Holding Court – What caused the ‘Last Home Stand’ fiasco?

Bert A. Ramirez

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Holding Court – What caused the ‘Last Home Stand’ fiasco?
It was 'a huge black eye to Philippine basketball' as columnist Bert Ramirez tackles the ill-fated Gilas 'Last Home Stand'

It was, in the words of long-time basketball aficionado and former PureFoods basketball team manager Simon “Monchito” Mossesgeld, a “terrible PR nightmare,” something that “dealt a huge black eye to Philippine basketball and all Philippine entities.“

And it’s the last thing anyone would have wanted to happen just as the country’s Gilas Pilipinas team was in the homestretch of its preparations – as the event title “The Last Home Stand” suggested – before embarking on its first FIBA World Cup campaign in almost 40 years.

But there it is, Gilas coach Chot Reyes taking the microphone from the night’s hosts Patricia Hizon and Aaron Atayde, telling the more than 10,000 that braved the rains (some of them coming from as far away as Nueva Ecija and spending not a small amount of money) just to watch some of the NBA’s best players take on the country’s best that, no, there won’t be a game tonight, but instead they’d witness how Gilas trains.

It was a shocking turn of events that not even Manny Pangilinan, the man fondly called MVP who has pulled out all stops to support the nation’s basketball program over the past decade, could have expected.

Pangilinan, in a hastily-called press conference right after the basketball drills the Gilas team and NBA players gamely took part in that left most of the crowd feeling shortchanged and angry, apologized for the foulup.  

“We at PLDT would like to apologize to the Filipino fans for having disappointed them tonight. It was a sudden turn of events and we ourselves are disappointed with the way things developed contrary to our expectations,” Pangilinan said. “So we extend our sincerest apologies. Our responsibility is to the Filipino basketball fans. It is a basketball clinic but we really appreciated the expectation that there would be a five-on-five or a game. That is much clear to us, there should be no mincing of words here. 

“Clearly, we created that expectation and perception. Our job as PLDT is to be accountable to that perception, that’s why there is an offer for refund. This is our duty.” 

MVP admitted, while noting that PLDT, the event’s main sponsor that he chairs, doesn’t directly speak to the NBA but only through US-based organizer East-West Private, that he himself was surprised to learn that the NBA did not give its approval to the event and threatened its players with sanctions if they pushed through with the exhibition contest against Gilas. 

“It’s really disappointing, the sudden turn of events,” Pangilinan said. “I was just told in the afternoon what happened. We obviously had the option of canceling even tonight’s (Tuesday’s) event.”

The NBA, in a statement that it later issued, said that the event’s organizer failed to meet the deadline that it set in securing permission for the event to push through.

“Under the terms of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, players are allowed to participate in offseason basketball games or exhibitions when requirements for those events are met, including ensuring that appropriate safeguards be in place, and the promoter seeks the proper exemptions from the NBA and the player’s team,” the NBA said. “The promoter of this proposed event, East-West Private LLC, was informed of this process several months ago but did not take the required steps.”

The NBA had earlier warned the NBA Players Association against violations of the CBA provisions that included “some kind of exhibition of basketball skills,” including shooting and dunk contests. The Players Association in turn issued a memo informing the players and their agents that the NBA “has taken the position that any such exhibition or competition is unallowable and is not approved for player participation under the CBA, regardless of whether it is incorporated into a ‘clinic’ or other ‘benign-sounding activity.’”

Earlier on Tuesday, July 22, Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who along with Raptors teammates DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross came to Manila for the supposed two-day exhibition, received a phone call warning him of sanctions if they pushed through with their game. The threat of suspensions from the NBA eventually made the players, which also included San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Houston’s James Harden, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Detroit’s Brandon Jennings, Dallas’ Tyson Chandler and last-minute substitute Matt Barnes of the LA Clippers, decide not to play after meeting and discussing things among themselves.

By that time, however, it was too late to devise a contingency plan that would have mitigated the adverse effects the unexpected developments would inevitably have on the project. And the sudden turn of events understandably riled up the fans, who had to pay P750 for the cheapest tickets and up to P24,000 for the costliest thinking a real, honest-to-goodness game would take place among the NBA stars and Gilas. 

“This is disappointing,” said Rocky Asuncion, who came all the way from Nueva Ecija to watch a game that turned into a glorified workout. “We had to miss work and travel for three hours to make it here expecting to watch a game.”

“P50,000 tapos practice lang? C’mon, don’t fool us again,” the head of a family sitting at the patron section was overheard ranting when things finally unraveled.

So who’s to blame for this fiasco that brought upon MVP and PLDT, perhaps undeservedly, the kind of scorn and contempt reserved only for pork barrel scammers and hardened criminals?

Some player agents, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, believe that the NBA took a hardline stance on the Manila event because it wants to keep financial control of such international events involving its players. That way, it can sell its own sponsorships to organizers and control the payout to players.

ESPALDON. East West Private president Maria Espaldon. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Maria “Chao” Espaldon, president of East-West Private, had earlier put the blame on the NBA, too, while admitting that her group, which had brought Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul to Manila for a similar exhibition in 2011, failed to meet the NBA’s deadline to ensure the players would be free to participate in the exhibition games. But she immediately backtracked, probably realizing that things apparently did not work out due to certain oversights on her group’s part.

“I don’t know if there’s a blame that needs to be put. The Filipino audience had an expectation of a game.  They had enjoyed something really happy in 2011 and they really wanted to see something like that again,” she said. “Our objective was to deliver something like that again this year and we had to adjust because it wasn’t within the parameters of the NBA.”

Although Espaldon’s group was responsible for bringing that Bryant and Durant-led group in 2011, one has to realize that the players then had a lockout while a new CBA was being hammered out and thus were not bound by any rules. That team of NBA stars was thus able to play a couple of games against the Gilas team and a group of PBA All-Stars.

Pangilinan himself, upon realizing that his group could have tied some loose ends, admitted that they simply relied on East-West’s track record and should have exercised more due diligence.

“When you get down to the details, what are the relevant conditions which a player or a promoter like East-West must comply with in order to secure, I think more importantly, is the approval of the NBA,” Pangilinan said. “We don’t know that. Maybe, we should have known. Maybe we should have exercised more due diligence in terms of what those conditions are. We relied on the track record in staging the 2011 event. And so we relied on them, maybe not quite as diligently as we should have, in bringing the players here.”

Ariel Fermin, PLDT Home Executive Vice President and Head for Home Business, said organizers were only informed about the NBA players’ decision not to play late on Tuesday afternoon, leaving them with no recourse but to make the most of the situation.   

Fermin and Espaldon, in an apparent but ill-advised effort to deflect the blame, had earlier declared that they never announced that an exhibition game would take place, further incensing the fans who obviously paid such prohibitive prices expecting nothing less than a full-blown game as numerous full-page ads had unmistakably indicated, if not explicitly stated.

Inside sources claim Fermin’s PLDT team failed to consult several groups within the MVP Group with experience in organizing sports events of such magnitude, and this apparently led to the foulups that eventually caused the cancelation of the event altogether in the end. Had MVP’s more knowledgeable people been more hands-on, the sources say, the matter of securing the NBA’s permission could have been worked out. Another source, however, claims that it was Reyes, who also serves as executive director of the MVP Sports Foundation, a supposed beneficiary of the botched project, who was in direct contact with Espaldon and her group and should have made sure she didn’t leave anything to chance.

That apparently did not happen, however, as Espaldon, instead of ensuring that all bases were covered, opened the event to that unfortunate denoeument by making several assumptions. She herself admitted it by saying in essence her group was hoping the NBA would finally relent despite having given its thumbs-down as early as April if certain requirements were not met. “For a charity event in the NBA, there are sanctioned and unsanctioned events. For example, there are games where players play for the love of the game and they do it for charity,” Espaldon said. “When we proposed this to the organization, PLDT, we said it should be a for-charity event and it did not need to be sanctioned. That was our belief. That’s generally what happens in the US. There are games everywhere that they play, some are sanctioned and some are not.

“We thought that it could be a great opportunity to really bring the best of basketball here and also do charity at the same time,” she said as she pointed to the charity component of the project, which would have also benefited the victims of Typhoon Yolanda and Caritas Manila. “That was sort of what we were hoping, that the NBA – despite the fact that we had missed the deadline – would have said that it’s for charity and it’s for the benefit of the victims of Haiyan. We explained all of that to them. They just weren’t having any of that. They didn’t want to listen to the fact that this was not something we were doing for profit.” 

This was perhaps the fatal gamble that Espaldon’s group made in the end: hoping that since it was a charity event, the NBA would look the other way and let it go anyway just as it does with similar pocket activities in the US. And it proved to be a very costly mistake, a “terrible PR nightmare” and a “huge black eye,” as Mossesgeld said, for basketball’s godfather MVP and Philippine basketball itself.

Sympathy for MVP

Not all is lost on discerning fans as far as Manny Pangilinan is concerned. Many of them expressed admiration for MVP for owning up to his PLDT guys’ boo-boos and making an apology to Filipino fans.

“Sad to see MVP taking all the blame, even if the whole fiasco is the fault of his incompetent subordinates,” said a fan on a popular sports blogsite’s Twitter account.

“Ang dami (nang) nagawa sa Philippine basketball, sa isang mali na di naman sya me kasalanan sisi agad??” said Michael Antonio, another basketball fan, on Twitter.

“The humility showed by (MVP) is unprecedented. Very admirable for a man of his stature.  You wanna be successful? This is how you do it,” a Giñebra fan who goes by the Twitter name Kume Cheetos Salud, meanwhile, said.

One fan, on the other hand, wrote that the blame should be pointed at Pangilinan’s subordinates for “trying to push through with the event, by sugarcoating the initial agreed ‘clinic’ into a Gilas-versus-NBA stars affair.”

Financial cost 

According to an insider, the cost of the botched “The Last Home Stand” project could reach up to a whopping $4.6 million, or around P200 million, a staggering amount that doesn’t even include the hit –  estimated at P50 million – Manny Pangilinan’s group is expected to take when refunds for the supposed two-day affair are completed.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, MVP had committed to pay some of the 12 players originally cast upwards of $150,000 each for the two-day event. As there were nine players who actually came with Paul George, Blake Griffin and Paul Pierce all backing out from the original group of players invited, the cost for bringing those players alone would reach P58.05 million at the stated rate. In addition, Griffin and Nick Johnson of Houston had reportedly been actually on their way to Manila only to be forced to change plans at the last minute.

Event organizers said the players have been “partially paid” even before Tuesday’s scrapped game.

Other expenses would of course come from the players’ airfare and accommodations, venue bookings, and other miscellaneous expenditures.

SHORTSHOTS: Some fans obviously went overboard when they ranted on social media that they’ll no longer support the Gilas Pilipinas team. I think we should get off the Gilas guys, who themselves were not even aware they would not play any game that fateful Tuesday night. This is definitely not their fault so I don’t understand why the hate and the threat that we instead cheer for Spain or Argentina. What the heck has happened to one’s sense of nationalism? Somebody bungled big time, and you be the judge from the dissertation we made above on who it is so I guess the buck stops there. MVP, of course, couldn’t escape collateral damage but let’s not make things worse by vilifying him or anybody who only has the best interests of our national team in mind. This should be a lesson to anyone who organizes similar future projects, keeping in mind that the NBA has to give its sanction to such events, and agents can only facilitate the participation of their players… Securing the NBA’s approval could have been simpler had organizers used a different approach, using the connection between the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas and USA Basketball to gain approval for the tuneup games. Both the NBA and USA Basketball have close links, and I don’t think the NBA would have deprived a country’s national team a good tuneup to prepare for a FIBA tournament had the proper coordination been made. And that’s where USA Basketball could have helped… Did Paul Pierce, Paul George and Blake Griffin know about possible sanctions by the NBA if they took part in the slated exhibition games against Gilas? Some people think they must have known something for backing out. Griffin, incidentally, had withdrawn from consideration for the US team that will play in the FIBA World Cup in Spain… Former LA Lakers defensive wiz Michael Cooper, currently the coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, has been diagnosed with tongue cancer. The 58-year-old Cooper, a five-time All-Defensive First Team selection, was set to undergo surgery last week and a full recovery is expected… Dallas has voided the one-year, $1.4 million contract it signed with Rashard Lewis when it discovered during his physical that the 16-year-veteran forward will need surgery in his right knee… Doc Rivers has said he does not want to coach the LA Clippers if Donald Sterling remains the team’s owner. The testimony in court has ended over the Clippers’ $2 billion sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Sterling himself has sued the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver and his wife Shelly Sterling, alleging they defrauded him and violated corporate law in attempting to sell the franchise to Ballmer and seeking damages from the respondents. – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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