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Hoopdom’s big year

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 23, 2023 5:00 am

Millions of b-ball freaks thrive in this world. But only some of us, maybe thousands, carry the passion to what may be inconceivable levels—such as not having to rely on following a game an ocean away only if it’s on TV or streaming live, but being content with a play-by-play feature rendered in text on a smart phone’s screen, while also checking on the box score whenever the imagined action is on pause.

That’s what I did one morning a month ago, when the US NCAA women’s version of March Madness reached the semifinals match between underdog Iowa and defending champs South Carolina.

Much earlier, I had read about Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s Wonder Woman (eventually hailed as both AP and Naismith Player of the Year). Saw some clips of her in action, too, nodding to the claims that she was turning out to be the female version of Steph Curry with her long bombs, multiple assists, and game-long orchestration that lifted her team all the way to the Final Four. 

Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes

The fascination was helped along by my own golden memories of the Hawkeye State, as an alum of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa way back in 1978. Since then, much of what happens in its fields of dreams has drawn my attention. Well, a little of baseball, football, and wrestling, let alone the successes of poets and writers who were trained and/or taught in Iowa (e.g. John Irving, Marvin Bell) Hardly its basketball, where its teams scarcely made a dent in the Big 10 conferences.

One exception, which I still recall: In 1998, the Philippine Centennial Team, coached by a young Tim Cone, made Iowa its first stop in a series of tune-ups against U.S. college teams. Some Filipinos who had watched it live reported how 5’9” Johnny Abarrientos drew a gasp with his first crafty crossover when pitted against 5’11” Dean Oliver, Iowa’s promising point guard (who got to play with the Golden State Warriors in 2001-2003).

Meneses, Aquino, and Duremdes scored the first seven points, but the bigger, bulkier Hawks settled down and eventually pulled away, winning by a virtual rout, 82-62. Oliver had 15 points against Abarrientos’ 12. YouTube filed that game by 2000, and the video’s still there. An American sportscaster commented, referencing Marlou Aquino: “Didn’t the Philippines have a woman president named Aquino, who took over (sic) from the one with hundreds (sic) of shoes?”

Also with Patrimonio, Caidic, Limpot, Espino, Fiehl, and Danny Siegel, that Centennial team all of 25 years ago won the Jones Cup and took the bronze in the Asian Games, behind China and Korea.

Anyway, flash forward a quarter of a century. Last month, Caitlin Clark towed her team to an upset win over USC with 41 points, taking them to the finals as a repeat underdog, this time against LSU. Friends who remain in Iowa sent a YouTube link a day after the semis, so that I finally got to see her play a full game. Deprived of ESPN, I had to repeat the play-by-play textual exercise for the Finals two days later, this time at 3:30 a.m.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark celebrates after defeating the Louisville Cardinals 97-83 in the Elite 8 college basketball game of the NCAA Tournament 

Clark scored 30, with eight triples, but couldn’t rally the Hawks against LSU’s dominance and some bad calls. Well, there’s still next year with Clark as a senior, when she’s expected to continue boosting the popularity of amateur women’s basketball, as evidenced by spiking TV ratings. In the men’s championship, UConn took its 5th national title with an easy victory over upstart San Diego State. But it was ho-hum per the ratings.

So now we’ve moved back to our season-long interest in the NBA, which promises an enthralling playoffs stage heralded by exciting play-in matches. Parity has characterized the full season, with no team reaching 60 wins, and the East finally marking a percentage of dominance over the West. Surprising teams are now in contention, such as the Cavaliers, Knicks, Nets, Hawks, Grizzlies, Kings, and Timberwolves.

Superstar injuries continued to plague the league, while late trades figured in the shifting balance of power. The Suns’ acquisition of Kevin Durant has certainly strengthened their chances, while that of Kyrie Irving didn’t do the same for the Mavs, the biggest disappointment at season’s close despite the continuing heroics of Luka Doncic. Fittingly, a post-season fine was levied on Dallas for evident tanking in its very last game. Serves owner Mark Cuban right for his poor decisions; throw in Jason Kidd for poor coaching, from defense to rotation and timeouts.

The top 3 in the East—the Bucks, Celtics, and Sixers—are expected to contend for the conference finals. It should all go to form, with no upsets along the way. Sadly, the Heat had to get past the Bulls for the 8th spot, and they should be lucky to win a game or two against Giannis & Co.

It's in the tighter West where lower-seeded teams are likely to rise up the seedings. The Warriors as defending champs won’t give up easily against the Kings, despite losing Game 1. And I’ll be rooting for the No. 7 Lakers, if only so the No. 2 Grizz can be shown up, with their arch-villain for the season Dillon Brooks. That should make a Warriors-Lakers semis an interesting matchup, for the right to challenge either the No. 1 Nuggets or the dangerous Suns, which should dispose of the Clippers. Then, barring any more injuries, I’d expect the Bucks to clinch a second championship, despite the terrific tandems of Tatum & Brown and Embiid and Harden.

Barangay Ginebra San Miguel head coach Tim Cone

Meanwhile, in the ongoing PBA Finals, while I’m tiring of Ginebra’s dominance, there’s still no doubting Tim Cone’s superiority in local coaching. It would be nice to have a Game 7, though.

Once that’s done, the Pinoy fans can follow the continuing exploits of our “exported” cagers in the Japan Professional Basketball League (the Ravenas, Dwight Ramos, Matthew Wright, Bobby Ray Parks, Kai Sotto, the underperforming Carl Tamayo, et al), as well as the Korean Basketball League (with Rookie of the Year RJ Abarrientos, high-flyer Rhenz Abando, et al).

Scraping the bottom of the barrel somewhat, there are also the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League or MPBL, founded by Senator Manny Pacquiao in 2016-17, and the confusing copycat Pilipinas Super League (PSL), started by Rocky Chan in 2021. Well, anything that provides jobs to professional players, coaching staff, referees, and officials, and draws supporters to provincial arenas all over the country, can be cheered on. 

But the keen interest among Pinoy hoops fans will soon be turning to the next Gilas iteration for the SEA Games in Cambodia from May 5 to 17. Despite a total of 28 recruits, I don’t think there’ll be any new faces, other than the welcome additions that are naturalized Pinoy Justin Brownlee and Christian Standhardinger. And we should wipe out the opposition.

Cebuano 19-year-old triple-double threat Reinhard Jumamoy, NU Bullpup turned Bulldog

While also keeping tabs on the ongoing UAAP basketball arms race between well-funded recruiters Ateneo and UP, we wonder if both teams plan to have 25-man pools for their programs, the way the Pampanga Giant Lanterns have for their MPBL campaign. That’s how it looks, what with Fil-Ams and high school standouts from all over are being reported as boosting the rosters of the Katipunan rivals. I think I’ll root for NU, since I’ve become a big fan of 19-year-old Cebuano Reinhard Jumamoy, an exciting triple-double threat who just graduated as a Bullpup.

The Naismith Trophy for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023

The BIG hoops event of the year is of course the FIBA tourney that will mostly be played here in August, with the draw conducted in Manila on April 29. Whatever pool we land in, among 32 teams, I’d say we’ll be lucky to win a game, exceptionally fortunate to win two. It should be enough to catch Doncic and other NBA superstars stepping onto the hardcourt at the Philippine Arena.

French 19-year-old projected NBA No. 1 draft pick Victor Wembanyama

Then there’s the question of Gilas fielding either Brownlee or Jordan Clarkson. I say Brownlee, since he’s earned his spot in team chemistry, besides not requiring too much of a dent in Gilas’ budget. And here I’ll go out on a limb and name my Gilas selection: Thompson, Ramos, Malonzo, Sotto, and Brownlee as starters, with Fajardo, Aguilar, Perez, Parks, Heading, Pogoy, Oftana, and Mason Amos coming off the bench. Should Aguilar and Pogoy fail to recover from injuries, maybe we can borrow Abando and Tamayo from Korea. Or Wright from Japan. No matter how it goes for Gilas, it’ll still be memorable for Pinoy b-ball freaks in Hoopdom’s big year.

It could climax, BTW, with the NBA No. 1 draft pick—of a certain 7’3” 2-guard named Victor Wembanyama. Now, if only he were half-Pinoy.