Even as a 29-year-old FIBA Basketball World Cup attendance record begs to be broken, and a revered venue looks to add another milestone to its fabled existence, Gilas Pilipinas will make its way to the 55,000-capacity Philippine Arena on August 25 and the historic Smart Araneta Coliseum on August 27 and 29 with only one thing in mind – defend its homecourt at all cost.
Invading forces will come from far and wide – Dominican Republic from the Caribbean, Angola from the African continent, and Italy from fabulous Europe – with the Philippines, bracketed in Group A, tasked with taking out at least two of the three to stay alive and advance to the second round of the Group Stage where the top two teams from Group B, made up of South Sudan, Serbia, China and Puerto Rico, will be waiting.
Given the comparatively compact capacity of the Big Dome and the SM Mall of Asia Arena, which will house the Final Phase of the tournament, the host nation has only one shot at shattering the spectator mark of 32,616 – set during the 1994 FIBA World Cup championship between the United States Dream Team II and Russia at the Skydome in Toronto, Canada – and that would be on Opening Day at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan.
The standing gate record for a sporting event at the massive edifice is 54,589, a staggering number established during Game 7 of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals between Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and the Bay Area Dragons last January.
Tickets for opening day at the Philippine Arena and the Smart Araneta Coliseum games are available via ticketnet.com.ph, while tickets for the SM Mall of Asia Arena contests are available via smtickets.com.
All roads lead therefore to the Philippine Arena on August 25, with a local inter-agency task force for the World Cup seeking to have the date declared a special public holiday for the fans’ convenience.
Still, while a new attendance mark would mean a new entry in the annals of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and a celebrated nod to the drawing power of Gilas Pilipinas, a victory over world No. 23 Dominican Republic, led by Minnesota Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns, before a huge and roaring hometown crowd would come down as an even greater achievement since it would provide the home team crucial momentum heading to its next two games, to be played at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
At the Big Dome, the proverbial Sixth Man, will once more assume a critical role as Gilas Pilipinas, ranked 40th in the FIBA standings, faces Angola (41st), bannered by Atlanta Hawks 6-foot-10, 240-lb center Bruno Fernando, on August 27 before wrapping up the first round of the preliminaries against world No. 10 Italy, led by Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, on August 29.
Inaugurated on March 16, 1960 in time for the World Junior lightweight fight between hometown icon Gabriel “Flash” Elorde and American Harold Gomes, the Big Dome also swung its doors open for, among many other spectacles, the unforgettable “Thrilla in Manila”, the epic world heavyweight clash between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in 1975, the 1978 FIBA World Championship which the then Yugoslavia won, an exhibition game between the 1978 NBA champion Washington Bullets and a PBA selection in 1979, and the 1982 Asian Youth Basketball Championship where the Philippines shocked China in the final.
Packed to every available nook and cranny, the Smart Araneta Coliseum could turn into a powder keg with unimaginable explosive force the way a multitude of 23,436 jammed the longtime venue of the Philippine Basketball Association for Game 3 of the Commissioner’s Cup Finals between Barangay Ginebra and the Alaska Aces in 2013.
A hometown crowd close to that would shake the Big Dome to its foundation and strike fear in the hearts of both of Gilas Pilipinas’ opponents, especially Angola, and give coach Chot Reyes’ team the fortitude to close out strong should the games come to the wire.
Due to the sheer strength of the opposition and the team’s lack of preparation, and without the benefit of hometown cheering providing a boost during the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, the Philippines dropped all five of its games, including 108-62 against Italy and 84-81 in overtime against Angola.
And five years earlier, in Seville, Spain, Gilas Pilipinas, half a globe away from its followers, blew scintillatingly close games against cage powers Argentina (85-81), Croatia (81-78/OT) and Puerto Rico (77-73) before edging Senegal in extra period 81-79 for its first World Cup victory in decades.
It could be different this time. With the homecourt advantage helping provide the edge.
Now local fans, huge in number and thunderous in support, not to mention armed to the teeth with foam fingers, balloon sticks, placards and posters, and a burning desire for payback, will be four-square behind the national team, and the incentive and motivation to protect its own turn couldn’t be stronger for Gilas Pilipinas.
One could almost hear the deafening chant from the record crowd – both at the Philippine Arena and the Smart Araneta Coliseum: NOT IN OUR HOUSE!