Jong Uichico still remembers the sequence of events like it happened yesterday.
"The last few minutes of that game are vivid for me," he told ESPN ahead of the start of this year's Asian Games. "Very vivid. Asi (Taulava) missed two (free throws), Olsen (Racela) missed two, we had two fouls to give. They had no timeout.
"I had two timeouts. I had a chance to call a timeout. We had two fouls to give. The players knew we had two fouls to give. There was no chance to give up the foul because we missed the free throw. Then they fumbled. They fumbled right in front of me."
"They" were the South Korean men's basketball team, and "that game" referred to the semifinal loss between the Philippines and hosts South Korea at the 2002 Busan Asian Games.
For Filipino basketball fans, no game better encapsulates the so-called Curse of Korea than this one. It was as if the basketball gods had decided to play a cruel joke by thrusting all forms of obstacles in front of this team, then denying them, at literally the last possible second, a chance to complete their underdog story.
The story started in late 2001, when Ron Jacobs, who had brilliantly handled the national team program in the early 1980s, was appointed head coach of the Philippine team for the 2002 Busan Asian Games. Jacobs had been part of the San Miguel Beermen coaching staff, but a PBA title had eluded him. Still, he was widely respected by virtually all PBA players.
On December 22, 2001, Jacobs suffered a stroke that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. The PBA scrambled for a replacement, but it was clear there was only one person that Jacobs would have wanted to take his place.
"It wasn't supposed to be me," Uichico recalls. "Then suddenly I'm head coach. But you can't turn your back on the country, especially since the task is already there."
The assembled team looked formidable on paper. Comprised of a number of Fil-foreigners and homegrown talents, they were deep at each position. Plus, because of the cooperation of the PBA, they were able to train together for several months before Busan.
But then another disaster struck. One week before the Busan Games began, small forward Danny Seigle -- arguably the best PBA player at the time and a matchup nightmare for any Asian opponent -- tore his Achilles' heel in an exhibition game against Qatar.
"When we lost [Seigle], we lost easily 10 points in a given game because we know he can score." Uichico said. "... Kenneth (Duremdes) did a great job, the others did a great job in making that up. But of course, those 10-15 points, added to the rest could have spelled the difference."
The team managed to make its way to the semifinals where they faced the hosts. The game was tight, with South Korea inching ahead several times before the Philippines would come back. The sequence Uichico vividly remembers began with less than two minutes left.
Down 63-62, Taulava missed two free throws. South Korea and the Philippines traded 3-pointers before another South Korea miss. Racela then buried another 3 to give the Philippines a 68-66 lead with around 50 seconds to go. South Korea missed twice, and Racela grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 23.9 seconds left.
At this point, Uichico was faced with a decision.
"Should I should have called a timeout?" he wonders. "But they had no timeout. If I call a timeout, then they can set up something. I didn't want to set up something but I could have called a timeout to remind the players. ... It's easy hindsight when we can discuss now for five minutes, but I did not have five minutes at that time. So I decided not to call a timeout."
With a chance to ice the game, Racela missed both free throws. The Philippine defense held, however, and with around six seconds left, the ball was knocked loose.
"Fumble, fumble, all of a sudden...," Uichico pauses for a few seconds "...the ball went to Lee Sang Min with point something seconds and (he) makes the shot. So, what can you say? He makes a big shot. He was 0 for 3. Yes, we knew that he can make the 3-point shot but he was 0 for 3 entering that shot and he made it. So, it's really...it was really painful. It was like, boom, boom."
The buzzer-beater knocked the Philippines out of an improbable spot in the finals and broke the hearts of Filipino fans. Hontiveros lay face down on the floor afterwards, crying unabashedly.
Twenty-one years later, Uichico still wonders what would have happened if Seigle had been healthy.
"I can't say what would have happened if Danny Seigle was able to play, but I'm sure that he would make a difference in that game because he was a mismatch during that time."
The loss was so numbing that the players couldn't rally for the bronze medal game against Kazakhstan the following day. Uichico blames himself for this.
"The bronze medal match was my fault because for me, everything ended after we lost," he said. "On hindsight, it wasn't. I should have, as the leader of the team, as the head coach, lifted them up and play for the bronze medal. I take responsibility for that one. For not getting them up."
A second chance
Uichico is once again back in the Asian Games, this time as an assistant coach. And while a podium finish would provide some measure of satisfaction, it still won't replace the pain he felt 21 years ago.
"You can never erase the pain I felt back then regardless of any win, unless you win the Olympics," Uichio said. "That will remain there. But there's no more pain. It's only a memory that lingers every time somebody brings it back or every time you're in an Asian Games tournament."
Fortunately for Uichico and the players, social media wasn't around yet back then, so he was spared from potential online vitriol. He took a break from coaching for a while, during which time he was touched by the sympathy shown by Filipino fans.
"They would just come up and say it was a great game. You know, 'great game, good game, don't worry, coach.' Those things, even those simple words can uplift your spirit. Those things go a long way. The people that say those things don't realize how much it means to me."