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Thirty years after Pinatubo's destruction, Angeles City hosts a game for the ages

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SJ Belangel's stunning buzzer-beater (0:46)

SJ Belangel was off-balanced and pressed for time, but somehow he found a way to bank in the game-winnign triple (0:46)

ANGELES CITY - It was 30 years ago when Mt. Pinatubo erupted. It was a natural disaster that severely affected the Philippines, but most of all Central Luzon.

In the immediate aftermath, Pampanga seemed like a ghost town. It was covered in ash. Buildings were buried or totally wiped out. Families were jarred from the whole ordeal. There were many who thought that bouncing back would be impossible, so they left. They sold their property for next to nothing and started their lives elsewhere.

But no, three decades after the disaster, Angeles - perhaps Pampanga's most well-known city - is actually a booming metropolis. Boasting high-level amenities with still-provincial prices, it's turned into a good combination of high-paced but also quite relaxed. It retained its old charm while reinventing itself as something new and exciting.

Disasters happen, whether we like it or not. No one is immune to bad things from happening so the ultimate measure of the human spirit is how you bounce back when life knocks you down.

Gilas Pilipinas Men program director and head coach Tab Baldwin knew that a disaster was coming their way. He has built many teams in the past. He knows what it takes to form a competitive international basketball team. He knew this team, dealing with inexperience and ravaged by injuries, was far from it.

At the same time, Baldwin knew that there was little that could be done. The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas gave them a safe venue to train in Calamba, Laguna. The coach would have wanted to play tune-up games to truly gauge the work they had put in, but the logistics of getting a team into a "bubble" to play against Gilas was too much of a headache.

"We feel like we're playing good defense because we know that to expect," said Baldwin during one of their practices. "But what will really tell us if we're any good is when we react to things we don't know are coming."

Korea came at Gilas, and came at them hard, in the opening minutes of their first meeting in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers. They were physical with their pressure defense, forcing the usually reliable Dwight Ramos to consecutive turnovers.

Unfortunately for the Filipinos, that was just the opening salvo. Rock bottom came in the second quarter when Korea dominated at both ends and built a 17-point lead.

Without a doubt, that must have led to flashbacks to disasters of games past, when different Philippine teams just drowned in the spot-on passing and terrific shooting of their Korean counterparts.

The beauty of this Gilas squad, though, was they were not too burdened with the past. Ask any of them what they know about the basketball rivalry between the Philippines and Korea and they'd mention 2013.

"I just wish we could give the fans something like that moment," said Ramos, referring to the 86-79 win that powered the Filipinos past the Koreans and through to the gold medal game of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship.

Youth was seen as the biggest issue with this squad, but in this case, it actually turned out to be a blessing. They were blissfully unaware of the baggage that older generations carry. While we as longtime fans look at Korea with worry, our young players saw them as just another team, the game as just another game. If they were beaten in eight years ago, why couldn't they be beaten today?

Slowly but surely, Gilas scratched their way back into the game. While doing so, they were building and building the excitement we were all feeling about what the future may hold.

Ramos, 22, getting back into his groove. RJ Abarrientos, 21, on a pick and roll with Kai Sotto, 19. Ange Kouame, 23, making three-point shots. SJ Belangel, 21, setting the tempo. Carl Tamayo, 20, showing why he would be one of the country's primetime scorers in the very near future.

All those were already enough for some fans. A close game against Korea and enough bright spots could have been considered a moral victory. But no, these Gilas cadets, with an average age of 22, had other plans.

Down by five late in the game, they showed poise beyond their years as they drew fouls and converted free throws. All the while, they were playing like a team, not just a collection of individuals.

When Kouame missed a free throw that would have iced the game and bit on a fake that led to a game-tying three for Korea, Ramos was on his side after a split second, urging him to forget about it and just focus on the next play.

That next play? A play that showed Belangel got Kouame's back: an epic one-footed three-point shot off the glass that, yes, won the game.

When they were down 17, Gilas could have just accepted disaster. But they did not. Like the people around this part of the country 30 years ago, they fought back.

I was still young when Pinatubo happened, but I have bits and pieces of memories about how our neighbors helped us shovel ash from our roof. When it was done, they moved on to the next house and then to the next, the contingent constantly growing in number. I remember people sharing whatever they had left to anyone who needed it more.

Disasters could always happen in this unpredictable world. We know that there are things beyond our control. What we could control, however, is how we deal with it and how we prepare for it - lessons that a Gilas team with its oldest player at 25, hopefully, reminded us.

On June 15, 1991, my city was in ruin due to a historic eruption. On June 16, 2021, my city was the setting for what is sure to be a pivotal moment in Philippine basketball history.