Gilas Pilipinas? We wobbled. The other afternoon, I watched the game when Gilas played Japan. We nearly faltered. The game was a seesaw. Andray Blatche limped. We escaped with a seven point victory.

Scary. Sloppy. Shaky. And, of course, who could forget our first game against Palestine? Fully charged with the Cebu training camp, we trembled, losing a shocker, 73-75.

This was the premise: Iran was undefeated in four games, averaging a 46-point margin per jaunt, while we, Pilipinas, though sporting a 3-1 count, quivered and appeared wobbly.

Take Mr. Blatche, the former Brooklyn Nets center. Against Japan, we saw how his right ankle twisted. He hopped on one leg, grimaced, and asked to be excused. Minutes later, he returned with the same result: he stumbled and carried all of his 260 lbs. weight on one leg.

Eighteen hours later, forgetting the injury that caused him to appear debilitated, he faced the Iranians, his 6-foot-11 frame shoving and elbowing the 7-foot-2 giant named Hamed Haddadi. Blatched scored 18, pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots and stole the ball four times! It was a clash between goliaths and the Am-Fil quashed the bearded Iranian.

gilas-vs-iran-20150928-009_18E3E69B2AAD4084A1FCD85302553C51

Speaking of Haddadi (or, as his official name says, Ehadadi), I call him Iran’s “Great Wall in China.” He’s an inch taller than Shaq, weighs 265 lbs. and was formerly with the Phoenix Suns.

Three Augusts ago inside the MOA Arena during the 2013 FIBA Championships, I saw him play. He’s not only tall and imposing, he’s herculean. His mere presence underneath the goal sends tremors to the invaders.

Yesterday after lunch, I caught the Gilas-Iran game at its best moment. There were five minutes left in the 3rd quarter and we trailed by two. Wow, I told myself, this is close. We have a chance.

Next thing I realized, we squared the game at 52-all. Cebu’s hotshot, Mr. “Cebu Gems” Hontiveros, buries a long-distance trey to move us ahead. Terrence Romeo, whom I call a spitfire, was too quick a Pinoy cat to be caught. In about a minute’s time, he scored two three pionters and a two-pointer. Dumbfounded and alarmed, the Iranians panicked. They attempted to retaliate with their own three-pointers. They missed. They turned the ball over multiple times. By the end of the third, the improbable was turning possible: we led, 65-60.

Good thing we did not experience a collapse like we did against Palestine, when we squandered a 12 point lead to lose by two.

Not this time. Not when history was dribbling inside the excitable heartbeats of Jason Castro, who topscored with 26. Not when Raniel de Ocampo pulled down 10 rebounds; when Romeo shot 3 out of 5 from three-point range.

Our lead extended in the fourth. The whisper “Hopefully, we can” transcended into “Maybe we can do it” before being trumpted as “Yes, we’ll definitely beat Iran.”

It was a definitive win. Fourteen points against the defending champs is large. If this were a punctuation mark, it was an exclamation point, as if to say… Take that, Iran!!!

But, wait, we may have won the battle but the war’s not over yet. Today, we’ll beat India but what beckons are the three most important games, in the quarters, semis and finals, possibly against Korea, China and, again, Iran.

Go, Gilas!

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Stephen Curry and Zack LaVine

I missed yesterday’s NBA All-Star Game but I did get to see two of the most exciting moments of last weekend: The Three-Point Shootout and the Slam Dunk Contest. Both were shown last Sunday morning.

Prior to the twin thrills, the Shooting Stars Competition started the night at the Brooklyn Nets’ stadium (Barclays Center). A trio composed of a WNBA player, a veteran, and an active player completed the tandem. Chris Bosh joined Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash (nice name) to cash-in on their third year-in-a-row victory.

The Taco Bell Skills Challenge was up next. Sprinting, passing, flicking a lay-up and scoring a three-pointer were the skills needed. Patrick Beverley won. These were the warm-up events.

With an equally star-studded audience that included John McEnroe (who sat beside Spike Lee) and Rihanna (two seats from Floyd Mayweather, Jr.), the Saturday edition of the All-Star Weekend was starting to get very exciting.

I watched at home. Charlie, my brother whom I played basketball with in all our elementary and high school days, arrived just in time to watch the next two episodes.

We witnessed what was termed by the host as “possibly the best field of three-pointers” in the history of the 3-point contest. I won’t delve into the shot by shot account of what transpired but the scores posted in the elimination round were sky-high: Klay Thompson scored 24 with Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving posting identical 23s.

In the Final Round, “Spicy Curry” was too hot, scoring 27 points, the highest ever recorded in the Three-Point Contest. (The previous record of 25 belonged to Jason Kapono. Although it was only last year that a new rule was introduced — increasing the perfect score from 30 to 34 — where one rack was filled with all ‘money balls.’)

Curry’s amazing long-range bombs included shooting 13 straight shots (too bad he missed that very last one). Imagine making 13 in a row (out of 25). That record beat Larry Bird’s 11 (done in 1986) and was bested only by Craig Hodges, who made an improbable 19 consecutive shots in 1991.

The leading vote-getter in the NBA All-Star Game, beating LeBron James, it’s obvious that Stephen Curry is a global superstar athlete. Standing only 6-foot-3, he’s not only a sharp-shooter possessing that charismatic smile, he’s also universally well-liked, having won the 2011 NBA Sportsmanship Award.

MVP? If the Warriors continue to shine like the Golden State Bridge, he’s going to be locked-in for a close fight with LeBron. (The two share one more thing in common: they’re born in Akron, Ohio.)

Did you see the photo of Stephen as a little kid seated beside his father, Dell (the former NBA player), smiling and giving his dad a high-five? That’s an iconic picture.

Next attraction was the Slam Dunk Contest. While the previous years did not provide much fireworks, this year was different: Zack LaVine was the anointed one. Still a teenager who won’t turn 20 until March 10, the 6-foot-5 son of a professional football player (dad) and softball player (his mom), he was destined to dunk. At the age of five, he watched Space Jam and dreamt of himself flying like Michael Jordan.

Three nights ago, the reel story became real. Stepping out of the lighted dungeon as he was introduced, you won’t believe the shirt he unveiled to perform his first dunk: a “23” jersey with the name “Jordan.” Talk about guts and confidence! When you wear such an attire, either you’ll be derided as an embarrassing teenager or celebrated as a high-flying modern-day MJ.

Slam! His first dunk was incredible. He throws the ball up on air, picks it up with his left hand, inserts it between his legs, and slams it down. 50! He scored all 10s with the five judges. In dunk number two, he throws another lob then flies to twirl the ball behind his back before jamming that ball on his way down to earth. Another 50!

Zack’s idol is Kobe Bryant. That’s fitting because he’s the second-youngest slam dunk champion (after KB).

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Watching the New York Knicks

NEW YORK — This is my third trip to the U.S. The first time, back in 1993 and together with the whole Pages family, we stayed in the West Coast. Then, we got to watch two MLB baseball games. The first was between the Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers (we saw Mike Piazza score a homerun). In the second game, the Oakland A’s played the Toronto Blue Jays (amazingly, I caught a ball in that game).

In my next trip here, my dad Bunny and I spent three weeks in NYC to watch the US Open. We witnessed Serena Williams win her first major and Andre Agassi win his second Open trophy.

For this trip, I made sure to watch two other sports. The first one, which I chronicled last week, was American football. In that Dec. 14 game, the New York Giants defeated the Washington Redskins at home (MetLife Stadium), 24-13. With my good buddy Ping-J Villegas, who’s resided in the Big Apple for over 17 years, we watched the outdoor game together with 70,000 others in cold 4C temperature. It was an unforgettably festive, beer-drinking, and loud atmosphere. It was very American.

Two nights after watching the NFL, I watched another kind of ballgame. Months before our trip, I purchased online tickets for the New York Knicks vs. Dallas Mavericks game.

Choosing between two teams here in NYC — the Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets — the choice was easy: the NY Knicks are one of the most iconic of NBA teams. And the venue (Madison Square Garden or MSG) is revered among the world’s indoor arenas.

And so last week — Tuesday night, Dec. 16 — my wife Jasmin, daughter Jana and I took the famous New York subway from Wall Street to Penn Station, a few blocks from MSG.

But before that, some pre-game activities: We toured Bryant Park in Manhattan, took photos of their ice-skating rink; we trekked 5th Avenue and gazed at the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers; and, visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we found out that there was a 12 noon mass. As we sat near the front pew awaiting the start of the holy celebration, a buzz started. Walking right by us was someone we listen to often: Andrea Bocelli. He not only visited but he heard mass with us.

For lunch, we dined at PotBelly Sandwich Shop. After touring the NY Public Library and several other famous spots, we took the open-deck Big Bus hop-on, hop-off bus and got off for our late afternoon destination: the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It’s an amazingly well-done museum but, at the same time, it’s heart-breaking viewing all of those torn steel beams and horrific photos. It’s a must-visit place, the 9/11 site.

The game was to start at 8 p.m. Outside the huge oval coliseum (I wonder why it’s called ‘Square’ when it’s circular-shaped), the Madison Square Garden tagline explains it all: “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Neon lights that changed colors decorated the outside walls. As we arrived, hundreds of people had congregated and were lining-up. Security, like in most important venues here, was strict: we had to unload all items, including belts, coins and bag contents. As soon as we showed our tickets, we took several flights of stairs and were handed nice gifts: blue shirts with the Knicks logo. Perfect for Christmas (except for the shirt size: XL).

We followed the parade of people going up until we reached our seats: Row 225. Our tickets were priced at $172 each. These were not front row seats (these would sell for over $400) but they were not all the way at the ceiling. They were mid-range seats down the middle (not the back of the goals).

I wore the free Knicks shirt. Seated beside me was a couple from Brisbane, Australia who were also tourists (lucky them, a few nights before when we had yet to arrive, they watched the Nets-Cavs game when Prince William and Kate sat beside Jay Z and Beyonce).

MSG is historic. Built in 1968, it has hosted concerts of all major artists from Elvis Presley to Depeche Mode to John Lennon’s final concert before his murder. Ali-Frazier (Part I) fought here. More on Tuesday…

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