By Ivan Stewart Saldajeno

CHAMPION AGAIN. Members of the Gilas Pilipinas celebrate the country’s first gold medal in 61 years in the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China on Oct. 6, 2023. Gilas’ miraculous run became the top newsmaker in sports for 2023. (Photo courtesy of PSC Media Pool)

MANILA – It took one miraculous run for Gilas Pilipinas to become the top newsmaker in sports for 2023.

Fresh from a so-so stint in the FIBA World Cup that was still enough to clinch a spot in next year’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, Gilas faced a dilemma entering the Asian Games.

First, Chot Reyes announced that he was resigning yet again as head coach, so a few days later, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas decided to name his top assistant, Ginebra coach Tim Cone, as Gilas’ “interim coach”.

Then with barely a week left before the start of the Asian Games, some players called up to the Gilas pool turned out to be ineligible as they were not listed in two initial entry-by-name lists submitted to the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), which in turn sent them to the Hangzhou Asian Games Organizing Committee (HAGOC) held from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8.

POC president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino personally went to HAGOC to make one last appeal, but HAGOC ruled with finality that the athletes for the Gilas squad must come from the second entry-by-name pool.

Gilas’ short preparation seemed to have taken its toll when Jordan, led by current TNT import Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, blew them out in the final game of the preliminary round, putting them in a tough playoff route.

However, as fate would have it, Gilas stunned Iran in the quarterfinals and made a huge comeback from 20 points down to eliminate host China in the semifinals, setting up a rematch with Jordan in the final.

Learning their lessons from their first meeting, Gilas put up a terrific defense on Jordan that not even Hollis-Jefferson’s heroics could save them as the Philippines finally won an Asian Games men’s basketball gold after 61 years.

While the other three Asian Games golds headlined by that of men’s pole vault favorite EJ Obiena are not to be discredited, some think that the Gilas gold mattered the most for the Philippines.

EJ Obiena soars

Speaking of Obiena, 2023 has been another banner year for Asia’s top pole vaulter.

Aside from cementing his status as Asia’s current pole vault king in the Asian Games, Obiena also won a good number of tournaments abroad, including the Brussels leg of the Wanda Diamond League where he beat no less than the top pole vaulter right now, Mondo Duplantis, last September.

What made the year even more special for Obiena is that he became the first Asian to record a six-meter jump in pole vault.

Many believe that Obiena must jump six meters or higher if he wants to get a shot at beating Duplantis in the Olympics.

Coupled with the fact that he has jumped to number two in the world, Obiena is now on a quest to be the best in the world, and the private sector signified its support for Obiena by pledging a huge sum of money to fund his training.

“I can finally plan ahead big-time,” Obiena said. “I’m very humbled and at the same time blessed to be in such a position that there are these big institutions that are giving me donations to my cause of preparing for Paris 2024 that made my life easier.”

Filipinas in FIFA Women’s World Cup

Also this year, the Filipino football fan’s dream became a reality when a Philippine team played in the FIFA World Cup for the very first time, and it had to be from the women’s football squad, the rechristened Filipinas.

The biggest breakthrough, though, came when the Filipinas stunned co-host New Zealand to put them in a position to qualify for the knockout stages.

Although Norway blew them out in their last match, the Filipinas’ FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC) appearance remains historic in itself as they captured the hearts of not just the Filipino football community but also of other countries to the point that Australia, the other co-host of the FIFA WWC, decided to hold its Olympic Qualifying Tournament match against the Filipinas at a larger venue due to an expected huge attendance.

Mark Torcaso is now tasked with a mission to continue the surge of the Filipinas, who are now 38th in the world.

The rise of AP Bren

AP Bren is the esports team of the year 2023.

AP Bren scored huge successes over the midyear when it won the Southeast Asian Games and the IESF World Championships as Sibol’s Mobile Legends team.

The biggest breakthrough, though, came right after former Cagayan board member AJ Ponce stepped in to help bankroll the squad, which was said to be struggling financially.

AP Bren reclaimed the Mobile Legends Professional League Philippines championship and capped the year by ruling the M5 World Championship, becoming the first team to win the world title twice and the first to win the world title at home with a jampacked Rizal Memorial Coliseum witnessing the epic grand finals against Onic Indonesia live as well as more than 5 million viewers worldwide in the live streams. (PNA)