The game is close to being largely forgotten. Time, as it always does, has placed it in the backburner of memory, blurring most of the details despite the significance of the result and the spirited celebration that followed suit.
But for those who still remember, for all of the heart-stopping battles of Gilas Pilipinas throughout the years, the game will eternally stand out as one of the favorites. After all, it was a watershed moment. All because of a diminutive general who refused to quit against imposing giants.
It was August 26, 2012. Sunday afternoon. Perfect for watching a basketball game. The Taipei PE College Gym in Taiwan was packed. Even though the home team wasn’t playing for the title, people still came in droves to see the Philippines battle USA in the Jones Cup. The tournament uses a single round-robin format, awarding the championship to the squad with the best record. It was only fitting that the title for the 34th edition would be decided on the last day of the tournament.
Not surprisingly, there was a substantial Filipino crowd, mostly overseas workers who had no work that day. But they sure got worked up because of the thrilling affair. It was a nip-and-tuck contest in the second half, with neither team willing to budge, knowing that the crown was at stake.
The Philippines headed into the game with a superior 6-1 card, dropping only its assignment against Lebanon. USA, meanwhile, carried a 5-2 slate. While USA’s players weren’t NBA guys—a motley assemblage of ex-college stars, journeymen, and never-weres—they were still far more athletic, stronger, and bigger than the Filipinos.
With the game tied at 70 with three minutes left in the game, LA Tenorio subbed in for Sol Mercado. Marcus Douthit, the Philippines’ rice mill all tournament long, was visibly exhausted and the team needed someone else to take charge. Tenorio knew it.
In the very first sequence since returning to the floor, he grabbed a rebound and raced to the other end for a tough turnaround jumper to break the deadlock. But USA answered quickly. James Justice Jr. buried a three-pointer from the top of the key, making Tenorio pay for going under the screen, to give them the lead, 73-72.
Probably wanting to atone for his gaffe, Tenorio tried to counter with his own three-pointer but muffed the shot. After a foul by the Philippines, the veteran playmaker made the sign of the cross, perhaps seeking divine intervention like most Filipinos do during difficult situations.
After Justice missed a shot, Tenorio, with a vision that seems to only get clearer under duress, found Douthit underneath the basket—the pass accurately sailing over three defenders like a homing missile—for the easy deuce to push the Philippines ahead, 74-73 with 1:26 remaining.
With the boisterous Filipino crowd chanting “De-fense!” Tenorio and company obliged, forcing USA to a miss and a turnover. In the ensuing possession, Tenorio, feeling the heat of the moment, took a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down for the dagger. He missed again.
USA then gave the Philippines a taste of its own medicine. Tenorio didn’t see the man cutting behind him. Justice issued a bullet pass to a wide-open Jermaine Dearman to reclaim the lead, 75-74 with 36 seconds left.
As the Philippines sued for time, coach Chot Reyes diagrammed a play to free up snipers Gary David and Jeff Chan from opposite wings.
“Kapitan niyo na makakapitan niyo. Kami ni Richard (Del Rosario), nagho-holding hands na dito,” said commentator Magoo Marjon in jest, willfully breaking the unwritten edict that the broadcast panel should be non-partisan.
As the Philippines broke the huddle and went back to the floor, Reyes told Tenorio, who made the sign of the cross anew: “Pili ka sa dalawa (David or Chan).”
Tenorio chose himself.
It wasn't an act of disobedience but of audacious self-belief, especially after a pair of defensive lapses and bricking back-to-back attempts. With precious time ticking away and the play going nowhere, Tenorio, using Douthit as a battle tank to shield him from the defender, sank a cold-blooded jumper from the left elbow—a shot he has taken so many times from Batangas to Don Bosco to San Beda to Ateneo to the PBA—for a 76-75 advantage with 19.9 seconds left. The raucous Filipino fans serenaded Tenorio with a crazed-out chorus of cheers.
USA didn’t call a timeout. Mychal Kearse forced a shot that only hit the backboard. Guess who was there to get the rebound? Tenorio, at a very Filipino-esque 5-foot-8, was fouled with 8.0 ticks remaining. He let out three primal screams while repeatedly pumping his fist emphatically.
“LA Tenorio waited all his life to be called into service. What a way for Tinyente to deliver!” exclaimed Marjon.
After some anxious moments inbounding the ball off a timeout, Chan was fouled. Tenorio was replaced by Mercado for defensive purposes. He once again made the sign of the cross and locked arms with Enrico Villanueva, Jay-R Reyes, and Mac Baracael on the bench.
Chan, the team’s best shooter, missed the first free throw. Upon Reyes' order, he intentionally missed the second one. The ball went out of bounds and was awarded to USA with nine-tenths of a second left. USA hoisted a Hail Mary pass from the other end. Wayne Arnold had a good look but his baseline shot bounced off the rim, to the collective relief of all Filipinos in the venue who probably ran out of nails to bite.
The Philippines escaped by a hairline to capture only its 4th title in the Jones Cup. The blue-clad unit clawed back from a 14-point deficit at halftime to vanquish the then-13-time champions. Tenorio, who struggled the entire tournament before resurrecting in their last two outings—clutch, really—scored 11 of his game-high 20 points in the fourth quarter. He was named tournament MVP.
“I admit, we are already very tired. But like Michael Jordan said, ‘The heart never gets tired,’” said Tenorio after the game.
It was the first significant victory of the national squad since 1998 when the Philippines also ruled the Jones Cup. It was also a rare win over USA, which routinely steamrolled past the Philippines in past competitions. The Tenorio-led triumph catalyzed the succeeding successes of Gilas Pilipinas. Almost exactly a year later after the Jones Cup, the team exorcised the “Curse of Korea” in the FIBA Asia Championship, giving the country a historic slot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Tenorio continued to play a pivotal role in both tournaments. Because that’s what he does: Show up.
These days, Tenorio is fighting the biggest battle of his life. He was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. While he said he’s not retiring yet, a more pragmatic view says the comeback trail is obscured by a cathedral of obstacles. Plus, at 38 years old, the odds are mightily stacked against the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel star.
But throughout his career, including an amazing span of 744 straight games in the PBA, Tenorio has been stubbornly defiant. Refusing to yield to doubts and kowtow to frailties. It’s possible that deep inside, he's scared right now. That he’s only putting up a strong facade because he knows he needs to continue to be an inspiration. A kid might also be battling the Big C. Or a dad. Or a teenage girl. No one will blame Tenorio though if he cries out his fears when he’s alone with his thoughts, while making the sign of the cross 100 times. That’s perfectly fine. Admirable, even.
Tenorio, with his fire and competitiveness, is used to being on top. However, in this distinct instance, he's the clear underdog. But as he displayed with his epic heroics in the Jones Cup nearly a decade ago, he is quite adept at performing courageously under immense pressure. He will never cower in a bunker and refuse to fight. He's Tinyente. The Gineral. Iron Man. Being resolute is seared into his soul. He is a living reminder that when forced into a tough situation, under seemingly insurmountable circumstances, there’s only one recourse: Bet on yourself. Always.