OFFLINE: A professional league in shambles

Like a good many Filipinos, I enjoy watching basketball, be it the NBA, UAAP or NCAA.

Notice something missing?

Yes, the Philippine Basketball Association is no longer in my list, and hasn’t been for a long time.

Said to be the first professional basketball league in Asia and one of the first in the world, the PBA has seen better days and it’s all because the last few heads of the association have done a mediocre job, at best, and a horrible one, at worst.

For the past few years, even championship games are played before near empty stadiums.

This once-great pro league lost much of its credibility after two business titans owned not one, not two, but three teams each. This guaranteed that the owners – Manny V. Pangilinan and Ramon Ang of the MVP Group and the San Miguel group of companies, respectively – would get to celebrate championships on a regular basis.

To this day, it is their teams that almost always vie for the two or three championships every year. All other teams are little more than fodder for the MVP and SMC teams to toy with.

The one exception was the Alaska Milk franchise, but the owners finally gave up trying to contend for titles because the opponents had somehow found ways to recruit the best players, sometimes through a series of questionable trades.

There was no need to revive talk of game fixing, which had been happening since the beginning of the league. All the teams had to do was wink at each other to determine whose turn it was to win an empty, meaningless championship.

This is not to say that the quality of today’s players does not compare to the stars of the PBA’s golden age. But for some inexplicable reason, none of them excite the fans the way the stars of old did.

Yes, I’m referring to the Jaworskis, the Fernandezes, the Cos, the Adornados, and the Arnaizes did in the early years followed by the next generation like the Lastimosas, the Patrimonios, the Ildefonsos, and the Parases.

After that second generation of stars, the ones that followed did not have the excitement factor, maybe because their teams did not have the character of Crispa, Toyota, Ginebra, or Purefoods. Of the four, only Ginebra is still around and while still popular, cannot compare to the original squad that carried the same name.

I do not want to name names, but clearly the men who headed the league in the last two decades or so were little more than yes men to the big business owners. In turn, they turned the players into pawns who, while relatively well paid, likewise lacked character, pizzazz.

Incidentally, Mon Fernandez and Alvin Patrimonio were two of the all-time greats, being named MVP four times each. Then along came June Mar Fajardo, who won an unprecedented five MVP titles. But by the time this Cebuano came along, I had lost all interest in the now boring PBA.

This league hit a new low this week when it openly tried to block Filipino players from playing in the other pro basketball leagues that have sprouted all over the region.

A small number of today’s young stars have been recruited in the pro leagues of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Australia even.

They receive such huge salaries that even collegiate players dream of playing for Asian teams, bypassing the PBA.

Now the PBA wants to regulate the recruitment of Filipino players who only want to earn as much as they can in the little time they have as professional cagers.

This is wrong, of course. And the players know it. They realize that they are being treated like so much chattel. Or even cattle. Actually they know that they are little more than property of the teams that recruited them, who can be bought and sold – traded is the word the league uses – without their approval.

This is only a slight exaggeration. Collegiate players who submit their names to the annual recruitment end up as some kind of property of the teams that recruit them. Even if they are signed up but barely used, or not used at all, there is little they can do.

Few people know who Will Navarro is. He entered the PBA as a recruit three years ago, and has barely played for his team.

Navarro was recently given the chance to play in the Korean Basketball League, but the PBA in partnership with the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas refused to release him from his unfair contract.

To be clear, Navarro is not a big star. Not yet anyway. But it’s become clear to him, his family, and what few followers he has that he never will be a starter, much less a star. If he stays in the PBA as a benchwarmer, he will lose precious years when he is supposed to be at his peak.

As one of the Filipino players based abroad, signed with an Australian team, Kai Sotto, said, “this is crazy.”

It is and Sotto has more pained words to say about how the PBA is preventing young stars from “playing at the highest level they can reach.”

The worst part is, according to the young Sotto who dreams of one day playing in the NBA, “our own people (are) stopping us from achieving greatness.”

As of this time, there are less than a dozen Filipino players in the Asian and Australian leagues. Some of them are a little past their peak, while a handful are still playing at the highest level. The pay they reportedly receive is in the millions of pesos every month.

By comparison, the highest salary a PBA player can receive is less than half a million pesos a month and only a handful get the maximum pay.

Another big star, Greg Slaughter, minced no words when he said that what the PBA was trying to do was “total BS and crab mentality at its highest.”

Slaughter recalled that the PBA even blocked him from joining the league “days before my daughter was born.”

While he eventually made it to the league, the bad feeling obviously remains. Slaughter is yet another of the players who has been invited to play abroad, and he is so inclined because he wants to provide a brighter future for his family.

For today’s PBA, this seems to be par for the course. They do not care one whit about what the players think or feel. They are, after all, pawns, right?

Preventing or blocking any player from joining foreign teams is borderline criminal, no matter what the PBA and SBP masters say.

Incidentally, the players who are under contract with foreign teams have said that they are willing to play for the Philippine national team anytime. They are still proud to wear the Philippine flag on their jerseys and play for their homeland. But the PBA and the SBP act as of they will refuse to join the national team if called.

Maybe it’s time for the PBA to call it a day and end operations for good. Its glory days are behind it, whether they admit it or not.

And don’t get me started on the SBP. That’s a topic for another day.