Pinoys make waves in Asian wheelchair basketball joust

While the Smart Gilas Pilipinas national men's team made its mark in Asian basketball after winning the Jones Cup title this year, the country's wheelchair basketball national team likewise created a stir.

Just a week ago, the newly formed wheelchair squad placed a decent fifth in the Kuwait International Invitational Tournament that is joined by eight countries, including Asia's top ranked team Japan. With barely one month of training, the nationals became the biggest surprise in the tournament after upstaging Bahrain and UAE to secure fifth place honors. It was the first time in years that the team has joined an international competition.

"We had very short preparation for this tourney because of lack of practice venue and funds. We had to just find ways to practice, asking some good Samaritans to lend us their facilities. Luckily, Bgy. Capt. Ronnie Ortiz lent us the Concepcion II Marikina gym for a week. Then in the next three weeks, we were able to use the St. Scholastica's Academy gym in Marikina for free, through the kindness of Sister Alexis Lamarroza, O.S.B.," said head coach Vernon Perea.

The Philippines was grouped with eventual champion Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain. The other group was comprised of Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman. Japan was the only Asian country that qualified in the world wheelchair basketball championships.

The Nationals dropped their first two assignments, against Egypt (38-67) and Kuwait (37-69). But they bounced back with two straight wins versus Bahrain (62-55) and UAE in the battle for fifth (57-55).

Egypt won the tournament followed by Japan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Skipper Juanito Mingarine proved the steadiest among the Filipinos after scoring 28 and 27 points against Bahrain and UAE respectively. The other members of the team are Harold Lilagan, Alex Teves, Marcos Rabasto, Leon Caranog, Rene Macabenguil, Mark Ramirez, Richard Alegre, Marlon Nacita, Freddie Magdayo, Francisco Ednaco and Jerico Opena, with Harry Solanoy as assistant coach, Dennis Esta as team manager, and Mark Anthony Garcia as team referee.

When the rare invitation from the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) came, the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled—National Paralympic Committee of the Philippines (PhilSPADA-NPC Philippines) immediately commissioned Perea to start the team's preparations. Due to lack of funds, the team's training was halted for several months. Some of the usual training venues were also under renovation.

"In Kuwait we saw the importance of having new basketball wheelchairs. Japan's wheelchairs weighed just nine kilos as compared to our twelve to fifteen kilos. The extra weight takes its toll on our players in each push," related Perea after getting his first taste of international competition.

Currently, the team needs several equipment including new wheelchairs, balls and cones. But more importantly, it needs a regular training facility.

Realizing the need to bolster its program, the PhilSPADA, under Chairman Mike Barredo, President Luis Arellano and Sec. General Carlos "Butch" Weber, will be conducting the national games in February next year to discover potential players for future competitions. Because of its decent showing in Kuwait, the team also got an invitation to play in a Dubai tournament in April next year, and again in Kuwait in November 2013.

"We went through a lot of challenges in the preparation such as problems with transportation to and from the gym, and individual schedule conflicts as most of the players had to work in the mornings. We had no choice but to practice from seven to ten o'clock in the evening.

"Then the players need to endure the long travel back to their homes using their wheelchairs. Jerico (Opena) works in Cavite so he had to miss some sessions. Rene (Macabenguil) also skipped some sessions when his son had dengue. Marcos (Rabasto) had to be excused a few days when one of his siblings passed away. But the determination to play for flag and country was never missing. During this short period, the team was able to bond well, thanks to the buddy system that we implemented. We didn't expect to achieve much in this trip but we got so much more from it," added Perea.

The team hopes to be ready for the 2014 ASEAN Para-Games and 2014 Asian Games.

"For so many years, we didn't have a wheel chair basketball team to field in international competitions. Now, in our first ever tournament in a long time, we made a good impression. Hopefully, some kind-hearted individuals will come forward to extend some financial support that we badly need. I'm confident that with enough support, there's no way for us to go but up."

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.

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