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BODY AND SOLE: PBA: a dying league?

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MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 9 May)—The Philippine Basketball Association, Asia’s first professional league whose rules are patterned after the National Basketball Association’s, started in 1975. It was the height of our basketball supremacy in the continent, although we dominated the game then on this side of the globe because our neighbors were still trying to master the game.

Nonetheless, even if countries like China, South Korea and Iran had replaced the Philippines as the basketball superpower in Asia, the PBA continued to thrive as the Filipino’s favorite pastime. Exciting players like Robert Jaworski and Samboy Lim, as well as pretty faces like Alvin Patrimonio and Yves Dignadice, were able to lure fans to the venues and draw a huge TV viewership. They kept the cash registers ringing, so to speak.

But the PBA has been suffering one malady after another. The first was the inroads made by Filipino-Americans and other half-breed players. Taller and heftier than the locals, virtually all teams in the league tapped the services of many of these guys who opted to play here knowing they lack the skill set for the NBA, no thanks to our citizenship laws.

Jojo Lastimosa, who played for Purefoods and then for Alaska (which had sold its franchise to Converge) and who now serves as head coach of TNT, raised a howl against the influx of Fil-foreigners. He lamented that the preference given to the half-breeds was denying many homegrown talents a chance from joining the league. Nobody listened. Ironically, Lastimosa now finds himself coaching a team that relies on the scoring prowess of Kelly Williams and Mikey Williams and on the leadership of Jason Castro William as point guard.

(Kelly and Mikey are not related. Jason uses Castro, his mother’s surname, in the PBA, and William, his father’s surname, in international competitions because that’s what his passport shows.)

Then the ugly face of corporate monopoly crept in. Of the 12 current PBA teams, three belong to the San Miguel Corp. conglomerate (San Miguel Beermen, Barangay Ginebra Kings, and Magnolia Hotshots), and three others belong to business mogul Manny V. Pangilinan (TNT Tropang Texters, NLEX Road Warriors, and Meralco Bolts). Before, the Beermen and Kings were the only sister teams in the league.

With their resources, the six teams have the edge in terms of team development and getting the best players whom they can lure into their fold with huge paychecks, although the PBA imposes salary caps. It’s no surprise therefore that in the past several years these teams have dominated the tournaments. At times, the championship games had become family affairs—Beermen versus the Kings, Hotshots versus the Kings, TNT versus the Bolts—or toss-ups between the Ramon Ang and Pangilinan franchises. The rest are just whipping boys during the elimination round.

Yet, that should be the least of PBA’s worries. The past two or three years had seen the exodus of several Filipino players to cage clubs in Japan, which offer bigger salaries, according to reports. One player, Rhenz Abando, is making waves at the Korean Basketball League where his team, Anyang KGC, won the championship against Seoul SK Knights in a thrilling Game 7 on May 7.

I saw a replay, and I couldn’t count how many times the commentators exclaimed “Abando” in the final minutes of the game. And why not, despite going scoreless (0 of 7 attempts from the field), Abando pulled off crucial rebounds, steals, assists, and blocks that frustrated Seoul’s last stand.

I also watched Abando’s previous games. Man, at 6’2”, he can outsmart bigger and taller opponents inside the paint, an all-around player on both the offensive and defensive ends. Alas, Gilas Pilipinas head coach Chot Reyes didn’t see his worth, and benched him during the national team’s last qualifying games for the FIBA World Cup. Abando’s fans got so dismayed that some of them urged him to play in and for other countries instead that appreciate his skills.

So, if our talented players are now going to foreign shores where their services are valued more, in the near future the PBA will just look like another barangay league.

(Body and Sole is the author’s sports and fitness column. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at hmcmordeno@gmail.com.)

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