Is our NBA dream dead?

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - November 26, 2012 - 12:00am

Japeth Aguilar was released this week by the Santa Cruz Warriors after what seemed like an abnormally short period of trying out. With that came a stream of online “I told you so” comments from naysayers who never believed he could make the NBA in the first place. But for my money, Aguilar got further than anybody else from the Philippines has so far. And besides, the D-League is not the only way to make it into the NBA. It’s just the newest. NBA scouts already said Japeth was a project player, a work in progress. Let’s take that at face value.

Aguilar was the first full-blooded to play in a US NCAA Division I program in at least 50 years, perhaps the first ever. (This writer is trying to verify a report that a pair of Filipino brothers was teammates of Bill Russell and KC Jones at the University of San Francisco half a century ago.) He wasn’t given much playing time in an atmosphere where Asian players were perhaps not given much of a second look in the countryside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. This writer visited Japeth with his father, Peter and a pair of Filipino-American policemen from Chicago. On our way there, we stopped at a diner in Indiana to eat, and our group was met with hostile stares from the Caucasian restaurant patrons.

The question now, I suppose, is what’s next? Does the Filipino NBA dream die here? If not Japeth, who (and when) would a homegrown Pinoy ever make it into the world’s most dominant basketball league? Is it even possible?

We are, of course, talking about simply getting drafted and signing a contract with an NBA team, not necessarily becoming a player of note. That will come later. First things first: how does a Filipino player get into the NBA?

Making the big leap from the Philippines directly to the NBA would be the most unlikely option. The PBA and our college leagues have a different style that may not match the NBA’s. Also, it would take a player to be consistently playing at the level of an import even to merit any attention. How many players average about 30 points and 15 rebounds or 10 assists per game?

An intermediary step would be to hone one’s skills in a second-tier American league like the American Basketball Association or the D-League. Being released by a team is not the end of the road. It may be a case of mismatched styles, overabundance of players at the same position, or a coach who prefers NBA-ready talent and doesn’t want to teach. Whatever the case, other players have been released by D-League teams and come back to the league. It’s still early in the game; pardon the pun.

The easiest way to get into the NBA is to play in the US NCAA college system, as Japeth did, but perhaps come to the system a little earlier. Every step of the developmental process prepares you for the next one. High school players in the US play on traveling teams, and get invited to free camps by the top athletic shoe brands like Nike, adidas and Reebok. There, they receive lectures, technical instruction and training by position that they would hardly get anywhere else. Some of the instructors are NBA and NCAA legends. That kind of exposure is priceless. Half the time, they also scrimmage, which is priceless in itself, because you get to play against the guys you will eventually be competing for spots against. All those lessons you get to take with you.

I clearly remember an incident in one camp I attended in 2004, when Jordan Wilkes, the son of 6’6” former Los Angeles Lakers shooter Jamaal Wilkes, was being asked to play center. He flat out refused, insisting that he was a small forward (at 6’10 in high school). He was sent over to train with other small forwards. Here in the Philippines, very few basketball camps (Olsen Racela’s was the first) have had the vision to train players primarily in ball handling and guard skills, simply because we can’t tell how tall players really will be. Many players shoot up to a little over six feet tall in high school then stop growing. They end up as ‘tweeners’ who never learned to play guard, but are too small to play in the frontcourt.

It really takes an immense amount of work to get to the point where NBA coaches will even give you a look. Yao Ming had three things going for him. He was 7’6”, he had been dominant professionally since he was a teen, and he was the key to opening up the world’s largest market to the league. Obviously, we haven’t had a player who possessed any of those qualities, let alone all. Our vision has always been to make it professionally in our own country first. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve even concentrated on getting back into the Olympics. But if a non-basketball playing country like Angola can be ranked 11th in the world in roughly two decades of organized basketball, why not the Philippines?

This next comment may ruffle a few feathers, but perhaps we don’t want it badly enough. Maybe we don’t have the vision for it. We’ve been to the Olympics, and Caloy Loyzaga was once named one of the ten best players in the world. We are world champions in other sports. Our rugby team has made it to the World Cup in just six years of being actively organized. In less than a decade, a dedicated team of Cebuanos has brought home hundreds of gold medals and set a Guinness world record in dancesport. A nine-year old Filipino named Sandro Reyes is now training at the school of FC Barcelona upon the team’s invitation. Perhaps there are too many cooks spoiling the broth in basketball.

What we need are parents who believe their son may make it to the NBA, and have the genetic potential for it. They should be willing to invest in the dream (especially if their child loves the sport) and do whatever it takes. And they have to be where the competition is.

Nobody else is going to do it.

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