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Lessons for the PBA’s 50th

The heat created by the selection of the PBA’s 40 Greatest Players was stirred up again by the ceremony honoring the league’s best on April 8 at Resorts World Manila. Some of the league’s legends decided to forego appearing at the celebration, some were neutral, and others were dissatisfied. League commissioner Chito Salud acknowledged that the association is facing the question of defining itself for future generations, while chair Pato Gregorio urged those who had been a part of the league’s past to care for its future. The lavish affair was impressive in its own right, but some of the league’s elder greats were unable to see the relevance to them.

Moving forward, perhaps there should be a more structured approach to selecting all-time greats for future commemoration, such as, say the league’s 50th season, 10 years from now. Hopefully time will have healed some of the hurt feelings of league pioneers, and a more comprehensive system would have been in place by then. This writer has some unsolicited input for that occasion.

More voices. When the NBA announced its selection of all-time greats for its 50th anniversary in 1996, the process had taken months. The selection panel boasted 50 members of media, former players and coaches, and current general managers and team executives. Those who voted did not rank their selections or take into account the player’s position. Naturally, retired players on the panel were not allowed to vote for themselves. This led to many lively discussions. For example, one debate revolved around the exclusion of forward Dominique Wilkins and the inclusion of center Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was only in his fifth season then, and had an incomplete resumé, according to those who contested his selection. Curiously, when NBA, ABC and ESPN statistician Elliot Kalb published his own list “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?” in 2003, he ranked O’Neal number one, ahead of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamblerlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

MVPs aren’t automatic. Being named Most Valuable Player really shouldn’t be a lock on being an all-time great, when the NBA made its 50 greatest list, Bob McAdoo was conspicuously absent, the only MVP at that point to be excluded from the list. The 1975 MVP played in the league for 14 seasons, but in the long view, did not make a significant impact for most of his career, suiting up for seven different teams. In seven of his seasons as a pro, the 6-9 center didn’t even merit 10 minutes a game. After that spectacular third season, his scoring numbers only approximated 1975 levels one time after, and his rebounding numbers were never that high again. In the PBA, very few MVPs have not been traded. Alvin Patrimonio won four MVP awards for Purefoods, and being with one team your entire career is extremely rare nowadays. Being MVP can be a remarkable spike, but other factors can define the rest of a career. What about players who could have been MVP but were not voted by supporters of other players?

Stats. Bottomline, statistics can be a great starting point for discussion. One of the biggest issues raised over the 15 new additions to the PBA’s list was the statistical superiority of players who were left out, like Nelson Asaytono. Statistics are just a snapshot, but they are an indicator of consistency. When Kalb added Dennis Rodman to his revisionist history of the NBA, he noted that Rodman added 14 to 17 rebounds a game to whichever team he played for, and each of those teams went on to the Finals within a few years of his arrival, whether or not he stayed. Similarly, though I’ve never believed in players who are accumulators, statistics are a substantial baseline for creating an initial pool of nominees.

Historical context. In the never-ending argument between generations, the constant question is how past players would do against players of today. Frankly, that’s a ridiculous question. I have no doubt in my mind that four-time MVP Mon Fernandez would find a way to beat anybody playing today, regardless of their size or training. But what it does help in is placing players properly. For example, even if you say that there were less teams in certain years, that also meant you played the best players more often. Let’s also recall 1986 when the league had a list of players (Fernandez, Abet Guidaben, Manny Victorino, Yoyoy Villamin) who were prohibited from being teammates to maintain the balance of power. That in itself speaks volumes about the esteem those players were given. Also, from the early to mid-1990’s, the PBA suffered a dip in its popularity due to several factors following a high in 1989. Does that mean players from that era have less attention than those who played before or after? Also, should current players be considered? The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame requires a nominee to have been retired for at least five years. It’s simply a precaution, because there is no way to predict future behavior. You can’t predict what example they will set in the years to follow.

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Defensible selections. There are many other intangibles or forgotten evidence that may have influenced a player’s career. Being in a dominant rivalry individually or as a team could push one to perform better than he otherwise would have. In the 11 years that Fernandez, Patrimonio and Bogs Adornado were MVP, how many players became footnotes despite having great seasons? How many players rose to greatness despite severe situations? I often use the example of Ato Agustin, whose lone MVP came in 1992. He had changed position from forward to shooting guard, then point guard, simply because of the numerous injuries to the guard corps of his San Miguel Beer team that season. He was also the smallest player to win the MVP until Johnny Abarrientos came along. 

Counting Philippine team stints. Should participation in the Philippine team be counted as a criterion for selection to any PBA greatest list? Although this is a highly subjective question, personally, I think it shouldn’t be a determinant. Firstly, the Philippine team situation is not a common denominator for the PBA’s different eras. From 1975 until 1989, pros did not play on the national team. Secondly, it should be treated as a bonus criteria, because it is either the player’s or coach’s choice to wear the flag. Third, the team is limited by redundancy of position and the fact that amateur rules are used. Fourth, public perception varies depending on the success of the Philippine team. Besides, it may be considered as something they did off the court, which may be icing on the cake or a tie-breaking factor between players.






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