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‘It was just magic’: How Philippines sealed the FIBA World Cup hosting

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FOR a country where basketball is revered, known to be the world’s home of makeshift courts, three Filipino gentlemen who either played hoops or cheered from the courtside, find themselves in the same corporate boardroom many years on strategizing their biggest coup yet: bringing over the world’s biggest basketball event, the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023, to the Philippines.

The idea was a slam dunk for PLDT Chairman and Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) Chairman Emeritus Manuel V. Pangilinan, PLDT and Smart Communications President and CEO and SBP President Alfredo S. Panlilio, and PLDT Chief Leadership Transition Officer and SBP Vice President Ricky Vargas. It was a long-drawn-out battle for global recognition, but their deep love for the sport, and the Philippines, eventually won them out.

No stranger to the sport, Panlilio started playing basketball at a young age until he played for one conference under the Philippine Amateur Basketball League, before taking on top roles in the corporate world. “I firmly believe that sports and corporate life call for the same values and principles—whether it’s teamwork, excellence, having roles that you must fulfill, making sure that you’re competent,” he said.

Manny Pangilinan

Meanwhile, Vargas was a huge fan of a team that competed against PLDT-backed Mobiline at the time. “I was already hired by PLDT, but I would still go to the other team’s games. I still sat on the opposite side. So, I guess they had no choice but to involve me in the team because I was cheering for the rival. That’s how I got involved,” he candidly shared.

For Pangilinan, it is no secret that his love for sports was heavily influenced by his family, particularly his mother Soledad. “My mother was an avid fan of the San Beda team. She would watch games with the other mothers, who would prepare food for the team,” he recalled.

“We applied the best business practices to the federation. We fixed the membership, corporatized, put in place sectoral representatives from the youth, the pros, women—all memorialized in the by-laws,” said Pangilinan, founding chairman of SBP. “I recall the final terms of agreement was done on a table napkin, early morning in a hotel in Bangkok, where we almost lost our lives because we almost got hit by a car beating a red light. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Pangilinan said.

Al Panlilio


Despite the challenges that Philippine basketball faced in those years, their collective love for the sport and the Philippines won FIBA. “All of us in that delegation wanted to prove to FIBA that we can fix our house. We can’t fail the Philippines,” he said.

Placing a bid for a regional event in 2014 whetted SBP’s appetite to try and bid for the 2019 World Cup.

“I felt we had a very good presentation. It was just us and China, and I think we really did a good job. We wore the Barong Tagalog with a heart embroidered on it, we had a very passionate, emotional presentation. In fact, even their Hall of Famer Yao Ming of China already congratulated the Philippines. Unfortunately, we lost the bid,” Panlilio recalled.

“Lakas ng loob at bilib sa sarili na kaya namin. We almost made it. We almost made them believe,” said Vargas.

“We won the soft part, hands down. When we got to the hard part, China offered eight cities, we only offered two; zillions of hotel rooms, airports,” Pangilinan said. “It was heartbreaking, there was a board meeting after that, and they gave me a plaque of appreciation.”

Ricky Vargas

However, they did not give up. After a few weeks or months, the Philippine delegation came up with a multi-country hosting concept. “They told us that it’s a creative approach. The rest is history,” Pangilinan said.

“Magic. It was just magic. We did not let go of the dream. Was there a specific formula? No. The team introduced itself to FIBA. FIBA understood our love for basketball,” Vargas said.

With the help of the government, along with partners in the private sector, organizations, and fans, the Philippines is finally co-hosting this momentous event in basketball history. By December 2019, Smart Communications, the wireless unit of PLDT, became a global sponsor for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 from August 25 to September 10 in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan.

“It’s a celebration of basketball cherished by Filipinos. However, basketball may be the main event, but it’s us showcasing the Philippines to the world. Filipino basketball fans are very warm, very hospitable, very passionate. But I hope our guests can also see the country’s beauty and potential,” Panlilio shared.

“We want to leave the impression that they’re welcome to play in the Philippines, and we’ll give them the best experience that they can have. We would like to thank them for coming over and trusting us in co-hosting the whole thing,” Vargas added.

Often asked why they brought the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 to the Philippine shores, Pangilinan listed down many reasons but emphasized that more than anything, this is a gift to the Filipino people who adore the sport. “What we really wanted to do was to plow the more fertile ground for legends to grow – to have our hard courts, our backboards, and hoops, our fans bear witness to the story of Philippine basketball as it is written; to emphasize that this basketball-crazy country of ours belongs to the league of basketball nations, and for the Philippines to be a cradle of enduring legends.”


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