We can always safely say that Filipinos are basketball-loving people who not only plays it competitively but also watch it religiously on television whether it's their favorite Barangay Ginebra playing in front of a jam-packed Araneta Coliseum or the Gilas Pilipinas team playing against the best in the world. It is quite contrasting to think that there is a love-hate relationship with us Filipinos on our "national" game.
The Philippines is one of the earliest basketball-playing countries in the world and we have been the dominant force in the region capped by our fifth-place finish in the 1936 Summer Olympics and the 1954 FIBA World Championship. But we have somehow fallen from grace as neighboring rivals finally caught up and now lorded over us. It seems that our "birthright" has been taken away from us.
We are no longer the face of Asian basketball ever since the Philippine Basketball Association was established in 1975. We may have qualified and played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup after a long hiatus but we haven't qualified to the Summer Olympics since 1972. Now after recent gains by four iterations of the Gilas program, we have fallen back again as the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (the national basketball governing body) decided to go for an all-collegiate team to represent the country in upcoming competitions leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. So what went wrong?
We all know that PBA remains the proving ground of the best basketball players in the country so why back track now? Is it time to reconsider a change in format of our only professional basketball league? Change the way we organize, administer and even play basketball?
Some may say that the PBA is now a relic of the past and stuck with an insular mindset that they do things better. Controversial decisions and political infighting has made it a sporting institution that is only concerned with money and entertainment not on the betterment of the sport. Are the serious issues it face will be the league's downfall? Maybe not!
Many basketball leagues have folded, MICAA, PBL, MBA, etc., but the PBA remains and survived all the challenges that undermined its survival. Sure, most big businesses have all the money and influence to sustain it to the point that it has monopolized all aspects of basketball in the country. Other regional leagues like the CBA, the KBL and the ABL have gained growing support and our regional rivals have been improving in leaps and bounds. Soon, even our very best PBA players won't be able to beat them. In fact, the youth revolution in new basketball markets is even better than our national youth program.
Signs and Symptoms
I'm not a doctor but whenever there is an illness, there are always signs and symptoms as to why such malady happens. Here are some of it:
(1) The PBA is the "PBA"
When the league broke ground 40 years ago, league officials hoped for a golden age of Philippine basketball so that it will bring us to new heights. We have not won the basketball gold in the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, Iran and it was some 13 years that we ruled the region. Starting a professional league was thought to speed up the process of improving our game to meet the growing challenges of China and Japan.
Although it has revolutionized basketball in our country as the second oldest professional league and made the PBA an institution that only MICAA can dream about. It has also made basketball development insular as drafting players into the league is strictly regulated so that only "Filipinos" can play while foreigners can be just seasonal "imports" for specific reinforced tournaments ("conference" as it called in the Philippines).
Since companies owned the teams, the idea of having a home-away league spiced up by regional rivalries never materialized as league officials and team owners wanted full control so that all games are played in Manila. From an ultra-competitive league in the 70's up to the late 90's, the PBA's monopoly of the game has devolved into a league marred by alleged game-fixing controversies and blatant political infighting.
After all, the PBA is all about "pulitika, basketbol at artista" where former players become politicians or TV actors while one champion boxer becomes part team owner, absentee head coach and wannabe basketball star all in one.
(2) League officials are dinosaurs
I'm sorry to say but league officials are out of touch of reality. They don't seem to get it done. Even the commissioner is ruling the league like a king, who by the way ousted his own namesake. He settles scores like we're still in the Wild West, ask Dondon Hontiveros, Don Carlos Allado, Calvin Abueva or Snow Badua. Most of them are not tech savvy so that the PBA doesn't have its own website. They don't reach out to the fans like they used to.
(3) Rivalries are dead
The Araneta Coliseum and Mall of Asia Arena only comes alive when it's the Manila Clasico or Ginebra plays. Gone are the days where every single team is a contender. There may be a rivalry between the SMC teams San Miguel, Ginebra and Star against the MVP teams TNT, NLEX and Meralco but the rest have become cannon fodder or farm teams. Only Alaska and Rain or Shine have remained "independent." Trades have become one-sided and the draft is starting to become a joke due to under-the-table deals and blatant disregard of the rules with the drafting of KIA (now Mahindra) "head coach" as the team's own choice!
Both the SMC and MVP camps are just hoarding talents to the point that even their bench players can become stars of other teams. A player's long term value has plummeted in exchange for a better deal. Uneven team rosters will create imbalance in the competition thereby having more "boring" games and empty seats.
Referees have more power that any crucial missed and wrong calls they make can change the outcome of the game. Controversial rule changes have made the game so scripted so that Alaska losing to San Miguel in the Commissioner's Cup after leading 3-0 has conspiracy theories written all over it.
(4) Outdated tournament format
During the early years of the league, it was sensible to have a separate "all-Filipino" and "import-reinforced" tournaments in order to further develop "homegrown" talents and up the ante with a more competitive tournament with foreign players and even foreign team invitees. But this format has become more dated as we are now in a more globalized society where being protectionist will only hamper the growth of our players. Fil-foreigners have flooded the league so that local players are groping for form hoping to catch up and fight hard for precious roster spots. Import-laced conferences even pushed them to the edge of the bench.
There is also one thing that the PBA is missing, there is no true season champion. Every season is subdivided into three conferences with no bearing on each other unless you make a "grandslam" (a sweep of all three conferences). Since all teams are company owned, there is no clear distinction as to what team a fan supports unless if you're a rabid Ginebra fan. A team is not tied to a certain locality so any team that plays against Ginebra is always the road team. Ginebra capitalizes on its fan-favorite status but always managed to underperform in the end most of the time thereby earning the tag of "kangkong" from non-Ginebra fans.
The league remains far from reach by most of the fans outside Metro Manila. Although they have out-of-town games once in a while, the PBA remains centralized with majority of its games are played in the capital.
What's the whole point of having separate "all-Filipino" and "import" conferences when the collegiate league plays one season with their Fil-foreign players and African imports? What's the difference between the Commissioner's Cup and Governor's Cup?
(5) Roster imbalance and growing dependence on Fil-Foreign players
We all know about the lopsided trades and hoarding of stars by certain teams. There is also the case of so-called farm teams like Blackwater and Mahindra where some players are traded to these teams to unload high-salaried players only to be traded to another sister team. There is also an ambiguity in the selection process and drafting of players. Pure-blooded Filipinos are considered "locals" while foreigners are considered "imports" that can only play on reinforced conference. We all know that.
But what about Fil-Foreigners? If you have at least one foreign parent but you were born here and played college ball here, you are considered a "local" right? Yes, you are. But if you're born in the United States whether you're a full-blooded Filipino or a hyphenated one, you will always be branded as a "Fil-Foreigner." When you have the latter status, there will be more requirements you need to meet in order to play in PBA. But what about the so-called "Fil-shams"?
Interestingly, some Fil-Foreigners were just flash in the pan and their career never panned out. Even though chemistry will always be an issue in import-reinforced conference, most teams tend to replace imports quite often. If you're a foreigner looking in, you will see the league as an unstable playing environment. There is less time to jell and prove your worth. On the other hand, even if imports make 50 points and 20 rebounds per game and their team loses, they would be replaced.
All the hullabaloo in the PBA is politics of power and patronage in a cold-war backdrop between SMC and MVP groups. Each faction is trying to one up against the other by exerting their influence over the league, the players and even, the national team itself. This is the reason why, we never ever had a chance in fielding all the best possible talents in the national team. Never in the world where you can have an absentee player-coach, a team consultant that acts like a coach, a team manager who vapes in full-view of television viewers and live audience.
The PBA has an adversarial relationship with the SBP. The national basketball governing body should put the PBA on its leash and not the other way around.
It seems being a politician/coach is like a badge of honor here. Some coaches also coach in the collegiate level on the side as well!
Will the league meet its eventual downfall if it doesn't reinvent itself? Only time will tell!
Tell us what are the other reasons why the PBA sucks.