December 01, 2023

Fateful 0-for-2: What people forget about Olsen Racela’s muffed freebies in 2002 Asian Games

Fateful 0-for-2: What people forget about Olsen Racela’s muffed freebies in 2002 Asian Games
Art by Royce Nicdao

Basketball can be cruel sometimes. Just ask Olsen Racela.

Twenty-one years ago, with the Philippines nursing a 68-66 lead, Racela stepped to the free throw line at the Sajik Gym in Busan, South Korea with the chance to slam the door on the home team—and send the Philippines to the gold-medal final of the 2002 Busan Asian Games basketball tournament.

He was a 90% shooter from the stripe at that time in the PBA. He was going to send the Philippines to the final.

Only, he didn’t.

The 90% free throw shooter missed both—one long and the other just rimming out.

Twenty-three or so seconds later, South Korea was in the final, saved from the jaws of defeat by Lee Sang Min’s buzzer-beating triple from straightaway—and from a broken play no less.

Yes, basketball can be cruel like that. Just ask Olsen Racela.

This endgame, though, was more than cruel. It was heartbreakingly cruel. And not just because it happened to one of the nicest, classiest players the PBA—and Philippine basketball in general—has ever seen.

It was so painful because Racela, prior to those two missed freebies, had done everything right. He was playing close to a perfect game, masterfully orchestrating the offense and playing his usual pesky defense.

Racela also took over in the last 1:30 of that game.

He produced a crucial stop with the Philippines down, 66-65.

Next, he hit a booming triple to put the Philippines up, 68-66.

Then, he got a rebound in traffic—close to the rim, right in the land of the giants.

But nobody ever talks about those plays. Nobody remembers those plays.

All everyone remembers is what happened next: The 90% free throw shooter missing two game-sealing freebies.

Again, basketball can be cruel. Just ask Olsen Racela.

If it is any consolation, Racela’s misses happened in 2002, not in 2023. Otherwise, he would have been crucified in social media, attacked with so much vitriol and maligned in the worst of ways.

Scottie Thompson should know. He missed two crucial end-game free throws in Gilas Pilipinas’ sixth window clash with Jordan at the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers and he got the beating of a lifetime on social media. And it was practically a glorified exhibition game, as both teams had at that point secured their slots in the FIBA World Cup.

Then again, the scrutiny and the bashing and the short memorythey all come with the territory. Racela probably got his fair share—right in the aftermath of his missed freebies and in the years after.

But let it be known that Racela played a heck of a game on that fateful day in Busan. He almost sent the Philippines to the gold medal match.

ALMOST. That’s what people remember. It’s what many choose to remember. It is one of those great what-ifs

So, yes, basketball can be cruel. Just ask Olsen Racela.