The Philippine Star
A fight for our heroes
There are times when fighting for your passion can be a very lonely battle. It can be tiring, particularly in the moments when you feel like nobody believes in what you believe in, or at least don’t believe in it with the same fervor. It is daunting to be the one pushing and pushing the boulder up the hill, with no guarantee of success. But you have to do what you have to do, or spend your life living in the void of a big “what if”.
That is why this writer has embarked on producing the first historical sports drama in the country (as far as I know). Aside from the insane appeal of doing what has never been done before (a habit I’ve had over three decades of broadcasting and writing), it is also to correct a long-standing historical injustice in Philippine sports, one I first came across as a very young reporter in 1987. It was the first time I interviewed the late Sen. Ambrosio Padilla. I had read about our first Olympic basketball team which won the hearts of an untrusting German media, and was cheated – twice – by the organizers of the Berlin Olympics in 1936. True, the rules were bent to favor the US at everyone else’s expense, but the Philippine Islands team was the serious gold medal contender.
In a nutshell, the organizers struck a deal with the Americans, a political accommodation, if you will. With the implied threat of a US boycott that would embarrass Adolf Hitler over the Aryan treatment of Jews and anyone with dark skin, US Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage threw his weight around. The Americans were allowed to violate two crucial rules in basketball: the height limit of 6’3” and the allowed number of players, among other concessions. In return, they fielded a record Olympic delegation for that time, roughly 10 percent of the 4,000-plus athletes at the Games. The Philippines was inadvertently collateral damage, and had to settle for fifth place, still the record for any Asian team in Olympic basketball history.
I’ve been asked why I would make my initial foray into feature films (a partnership with fellow broadcast journalist and indie filmmaker Arlyn dela Cruz) so challenging in the first place? I was compelled to. The characters were just so strong.
The two leaders of the team were Padilla and Jacinto Ciria Cruz. No two people were so diametrically opposed. Padilla was taller, fair-skinned, a lawyer who played basketball with finesse. Jumping Jack, as he was called, was shorter, dark-skinned, a street kid from Tondo who coached Letran and treated the game like urban warfare. They did not get along. Their coach, Dionisio Calvo, was a former swimmer who took over the national basketball team after the country won the 1934 Far Eastern Games in Manila. The youngest member of the team was 6’1” Charles Borck, a blonde German Spanish center from San Beda. The team endured one month of travel just to get to Germany (three weeks by boat, one by train), as commercial flights were not available at the time. Seasickness, the absence of rice, and the ball falling into the sea were the lowlights of the trip.
It is a great story of triumph over adversity. The Philippine Islands had the second-best record in the tournament, but were forced by a midstream change in format to merely play for placing. Mexico, which they had beaten in their first game, ended up with the bronze medal.
So what is the aim? The aim is to have the team recognized for its achievement by the pertinent sports authorities: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the international basketball federation (FIBA). The IOC was established in 1894, FIBA in 1932. Basketball was first featured as an exhibition sport in the 1904 Olympics. They cannot claim that they weren’t involved.
There are precedents for such recognition. In 1960, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won the light heavyweight gold in boxing. In what may be an apocryphal story, he claims that, upon returning to America, he threw his medal into a river out of disgust at the persistent racism in his country. At halftime of the gold medal game in basketball at the 1996 Olympics, Ali was presented with a replacement medal. I was there. It was the only time I have ever cried during a live broadcast.
In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, American Indian Jim Thorpe won the gold medal in both the decathlon and pentathlon, placing first in four events of the latter. That’s 15 events. Think about that for a moment. However, the IOC stripped him of his medals and struck his achievements from official records for playing minorleague baseball three years earlier, which was a violation of amateurism. But 70 years later, it was proven that Thorpe had been suspended after the IOC’s prescribed 30-day period. Commemorative medals were given to his children in 1983, as the originals had been stolen from a museum.
The point of all this is that, similarly, the injustice to Islanders in 1936 may yet be rectified posthumously. A commemorative medal or citation from the IOC and/or FIBA would lay to rest this travesty committed against one of the greatest and most popular basketball teams in Olympic history. If we work together, we could make it happen.