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MANILA, Philippines – In the late 1980s, Cebuano dynamo Ric-Ric Marata was signed by the Vancouver Nighthawks, a team in the World Basketball League (WBL).
Jojo Lastimosa also received a contract but passed up on the opportunity to play in the WBL, a minor professional league in the United States and Canada that imposed a height restriction of 6-foot-5, which was eventually raised to 6-foot-7.
Some of the notable names who saw action in that North American league were former New York Knicks star John Starks and several outstanding PBA imports like Sean Chambers, Jamie Waller, Vincent Askew, Willie Bland, and Jose Slaughter.
Marata’s stint with the Vancouver Nighthawks, although reported by news outlets in the country, was not widely chronicled by local media and Filipino fans. Back then, the development hardly created ripples in the local basketball scene and was not deemed as a trailblazing moment that could open doors for other local players to get recruited by pro teams abroad.
Fast forward to over 30 years later when Thirdy Ravena became an Asian import in the Japan B. League. His first season with the San-En NeoPhoenix attracted massive media coverage, and Filipino fans were able to keep tabs of his exploits with San-En’s games being shown online and on TV.
Up until a few years ago, the ultimate dream of a young Filipino basketball player was to get into a collegiate varsity, graduate to the D. League, then get drafted to Asia’s first play-for-pay professional league, the PBA.
This was the natural progression for any Filipino who aspired to make a career out of the country’s most popular sport. This seemed to be the only option available for a local player.
This no longer is the case today.
Ravena’s entry to Japan in the 2020-2021 season ushered in a spate of Filipino players signing with ballclubs abroad. The following season, his older brother Kiefer, Ray Parks, Dwight Ramos, Kobe Paras, Matthew Aquino, Kemark Cariño, and brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño joined the B. League.
This year, over 20 Filipinos will suit up for teams in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Filipino fans have mostly welcomed seeing their young hoop favorites strutting their wares in foreign professional leagues.
But there also have been resistance emanating from officials and supporters of the PBA who, admit it or not, see this migration of players as a threat to the very existence of the oldest and most enduring professional league this side of the world.
Sports broadcast journalist and documentary film producer Bill Velasco said what is happening is actually not a recent trend.
“Filipinos have been playing overseas for decades, just as Filipino coaches have been working overseas, as well. Indonesia has had Filipino imports in its commercial leagues for over 20 years,” said Velasco.
“The ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) has had at least three Filipinos on every team. Filipinos have been an integral part of the development of commercial basketball throughout Asia and the Middle East.”
Velasco noted that other sports had its own share of Filipino imports as well.
“It has been happening in other sports like rugby and billiards, and is starting to happen in women’s volleyball,” he said. “It is only being noticed now because the basketball players involved are more well-known.”
Velasco sees this as an affirmation of the quality of players that the country has been producing.
“It is an acknowledgment of the talent that Filipino players have,” he said. “In 1990, we learned the hard way that we were no longer the dominant force in Asian basketball. The country has made some progress since then.”
This progress is manifested in the fact that Filipino players are sought after today as reinforcements not only in regional leagues in Southeast Asia but also in the top leagues in the whole of Asia like the Japan B. League and the Korean Basketball League (KBL).
For a country that has long been appreciated for its deep well of highly skilled basketball players, the Philippines has actually been late in the ball game in exporting talents to bigger markets.
Basketball stars from Asian rivals have been fixtures in various leagues outside of their home countries.
Iranian center Hamed Haddadi and point guard Mehdi Kamrani, Jordan’s Zaid Abbas and the now retired Sam Daghles, and Palestine Sani Sakakini have all played over three years each in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) since 2009.
Years before Kai Sotto became the first Filipino in the National Basketball League, there were already a number of Asians Down Under. Anatoly Kolesnikov of Kazakhstan, Amritpal Singh of India, and Japan’s Makoto Hiejima and Yudai Baba have all hooked up with Australian clubs.
Two of the best Asians of the last two decades even played as imports in European leagues, Iranian Samad Nikkah Bahrami who saw action for French clubs Cholet and Pau-Orthez, and Lebanese legend Fadi El Khatib, who joined BC Cherkaski Mavpy in the Ukrainian league in 2007.
As perplexing as it is that Filipino players in large numbers have not gone beyond the Southeast Asian region until recently, it is also not a bit surprising.
Being based in another country brings with it its fair share of discomfort. From dealing with language barrier to adjusting to different cultures and food to being away from the comforts of home and family, being a professional player in a foreign land is not as easy as just changing one’s jersey.
For veteran American coach Chris Daleo, however, it is something that local leagues and federations should encourage.
“This shows the strength of your league and your country,” said Daleo, the current head coach of the RANS basketball club in Indonesia who is also the former head coach of the Thailand national team.
“I always encourage players to go challenge themselves and explore the world. Showcase yourself.”
One of Daleo’s proteges, big man Chanatip Jakrawan, recently made history by becoming the first homegrown player from Thailand to play professional basketball overseas when he inked a contract with the New Taipei club.
Daleo explained what it meant for Thailand basketball.
“It was like the first man landing on the moon when he moved to Taipei to play ball,” he said.
Another sticking point for local players was that playing abroad was often a short-term, sometimes even one-shot, deal. Life as an import means having to scour for another contract even before the existing one ends.
There’s no guarantee that the current club will have the player back, and there is stiff competition for spots in the different foreign leagues.
The PBA, on the other hand, offers more security. Aside from the familiarity of being on home soil, local players were given multi-year contracts which assured them of longer-term employment.
These reasons, however, have been overtaken by a number of factors that have come to fore as of late, which have made the jump abroad a more alluring proposition.
It helps that foreign clubs are able to offer lucrative contracts.
Kiefer Ravena and Ray Parks are reportedly each going to earn roughly US$40,000 (P2.2 million) a month in Japan, possibly even higher including bonuses, this season.
A mere one-season stint overseas would be equivalent to a long-term contract in the PBA. And as Filipino players have learned, a good performance and a good attitude are also rewarded by foreign clubs.
Thirdy Ravena is now entering his third season in Japan, while Kiefer, Parks, Ramos, and Kobe Paras will be back for another tour of duty.
An agent said that Asian imports in foreign leagues could earn a base pay of at least US$10,000 (P560,000) a month. For a young Filipino star in his rookie season, this amount is not something he can earn in the PBA in his first playing year.
Asian clubs have also recognized the marketing value of Filipino cagers who bring with them tens of thousands of following, which eventually redound to a massive jump in the fan base of the clubs that get their services.
The reality is that basketball has become borderless.
The younger generation of players, too, have also expanded their horizons and are less insular-minded compared to their predecessors.
And with just 12 teams in the PBA, there simply is not enough roster slots for the many basketball enthusiasts who dream of becoming professional players.
“[The millennials and Gen Z] are more likely to travel or work abroad than previous generations,” said Velasco. “These sociological phenomena are a factor.”
Velasco also noted that even if local leagues implement changes, there might be no curbing the Asian basketball exodus yet.
“There is no room in the PBA for everybody, hence the proliferation of commercial leagues in the country,” he said.
“The PBA can, if it wants to, make changes in its Uniform Players Contract, to make it more enticing. But the fact is that teams will find the players they need wherever they can, and Pinoy players are among the best in Asia now.
“If we want to keep them, we have to make them want to stay.” – Rappler.com