Ex-Olympian Carbonell recalls Philippines’ old cage glory

Boni Carbonell represented the Philippines in the 1956 Olympics. (Photo …

Loreto Delima Carbonell, better known as Bonie, was one of the few Filipino basketball players to ever compete in the prestigious Summer Olympic Games. He was a member of the Philippine squad that placed seventh in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Among his teammates were the great Carlos "Caloy" Loyzaga, Tony Genato, Charlie Badion, Eddie Lim, Leonardo Marquisias, Martin Urra, Rafael Baretto, Ramoncito Campos and Tony Villamor, with Leo Prieto as coach.

Carbonell described the experience as dreamlike, having to share the basketball court with the world's best ballers. He particularly cherished playing against his cage heroes Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Billy Cunningham, all NBA greats, even when the United States pummeled the undersized Philippine team, 121-53. Russell and company of course stamped their class on all challengers in Melbourne, winning by an average of 53.5 points, and took the gold via an 89-55 thrashing of the Soviet Union. Uruguay finished with the bronze. Fifteen nations competed in basketball.

Both the Philippines and the USA were in Group A along with Thailand and Japan. The Nationals defeated Thailand, 94-55, and Japan 77-61 to advance in the quarterfinals with the Americans. The other qualifiers were France and the Soviet Union from Group B, Uruguay and Bulgaria from Group C, and Brazil and Chile from Group D.

In the quarters, the Filipinos beat France, 65-58, but bowed to Uruguay, 70-79, and Chile, 69-88. In the battle for 5th to 8th spots, they succumbed to Bulgaria, 70-80. For the fight for 7th honor, the Nationals got back at Chile, 75-68.

The Philippines qualified for the Melbourne Olympics after coveting the bronze medal in the 1954 FIBA World Championship behind only the USA and Brazil. This was the highest the country, or any other Asian squad for that matter, ever placed in international competitions. In fact, the Nationals lost to the Americans by just 13 points in this tournament. They upended the national teams of Paraguay, Formosa (now Chinese Taipei), Israel, Canada, France and Uruguay.

Loyzaga even made it to the All-Tournament Team (Mythical Five) alongside the US' Kirby Minter, Uruguay's Oscar Moglia, and Brazil's Zenny de Azevedo and Wlamir Marques.

"There is nothing like playing for your country. During our time, we never played for money. When we failed to make it to the Round of Four (semis), the pain was unbearable," said Carbonell, who admitted he never imagined playing in the Olympic games.

Carbonell also related that there is nothing compared to the experience of living in the Olympic Village with the other foreign athletes. Although occasionally they would get in trouble when they became a little too noisy in their rooms, Bonie said it was easy making friends in the village. He added that he was particularly fond of a pretty Australian girl whom he called "Chewy" because she often chewed a gum.

Carbonell added that among the priceless benefits of playing in the Olympics was coming home to a heroes' welcome.

Two years after Melbourne, Carbonell became one of the top scorers in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, where the Philippines won the Gold, followed by China and Japan.

Carbonell started from humble beginnings, playing hoops in makeshift basketball playgrounds in a remote part of Davao. When word got out about his talent and athletic ability, Ateneo de Davao high school coach Fr. Richard Cronin, SJ invited the young Bonie to join the team. Cronin was an All-American basketball player in his younger days and had an eye for talent. Carbonell revealed that the Jesuit coach told him that he would play in the Olympics someday. Bonie never forgot this but did not take it seriously. He later on became a star forward for the San Beda Red Lions in the NCAA, where he teamed up with future Olympians Loyzaga and Genato. Years later, he led San Beda to the 1977 NCAA crown, this time as a coach. Among his players then were Frankie Lim, Jayvee Yango, Chuck Barreiro, Cholo Martin and Loyzaga's son Chito.

Today, Carbonell still serves his alma mater as a consultant to the senior basketball team.

Carbonell hopes that someday the country can compete in the Olympics again but admits that it's going to be a Herculean task. The last time the Philippines saw action in an Olympic tournament was 40 years ago. Last year, the Smart Gilas Pilipinas national team missed a ticket to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament after a heartbreaking loss to Korea, 68-70, in the battle for the bronze of the FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China.

The Philippines qualified for the basketball event in the Olympics seven times — 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968 and 1972. The highest the national men's basketball team reached in the Olympics is fifth place, in Berlin, Germany in 1936.