A bomb blast in Beirut eight years ago, though far less destructive and deadly than the monster explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital last Tuesday, may have ultimately forced the hand of the International Basketball Federation to transfer hosting rights of the 27th FIBA Asia Men’s Championship to the Philippines.
And as a result, Gilas Pilipinas, under coach Chot Reyes, got to play longtime nemesis South Korea in front of a roaring hometown crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena, whip the Koreans in an emotionally-charged semifinal and qualify to the XVII FIBA Basketball World Cup in Seville, Spain the following year.
Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas executive director Sonny Barrios was part of a top-level SBP delegation — led by then federation president Manny V. Pangilinan and former PBA commissioner Chito Salud and two-time Asian Basketball Confederation secretary-general Moying Martelino — that comprehensively presented its bid proposal to FIBA Asia in September 2012 in Tokyo.
Also staking their claims were Iran and Lebanon, whose 10-minute video demonstration was done by national player Fadi El-Khatib and two other teammates.
The FIBA Asia Executive Committee heard the presentations and decided on Lebanon.
Then came news of a car bomb explosion a few weeks later in Beirut that killed a top Lebanese security official. Overnight, the question rose: Can Lebanon guarantee the safety of the 15 participating teams?
A casualty of the rising political tension in the city and the escalating Syrian civil war was the final game of the 2012 FIBA Asia Champions Cup between Lebanese club Al-Riyadi and Mahram Tehran, which was cancelled.
FIBA Asia secretary-general Hagop Khajirian, a Lebanese, sought to allay security fears surrounding the August 1 to 11 tournament in his country, but stories and images coming out of Beirut painted a frightening picture.
Shortly after, in early January 2013, FIBA Asia announced the drastic change to the public.
Barrios still recalls the day SBP got the FIBA Asia letter during the Christmas holidays late in 2012 informing the federation that Manila was taking over from Beirut as host of the Asian Championship, the qualifier to the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
“Mobilize agad tayo, pukpok ng trabaho,” says Barrios. “Boss MVP was very excited, very hands on. We were meeting maybe three, four times a week, puwera pa yung mga tawag.”
The task of putting together an Asian level event was daunting to say the least, given the overlapping priorities — hotel arrangements, venues, security, accreditation, transportation, logistics, operations — and the limited time left to prepare.
But the man leading the SBP was driven by single-minded purpose from the first instance he set sights on hosting the event, and he wasn’t about to let go to waste a privilege that was unexpectedly offered to him after he had sought it feverishly before only to have lost it.
“It was the first time in even my 20 years in the PBA,” says the former pro league commissioner, “that I had to work that hard during the Christmas season. But Boss MVP was very precise in his attention to details, very thorough. And on top of all this was his nationalistic pride. We had to do well (hosting the event), he told us. We had to make the Filipino proud.”
In the end, SBP did, pulling off the gargantuan labor with two enormous accomplishments.
“We broke the Korean curse and we qualified to Seville,” says Barrios, who penned late in 2011 the initial draft of the cover letter which accompanied the FIBA Asia form where the Philippines first signified its intention to host the 2013 Asian Championship.
Pangilinan reviewed and reworded the draft letter "line by line" until he exactly had what he wanted to put across to the FIBA Asia executive board.
Then he brought a powerhouse team to the FIBA Asia Central Board Meeting in Tokyo the following year to underscore the seriousness of his intention.
“That’s why the Boss was very sad and disappointed when we didn’t get it,” says Barrios.
Looking back, Barrios is unsure what forces combined to alter FIBA Asia history that year.
“It was unfortunate that the unexpected, unwanted peace and order situation in Lebanon forced FIBA Asia to move the hosting; di mo sukat akalain,” says Barrios.
“On the other hand, MVP (now SBP chairman emeritus and FIBA Central Board member) wanted to show strong support to FIBA Asia and the basketball community and accepted without hesitation the offer for the Philippines to host the event instead.”
That sense of comradeship continues unto now.
Barrios says the SBP, through current president Al S.Panlilio, has already expressed its concern and support to Khajirian, his FIBA Asia staff and the Lebanese people following the recent cataclysmic explosion in the capital.
In a statement, Panlilio said: “To all our friends from the FIBA office in Beirut led by FIBA Executive Director for Asia Hagop Khajirian, we are hoping you and your loved ones are all safe and the SBP will continue to be your ally through this.
“The SBP extends our deepest condolences to everyone who lost a family member or a friend in the unfortunate incident.”