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A Close Look at the Australia vs. Philippines FIBA Basketball Brawl

For sure you must have seen it by now. Or at least heard of it.

The Australian and Philippine national basketball teams figured in an ugly brawl on Sunday night (Philippine time) during the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers held at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan, in the Philippines.

The incident resulted in the ejection of 9 players from the Philippine side and 4 from the Australians and forced the game to end prematurely as the hosts ran out of players to play inside the hardcourt.

Australia was well on their way to a one-sided victory, leading comfortably 79-48 with 4:01 left in the third quarter, when play was halted after an offensive foul was called on a Filipino player. What followed next was a series of events worth forgetting.

Punches, kicks, elbows, forearms, and even chairs were thrown. Both sides needed to be separated by venue security and even the police. When all was said and done, the world witnessed a basketball brawl that made the NBA’s “Malice at the Palace” look amateurish, really.

Reaching Its Boiling Point

The Filipino side claimed that what happened during the game was a culmination of several incidents that happened prior to the start of the game itself.

During the Australians’ practice session in the venue last July 1, the Boomers removed the sponsor and FIBA logo stickers from the hardcourt. A video of this was posted by SBP (Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas) chairman emeritus Manny V. Pangilinan on his Twitter account. According to Philippine officials, these were FIBA-approved decals, and the Aussies had no right to tear them off the court.

Gilas Pilipinas head coach Vincent “Chot” Reyes claimed via Philippine local media that during halftime, his players told him that the Aussies hurled several racial slurs at them, including calling them “monkeys.” However, there was no actual audio (or otherwise) proof of this.

Reyes also claimed during a post- game interview that Australian Daniel Kickert intentionally hit (or pushed) at least four of his players during the warm-ups. So far, there is no evidence to support Reyes’ accusation that Kickert hit four Gilas players during the warmups. However, a Facebook video has surfaced showing Kickert pushing Gilas guard Matthew Wright during the warmups. The audio from that clip says that a Filipino player stuck his leg out while Kickert was passing, and the Aussie responded by pushing the wrong guy. See the video for yourself and be the judge.

So you see, there was already bad blood even before the game began. What happened in the third quarter was just everything reaching its boiling point.

All Hell Broke Loose

Roger Pogoy and Chris Goulding were already playing physical towards each other even in the first half. But aside from the normal physical (and maybe dirty) basketball plays, there was nothing out of the ordinary from either players or from both squads for that matter.

But at the 4:01 mark of the third quarter, with the Australians comfortably ahead by 31 points and the game out of hand for the Filipinos, Pogoy appeared to have planted an elbow to Goulding’s face while attempting to drive to the basket. The elbow missed, as Goulding probably knew that Pogoy was going to throw it.

The ball went to Gilas big man June Mar Fajardo, but before Fajardo could make his move to the basket, Pogoy and Goulding bumped into each other, with Pogoy initiating the contact and Goulding flopping down to the ground. The referee blew his whistle to call an offensive foul on Pogoy. But instead of cooler heads prevailing, the opposite happened. Daniel Kickert came in and threw Pogoy down (no flop there) with a vicious forearm. Pogoy fell hard on his back. Then all hell broke loose.

Naturalized Filipino Andray Blatche immediately pushed Kickert away from a fallen Pogoy and then proceeded to run towards the Aussie. But before Blatche could do anything, Gilas point guard Jayson William flew in from nowhere and landed a flying left-handed punch to the left side of Kickert’s face.

To their credit, at least six Boomers never left their bench during the brawl. And to everyone’s surprise, it was guard Matthew Dellavedova, known for his “dirty tactics” in the NBA, who urged his teammates not to leave the bench. Had the Filipino bench shown the same restraint as Dellavedova, the incident could have ended after the first punch was thrown.

Personally, I think that was the point where it should have ended: Kickert decking Pogoy, William punching Kickert and Pogoy, and then Goulding, Kickert, Blatche, and William getting ejected from the game. But instead of ending the incident, the Gilas bench cleared, and everybody, including a couple of Gilas players who did not suit up for the game, a Gilas assistant coach, and a Gilas player’s father entered the court and joined the melee.

Apologies from Both Sides

Less than 24 hours after that heated scuffle, Gilas Pilipinas players have come to their senses. Andray Blatche issued an apology for his actions, saying that “wrong decisions were made in the heat of the moment.” Forward Japeth Aguilar, whose father Peter infamously threw a chair to Boomer Nathan Sobey, also admitted to have acted on “emotion rather than logic.” Aguilar appealed to move forward with humility and respect. Jong Uichico, the assistant coach who threw a punch (or punches?) during the brawl, also apologized, saying there is no excuse, although he acted like a “father caring for his sons.” If only those kind words were said before the punches were thrown.

SBP President Al Panlilio apologized on behalf of Philippine basketball by saying that “violence has no place in sports.” Panlilio added that he regretted that they “breached the bounds of traditional Philippine hospitality.” Philippine Senator Sonny Angara, the chairman of SBP, called the incident “unfortunate,” while the Philippine government, via Ppresidential spokesman Harry Roque, termed it as a “truly regretful incident” which shouldn’t have happened.

For their part, the Boomers team manager Mark Bradtke apologized for the incident where their players removed the FIBA-approved sponsor decals from the Philippine Arena. According to Bradtke, the players did not do so to disrespect their hosts but only did so because they felt the stickers made the floor slippery, and they didn’t want their players to get hurt. Still, they could have done so as guests would in a place that was not their own: by asking permission. Bradtke’s apology has since been accepted by Philippine basketball officials. But the damage had been done.

Australia’s 7’1” center Thon Maker, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, expressed his disappointment over the incident and took responsibility for his actions. Like the Filipino players, he said he acted the way he did only to “protect his teammate and himself.”

Basketball Australia CEO Anthony Moore also issued a statement accepting his team’s part in the brawl. Moore said that his team doesn’t play in that spirit, and he regrets their role in the brawl. He called Daniel Kickert’s action both a “challenge to defend” and “an unsavory incident.” However, he pointed out that what they found unacceptable was the fact that fans and even officials from the opposite side got involved in the fray. Moore has an excellent point here.

What Happens Next?

With both sides coming to their senses now, their fate lies in the hands of FIBA, the tournament’s sanctioning body. It’s no longer a matter of who was right or wrong but of what happens next. In a statement, FIBA said that it will open disciplinary proceedings against both squads. It says their decision will be communicated in the coming days.

Given the gravity of the incident, it remains to be seen what happens to the Philippine campaign in the current World Cup qualifiers. Despite the loss (it was a game), the Philippines finished with a 4-2 record and move on to the next round together with Australia and Japan.

In the short term, the question is whether FIBA is going to disqualify the Philippines from the next round or whether the nine players who were ejected are going to be meted out suspensions only. In the case of the latter, team Philippines plays on but with different players. On the side of the Australians, it’s likely that if there will be punishments, it will probably be on the four players who got thrown out of the game (Kickert in particular).

In the long term, FIBA could issue a ban on some players, particularly the protagonists of the brawl. But the bigger question really is how the incident affects the Philippines’ credibility in the eyes of FIBA. As we know, the Philippines will host the 2023 World Cup. But given the actions of their players, officials, and fans, will FIBA still entrust to them the safety of the players not just from Australia but from all over the world? That may be going too far, but who knows? Let’s just wait for FIBA to make a decision soon.

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