WHAT IF: Olsen Racela Made His Free Throws in Busan

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The 2002 Busan Asian Games is one of the most memorable events for Philippine basketball, albeit for a wrong reason.

Down the stretch, the Philippine men’s basketball team was  protecting a shaky two-point lead against South Korea in the semifinals. The Koreans were forced to give up a foul, sending Olsen Racela to the foul line with only 23 seconds left in the game.

The feeling of seeing Racela on the free throw line gave Filipinos some comfort. After all, he’s one of the steadiest free throw shooter in the PBA, averaging 90-percent from the charity stripe. Making both free throws would had given the Philippines a two-possession game. But ‘lo and behold’, the cool and calculating guard missed both shots, putting the Pinoy quintet in a shaky position.

Then came the dagger.

The botched freebies allowed Korea to set up a final play. How lucky he Koreans could be as one player was able to dribble the ball off his foot before it was picked up by Lee Sang Min, who drained a backbreaking triple, sending the Filipino players dropping down on their backs and the heartbreak against their Asian tormentors continued.

Prior to his game-winning shot, Lee had missed all of his three-point attempts, but that moment was probably his best as he became part of the Korean basketball history. In contrast, Lee was the Heartbreak Kid for the Filipinos, who were hoping to salvage a potential gold medal game for the second time since they last made it to the championship round of the 1990 Beijing Asian Games.

While the horror of the Busan tragedy won’t be forgotten easily, it leaves one to imagine what could have happened had Racela shoot both free throws.

Gold medal match against China

China was waiting for its opponent for the gold medal match, and the Koreans were able to sneak into the championship round with a last-second three-pointer. It was a momentum they’ve carried as South Korea was able to beat the Yao Ming-led Chinese squad in an intense final match that went to overtime.

Had the Philippines made it to the gold medal game, the Filipinos had a fighting chance of  pulling off an upset win.

They have a big man in Asi Taulava, who can hold his own against  Yao and the Filipinos had the talent to compete against the mighty Chinese, but it wasn’t meant to be.

More support for Philippine basketball

Just getting to the gold medal match would have had a huge impact for Philippine basketball as a whole.  For a basketball-crazy nation like the Philippines, seeing the national cage team playing in the finals against China was like living a dream.

We’ve seen the love and adulation shown by our countrymen when the Filipinos qualified for the 2014 World Cup after finishing runner-up to Iran in the FIBA Asia Championship in Manila.  That resulted to an outpouring of support from Philippine basketball stakeholders, particularly from the PBA where the players came from.

But that Busan experience taught us a lesson that a more prepared Philippine team equipped with good and solid backing could go a long way. To date, the Philippines is now inside the top 30 in the world ranking.