Bias against power forwards?
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 8, 2014 - 12:00am

The basketball community was stirred up by the announcement of the PBA’s 40 Greatest Players list, but the reactions were more for those who were left out of it than those who were put on it. As it happens with healthy sports debates, everybody has his own opinion, and you would be justified in saying they’re right, too. The supposed snubs can be painful, particularly for those who toiled long and hard in the league’s earlier days, and whose hopes of being remembered are gradually fading, overshadowed by the accomplishments of those who have played since those times. Less and less eyewitnesses to those formative years make being left out of any all-time lists more painful.

The selection committee certainly had no easy task, and most of their choices are beyond question. To be added to the original list of 25 of the PBA’s greatest players to mark the 40th season of the PBA are: Chito Loyzaga, Kerby Raymundo, Jayson Castro, Marc Pingris and Marlou Aquino, along with “automatic” honorees in league MVPs James Yap, Danny Ildefonso, Asi Taulava, Kelly Williams, Willie Miller, Eric Menk, Jayjay Helterbrand, Jimmy Alapag, Mark Caguioa and Arwind Santos. Very interesting selections.

Aside from the allegations of personal bias against specific players, there may be something else at work that we are not conscious of, a predisposition for a certain type of player (guards), and against another type (power forwards). Let’s see if the numbers bear this out.

The guards on the new list are Robert Jaworski, Johnny Abarrientos, Ato Agustin, Francis Arnaiz, Ricky Brown, Hector Calma, Atoy Co, Bernie Fabiosa, Danny Florencio, Jojo Lastimosa, Lim Eng Beng, Samboy Lim, Ronnie Magsanoc, Jayson Castro, Willie Miller, Jayjay Helterbrand, Jimmy Alapag, Mark Caguioa and James Yap. Particularly in the first decade of the PBA, you generally had to be able to play both guard positions, so it becomes very difficult to differentiate between a true point guard and his backcourt partner shooting guard. Getting back to our list, that’s 19, almost half the total number of all-time greats picked. Agustin was once a small forward in the PABL, but shifted to guard to adapt to the PBA, then rose to prominence on an injury-riddled San Miguel Beer squad and was hailed 1992 season Most Valuable Player. Samboy Lim occasionally played small forward on a 1989 San Miguel Beer Grand Slam team that had an overabundance of outstanding guards in Brown, Calma, Franz Pumaren and Elmer Reyes, to name a few. The coaches had to make room for all the talent on the roster, and play them together, regardless of specific designation.

There are, of course, the best of the small or shooting forwards who played in the pro league’s first 40 years: Adornado, Patrimonio, Cezar, Caidic, Duremdes, Hubalde, Meneses and Santos.

How many centers are on the list? Fernandez, Guidaben and Paner helped define the position in the league’s early years. Paras and Codiñera represented the pivotman’s best as leaders of the PBA’s second generation. Ildefonso, Taulava, Aquino and Menk typified the bigger, more athletic, more versatile bigs that came along in the 1990’s. Ildefonso and Menk often gave way to bigger imports and slid over to power forward when needed.

This is where it gets interesting. The original list of 25 greatest had no power forwards on it. Paner was a 6’2” center who was constantly forced to play against bigger opponents like Fernandez and Guidaben. Cezar was a small forward, but a physical anomaly, with the speed to run the floor on the wing, and the incredibly long wingspan to defend against much bigger players. The power forwards on the updated list are Loyzaga, Pingris and Raymundo, though nowadays, many are often listed simply as forwards. That makes only three power forwards out of the 40 greatest players.

But let’s look at the evolution of the power forward position in the last couple of decades. In the sport’s early days, the power forward’s main job was to do all the dirty work, like rebound, defend the other team’s big man, be the enforcer, the bruiser who sets screens, sacrifice his body keeping the opposing import from scoring whenever possible. All of these are the unglamorous, grueling things that are not faithfully reflected in the stat sheet, but are very important. Often, the impression of the power forward was the one who hit you on your way to the basket, or the guy who undercut you when you lift your feet.

Today, power forwards have gotten bigger, but have also had more responsibility. Now, you’ve got to be able to step out and hit the medium-range jumpshot, regardless of your position. You have to be able to help on bringing the ball up when the guards get pressured, and when you play the triangle, strict definitions of position get even more blurred. Not discounting other possible reasons, this may be a contributory reason why players like Abe King, Bong Hawkins and Nelson Asaytono have been overlooked. Back in the day, people may have been conditioned to look at power forwards as thugs who were less fan-friendly and whose attitude was to let their work speak for them, and not rely on ties with the media covering their games. Now, the problem may be a dilution of the definition of the position, as more athleticism and a greater array of skills is needed to stay with a team.

On the other hand, with almost half of the 40 greatest being guards, there may be a slant towards not to include as many in future lists. Seven of the guards among the 40 greatest started their careers in the PBA’s first decade alone. That skews the balance and may impact future selections. Not excluding other possible factors or influences, the proclivity to choose guards who are more relatable to the public and disregard power forwards who suffer in comparison to graceful, versatile small forwards may have played a role in how the final list of 40 turned out. But certainly, the perception that personal preferences prevailed will continue to persist.

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Follow this writer on Twitter @truebillvelasco.


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