There was, of course, a basketball game and one with stakes at that but Emmet Ryan just had to go to Araneta Coliseum for the sheer history
October 1, 1975, the date is on the banner high for the Thrilla in Manila. In my early 20s, I was thrilled to find that the bonus content on the DVD for When we we Kings included the full fight of that famous fight in Araneta Coliseum (it obviously also included the whole of the Rumble in the Jungle given thatr was what the movie was about). Watching two of the best to ever do it as a bonus, wow, that was amazing. Now you can just look it up on YouTube. Different times.
The stakes weren’t that high on Thursday night, as my ability to remember what day it is continued to worsen, but Olympic qualification hopes are still pretty important. Jordan Clarkson was hoping to lead Gilas Pilipinas to their first win of the tournament and stay alive for securing the automatic spot for Asia next year in Paris. South Sudan had already made history just by getting here, not bad for the youngest widely recognised nation in the world, and picked up a win to boot.
Loud. Very, very loud. This arena was a long way from full but it was all the loud. Literally everything Philippines did, and I mean even putting up a shot or retaining possession, got a cheer. Something actually consequential, like a bucket or a block tore the roof off. This was all inside of the game’s first 90 seconds. Oh to have that energy.
When Ali and Frazier went to war here, it wasn’t this fast. Both lads threw everything they had but it’s a classic because it was the last true roar of two greats rather than a fight in their prime. Normally that would be something to lament but the brawls we got, especially that third one that took place here, was the one these men needed.
This fight? Ehh it was looking like it might be a whupping early as South Sudan strolled into a 16-3 lead. The hosts rallied but this really felt like a most violent mismatch as the debutants led 34-17 after the first.
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Smokin’ Joe never quit in the fight with Ali. Don’t get me wrong, the fight was stopped correctly but it’s always worth noting that it was Frazier’s corner that wouldn’t let him go back out for that final round and not him that made the choice. They, rightly, didn’t want their man to be in any more harm than they could justify.
That was the vibe from this Philippines crew. Their place in basketball’s broader order right now is a team that gets to the World Cup but rarely does anything to grab attention. Through their supporters at this tournament, they’ve reminded us all why they still show no quit no matter how implausible the task appears.
It has to be something that Jordan Clarkson appreciates. I’ve spoken a good bit about him in the lead up to this tournament and how it’s a quirk in the rules that makes him count as a naturalised player despite being entitled to a Filipino passport by birth. He’s comfortably the biggest star on this side and the most important player for the reputation of Filipino basketball worldwide. He’s a starter in the NBA and he proudly dons the blue, red, and gold of Gilas Pilipinas.
There was definitely a wobble from South Sudan to start the second quarter as what looked like a blowout got back to a manageable point early for Philippines before normal service resumed and we could all get back to just marveling at how easy it was for the crowd to get excited.
They got here, they fought, and when Clarkson nailed a three mid third to try and spur what looked futile comeback charge or when Kai Sotto had a mini-block party they kept fighting. South Sudan, with Olympic dreams for their fledgling nation still alive, they fought too. This is a place where people come to fight and don’t stop until somebody makes them. That’s what the people came for and in the fourth it was like the championship rounds as Clarkson and Sotto threw everything at their opponents to get just one win for their fans here.
What looked a slaughter was down to just a 4 point deficit early in the fourth and the crowd was all here for this. It would prove to be too little in the end but they never quit. South Sudan got the win but the people got a battle.