It is not easy for Asian basketball to make global headlines at the best of times – and during the football World Cup, it takes something truly extraordinary. That happened on July 2 when the Philippines met Australia in Manila in a qualifying match for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. It resulted in a drama that is still playing out and consequences that have yet to be felt. They could be severe.
That is because of one of the most serious incidents ever seen on a court – the most serious, according to Australia’s assistant coach Luc Longley, a former player who used to star in the world’s top league, the NBA in the United States. In the third quarter of Australia’s 89 to 53 win over the hosts, chaos broke out when a massive brawl suddenly erupted.
Thirteen players – nine from the home team, four from the visitors –were ejected after it all eventually calmed down but this was no normal ‘basketbrawl’, as it was described in the Australian press. The fight spread from the court and involved coaching staff and chairs being thrown. At one point there was an Australian player lay prone on the floor under attack from a number of opponents, as well as members of the coaching staff.
The initial response was one of contrition as the national basketball federations issued a joint apology. “We wish to apologize to the entire basketball community worldwide, and in particular to our fantastic fans in the Philippines and Australia, for the behavior displayed by both teams and for bringing the game of basketball into disrepute.”
Basketball officials bracing for blow-back
That is not going to be enough to avoid sanctions that are inevitably coming soon from the world governing body, FIBA.
Both countries are nervously waiting to see what kind of sentences are handed down and this is especially true in the case of the Philippines. The hosts had more players and staff involved compared to the Australian team (known as the Boomers), who apart from the players already on the court, followed the rules, stayed on the sidelines and did not get involved.
With the 2019 World Cup on the horizon and the two teams on course to qualify, suspension of either team would jeopardize their chances of being involved in the tournament in China next year. That could be a huge blow for the Philippines, a country that loves the sport.
“That would be a drastic case if the Philippines as a team are suspended,” Sonny Angara, chairman of Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SPB), the country’s national basketball association. “What we are anticipating based on past sanctions is more suspensions for individual players, and maybe coaches, and possibly fines for the federation. We have to be prepared for all eventualities.”
Angara pointed to a similar, if perhaps not quite as ugly, brawl between Greece and Serbia in 2010 that resulted in individual suspensions. That, however, was a friendly and not an official World Cup qualifier.
Will it hit Manila as co-host of 2023 World Cup?
There are also worries that the brawl could affect the Philippines co-hosting of the 2023 World Cup along with Japan and Indonesia. This is a huge deal for the basketball-loving country.
Basketball does not hold the same kind of affection in the hearts of Australians when compared to the Filipinos; it is some way down the list in a competitive sporting market. There are concerns in Australia, however, that there may be more consequences to add to the official punishment. NBA teams are already reluctant to release players such as Thon Maker of the Milwaukee Bucks for far-flung Australian commitments and may be even more so after seeing scenes like this.
In the meantime, allegations and counter-allegations rumble on. A Filipino sports photographer at the game claimed on July 8 that an Australian player or players racially abused their opponents, calling them “monkeys”.
“I couldn’t hear exactly who said it, but I did hear it, and like I said when the Boomers were up by 30 points I don’t think words like that should be thrown around,” Winston Baltasar claimed.
The Australian Basketballers’ Association CEO and former player Jacob Holmes hit back immediately.“The allegations made by Mr Baltasar are unsubstantiated and highly defamatory and we are reviewing our legal avenues to address them,” said Holmes. Philippines coach Chot Reyes has added that he heard no racist taunts or insults.
Nobody wants this to get uglier. It is already pretty bad. Australia and the Philippines are waiting to hear their fate.