In 2002, the rugby-loving nation of New Zealand took a team of relative nobodies to Indianapolis for the FIBA world championships with a goal of getting international experience and most of all, competing with nothing to lose.
Paul Henare was the point guard for the Tall Blacks and on the sidelines roamed Thomas “Tab” Baldwin but many people shrugged off the New Zealanders with the heavy expectation that the hosts, the United States would dominate and come out victorious.
But instead, the U.S. finished sixth, and as for Henare and coach Baldwin, they exposed a nation that worshipped Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens, Zinzan Brooke and the infamous All Blacks to Pero Cameron, Phill Jones and the Tall Blacks as New Zealand finished fourth, thus announcing themselves on the world basketball stage.
Fourteen years on from New Zealand’s heroics in Indianapolis and they find themselves in the Philippines for the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers. A lot has changed since then, of course, but Henare and Baldwin have remained. The former, now retired is the head coach of New Zealand as he looks to guide his side back to the heights of what they once were in 2002, while the latter looked to derail those plans as head coach of the Philippines, a nation that declares basketball its national sport.
Both Henare and Baldwin are close friends, they have known each other for “around twenty years” as Henare recalls. Not only was Baldwin his national team coach in 2002 but also for the Auckland Stars, New Zealand’s most successful domestic league side, taking out the New Zealand Breakers in Australia’s NBL, of course.
But the friendship went out of the window on Wednesday evening at 21:00 (Manila time) as the two long-time friends found themselves on different ends of the sidelines. But with a lot at stake.
New Zealand, led by Harare needed to start off their Olympic Qualifying campaign with a win or they would need to beat the favourites France in order to continue their quest for the Rio Olympics. A win, however would see them advance to the semi-finals at the first attempt, and silence 20,000 screaming Filipinos once and for all.
For Baldwin though, a weight of the nation was on him. Philippines were brave but ultimately lost their opening encounter to France, so the Asian powerhouses needed to beat the Tall Blacks in order to keep their Rio 2016 dream alive in a three-team group where the top two advance to the semi-finals and the winner of the six-team tournament heads to the Olympics.
Both teams came out well prepared and played at a furious pace. New Zealand played the ball around and were patient, offensively. Defensively, they were a unit, putting pressure on lightening quick guard Terrence Romeo so that they limited the Philippines’ offensive rhythm.
But Gilas were not backing down, Andray Blatche carried them most of the way, relying heavily on their skilful ball-handling and one-on-one offence as they stayed in the contest.
But New Zealand, who were underdogs according to most, proved them wrong and came out 89-80 victors.
New Zealand reached the semi-finals at the first attempt; Philippines dream of an Olympic showing in Rio was over.
As for the two close friends, this was a reflective time for both. But, very much like Dimitis Itoudis’ win over his mentor and friend Zeljko Obradovic in the Euroleague championship game two months ago, this was another win for the student against his teacher.
“There are a little bit of mixed emotions,” Henare said with a smile.
“I’ve known Tab for a long, long time, over twenty years and played for him for over ten years and we started off as coach and player but we became very close friends. And from a competitive point of view when you coach or compete against your friends you want to have those bragging rights but I feel for him, we’ve all been there as competitors and it’s not a nice feeling.”
For Baldwin, a Florida native who has made a home for himself in the Philippines, serving as a head coach of University side Ateneo Blue Eagles on top of his coaching duties with the national team – the Olympic dream was over. But he was defiant, post-game. Proudly stating that the Philippine nation should be proud of how far they have come, since the FIBA ban was lifted in 2007 after a long-standing disputes between the country’s basketball association and Olympic organisation.
But Henare, who came out the victor in his battle with his former mentor was proud himself.
“It was an honour to coach against him, such a great friend and mentor of mine at the international level,” he said. “I take pride that the two of us are coaching at this level.”