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The lords of Philippine basketball are troubled

MARKUS SPISKE-UNSPLASH

Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Commissioner Wilfrido “Willie” O. Marcial will soon meet with Shinji Semada, chairman of Japan’s B.League, and Kim Hee-ok, commissioner of the Korean Basketball League (KBL) to discuss, among other things, the recruitment of Filipino basketball players by the two foreign basketball associations.

Among the players who are playing or who have played in the B.League are Thirdy Ravena (San-En NeoPhoenix), Keifer Ravena (Shiga Lakestars), Ray Parks (Nagoya Diamond Dolphins), Kobe Paras (Niigata Albirex BB), Dwight Ramos (Levanga Hokkaido, Toyoma Grouses), and Juan Gomez de Liano (Earthfriends Tokyo Z, now with the ASEAN Basketball League’s Surabaya Vikings Warriors).

Javi Gomez de Liano played for Ibaraki Robots last season but he has come home and is now playing for Terrafirma Dyip of the PBA. Justine Baltazar will play for Hiroshima Dragonflies after the conclusion of the Philippine National Basketball League (NBL) season (he is with Pampanga Delta).

Three other local players will soon play in the KBL. They are SJ Belangel (Daegu KOGAS Pegasus), RJ Abarrientos (Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus), and Justin Gutang (Changwon LG Sakers).

The B.League is Japan’s professional men’s basketball league. It was formed in September 2016, as a result of a merger between the National Basketball League that was operated by the FIBA-affiliated Japan Basketball Association and the independently operated bj league.

The league consists of two divisions: B1, which has 24 teams; B2, which has 14. Each club in the first and second divisions are allowed up to three registered foreign players.

KBL, established in 1997, is South Korea’s professional men’s basketball league. The league consists of 10 teams. Each team can have up to two foreign players on the condition that only one of them can be taller than 200 centimeters (6 ft. 6 in.).

Those in the know say Japan’s B.League Division I teams paid Filipino imports around $7,000 to $15,000 (P350,000 to P750,000) a month depending on the player.

Twenty-five-year-old Thirdy Ravena is reported to be getting $400,000 to $550,000 (P20 million to P27.5 million). In addition they are given bonuses for won games and incentives for playoffs, which can amount to one or two months’ worth of salary.

The PBA has a cap of P420,000, and that is for the superstars in the league. In the PBA, the players pay their agents’ commission. In the B.League, the teams pay the agents’ commission.

On top of paying them handsome salaries, B.League teams house their imports in luxurious facilities. They also provide them with a car and a driver. The imports can dine in a restaurant affiliated with their team for free.

The lure of playing in Japan, and now in South Korea as well, has become a serious concern for officials of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), the federation of all FIBA-affiliated associations in the country.

The SBP officials fear that foreign leagues will draw players away from Gilas Pilipinas, the country’s national basketball team that participates in international tournaments. Keifer Ravena, Ramos, Belangel, and Abarrientos are mainstays of Gilas Pilipinas.

The ruling body of the PBA, the Board of Governors, is also troubled. Keifer Ravena and Parks were still under contract with PBA teams (Ravena with NLEX and Parks with TNT) when they left to play for Japan. There are talks that Matthew Wright of Phoenix is just waiting for his contract with Phoenix Fuel Masters to expire. Then off to Japan he goes. Abu Tratter made known his availability to B.League teams while he was negotiating with the new PBA team Converge FiberXers. He is staying as he has signed the contract with Converge.

Many contemporaries of Thirdy Ravena probably decided to play in the PBA to experience playing for a professional league coach and to hone their skills by learning from their superstar teammates and playing against the best in the land before they play in another country.

Arvin Tolentino of Ginebra must be overjoyed in having Tim Cone as coach and power forward Christian Standhardinger as teammate and mentor. Same with point guard Kib Montalbo of TNT who has Chot Reyes as coach and Jason Castro, once reputed to be the best point guard in Asia, as his teammate and mentor.

Other young players like CJ Perez, Robert Bolick, Javee Mocon, Bong Quinto, Rey Suerte, Matt and Mike Nieto, and Santi Santillian must be the subject of Japanese and Korean scouts.

Having gained much experience playing with and against the best in the land and having attained the status of starters and therefore established themselves as real pros, they will draw offers much more than the players with only collegiate tournament experience like the Filipino players now in Japan, maybe as much as what Thirdy got.

They are not likely to refuse the offers. That is why they worked their butt off honing their basketball skills from their high school days to their college years — to attract offers from the PBA teams. Now, bigger money and better perks can be obtained somewhere. That has caused the lords of Philippine basketball to consider action that would minimize the threat of losing the country’s top cagers to foreign leagues.

Not even the PBA teams with big budgets can match the offers of B.League teams, otherwise Keifer Ravena would be playing for NLEX and Parks for TNT in the on-going Philippine Cup conference. But if TNT and maybe San Miguel would match the B.League offers, salaries of PBA players would skyrocket.

If the Metro Pacific or San Miguel teams protect the targets of B.League recruiters by matching the offers of the latter, then the other stars among the teammates of the targets would ask for a significant upward adjustment in their salaries.

If no adjustment is made to the satisfaction of the players, then the team manager and head coach might suddenly find themselves swamped with reports of injuries such as a broken finger, a strained hamstring, back spasms, even symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection from disappointed players. Or sometimes, a team’s top scorer might suddenly lose his touch.

I have been told such stories by team insiders (team managers and high-ranking executives of companies that own PBA teams). A former team manager of San Miguel was my former classmate and roommate in the US. A former team manager of Purefoods was my classmate from grade school to college. I used to sit in the section in Araneta Coliseum reserved for the president and other senior executives of Toyota Philippines, courtesy of the secretary of the president. Other team officials are relatives.

If salaries skyrocket, low-budget teams will fold up. My guess is that as many as four, perhaps even five, would withdraw from the league, threatening the viability of the PBA itself.

One course of action the SBP and the PBA can take is to pass a rule that bans teams from hiring local players, whether from the collegiate ranks or from any of the SBP-affiliated professional leagues, who have played for B.League and KBL teams.

The ban would be for a definite period, like three or five years. It would be imposed from the time the overseas player returns to the country. The ban would be similar to the ban imposed on Keifer Ravena by the FIBA.

The intention of the ban is to make a local player think twice about playing in Japan or South Korea. As the B.League and KBL contracts are on a per-season basis, a Filipino player is not assured of a job after the season ends. And with the SBP and PBA ban, he would not find one in any basketball-related capacity (player, trainer, etc.) in the country for several years.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.

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