German fans and the opposition alike called them the ‘Islanders’ after they were introduced as coming from the Philippine Islands. They were short with only one six-footer, Charles Borch, but they made up for their lack in size with speed, ability and shooting.
And of course ‘abilidad’ that allowed them to outmuscle the enemies in rebounds and stealing departments.
The first time basketball was recognized officially as a sport in the Olympic Games in 1936 in Berlin, the Philippines fielded its own power house team composed of mainstays of nine-time Far Easter Games champion quintets.
It won four of its five Olympic Games assignments, losing only to eventual champion United States, which swept all teams which crossed its path in the 21-team tournament.
At the end of the day, the Filipinos proved they and the Orientals could also beat their Western counterparts in this young sport supposed to be reserved for tall men.
Waving the Philippine flag proudly on this German soil were Ambrosio Padilla (team captain), who later became senator, Jacinto ‘Jumping Jack’ Ciria Cruz, Primitivo Martinez, Bork Jesus Marzan, Franco Marquicias, Fortunato Yambao, Amador Obordo, Bibiano Ouano and John Worrel.
No one, except, perhaps themselves, and delegation officials gave the Filipinos, coached by Dioniso ‘Chito’ Calvo, a Chinaman’s chance to win in basketball save for Japan and China their favorite whipping boys in the FEG, precursor of the now Asia Games.
Coach Calvo’s Islanders’ performance, thus, came as a shock to the unsuspecting cage powers they met and conquered. What surprised them was the style they played, their speed. For truly the Philippine brand differed in many ways than theirs.
There was more teamwork. The two-handed shot was vogue, especially from long range or from midcourt, rather than the one-hand flip which were already common in the US and Europe in those days.
They were amazed, too, with the Filipinos’ ball handling showmanship, like Bork, who, despite his 6-foot-i inch height, which was considered tall then by Philippine standard, could dribble the leather behind his back. For their rivals, the team slotman was a wizard in dribbling and fans got a big kick whenever he drove from goal-to-goal en route to scoring.
The composition of the team to Berlin came from the University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas and National University—the Big 3 in the local basketball scene in the 1930s.
Incidentally, basketball was made a official event of the Olympics through the efforts of coach Forest Allen, coach emeritus of the University of Kansas, who, on October 19, 1933, was able to get the vote of the Berlin Olympic Organizing Committee for the introduction of the sport inside the “Iron Curtain.”
It came as a signal honor, therefore for the Philippines to join 20 other nations in the historic event and for the Filipino cagers to have played and acquitted themselves admirably.
Next to Borck’s 6-1 frame came Marquicias, 5-11 ½; Marzan 5-10 ¾. Jumping Jack was the smallest at 5-7, a foot shorter than 6-11 American Joe Fortenberry.
As in the 1924 Olympics, the 1928 and 1932 editions of the quadrennial conclave, members of the national delegation, including Padilla’s cage team, were confined in a boat that took 30 days to reach Berlin from Manila. To keep in shape, athletes had to do pushups and calisthenics, which, of course, weren’t sufficient to bring them back razor-sharp.
When not doing the daily limbering exercises during the ocean trip, they were kept by Padilla mentally busy, teaching them a little of the German language. It was, indeed, an exhilarating experience for the boys, who later, to the surprise of their hosts, were able to put across their message even in smattering fashion.
The Filipino cagers gained the admiration of the German fans with their gentlemanly conduct off and on the court. Once in a bus trip of the city, two elderly women boarded. Unlike in Manila, it wasn’t customary for the German males to give their seats, to women passengers.
To the surprise of all the passengers, the Filipino players, who were all occupying the middle seats of the coach, stood up as one and offered their seats to the elderly women. The two ladies were red in embarrassment and with gratitude as well as the unprecedented gesture of courtesy never before seen in the capital of a communist country.
Marquicias in one of conversations with this writer when he was still the chief security officer of the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in the 70s, the Filipinos did the same thing whether in buses or in subway trains whenever they went on tour.
“Our behavior,” the old man Marquicias related, became the talk of the town to the extent that German newspapers came out with editorials praising out courteousness and kindness.
The Filipino basketeers favorite hangout during their 16-day stay in Berlin was the Unter Lindder Strasse, where the dividing wall between East and West Germany was built. When the place was teemed with teenagers, it was a sign that the Filipino players were in the place.
For thousands of German sports fans fell in love with the Filipinos. Every morning, Filipino players were in the area signing autographs for their German fans.