Don’t mess with Manny
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - November 19, 2019 - 12:00am

The Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) is close to Sen. Manny Pacquiao’s heart. He built it from scratch with the vision of providing an opportunity for players to pursue their passion and bring their game to the next level. Pacquiao limited the participation of Fil-foreigners to allow undiscovered, homegrown players to emerge. He also set a cap for the entry of ex-pros to give a chance for newcomers to display their wares.

Pacquiao resisted prodding from some quarters to turn MPBL into a pro league because he wanted collegiate players to use it as a training springboard for the future. Pacquiao could’ve registered MPBL as professional and turned over its supervision to GAB. That would’ve been the easy way out. But his idea was to preserve MPBL’s amateur status for rising players to chase their dream of someday turning pro.

MPBL is now on its third season, expanding from 10 teams to 26 to 31. It’s logistically challenging for any league to maintain 31 teams playing all over the country but Pacquiao didn’t shirk from the task. Franchise fees escalated exponentially from the first season to the third to give value to each team. Pacquiao never had in mind to make money out of MPBL. All he hoped for was to make it self-sustaining so fans could watch the games either for free or at a minimal fee.

So when word came out that some players were involved in game-fixing or point-shaving, Pacquiao put his foot down. Here was a classic case of dogs biting the hand that feeds them. Officials, players, coaches, utility men and crew owe their livelihood to Pacquiao who’s known to be generous, caring and forgiving. What the wrongdoers forgot was Pacquiao’s decisiveness in making things right. They should’ve realized that when Pacquiao enters into a fight, he’ll come out swinging.

Last week, Pacquiao filed charges against 21 individuals involved in MPBL for game-fixing or point-shaving before the Department of Justice. Included in the list was the alleged “mastermind” so Pacquiao went straight to the top in cleaning the mess.

“I’m angry at those who cheat in sports,” said Pacquiao. “That’s why we won’t stop until suspects are put in jail. And to those who are planning to do game-fixing in MPBL or any sports league, let this be a stern warning. We are serious in MPBL against any form of game-fixing. We don’t fool around. I formed MPBL for the Filipino and we want to give opportunities to those who want to play basketball.”

MPBL legal counsel Atty. Brando Viernesto said the NBI is handling the investigation. “Since the beginning, Senator made it known to all teams that he hates game-fixing,” said Viernesto.  “Every meeting that we have with teams and players, he always reminds that anyone who could give him information about game-fixing, he would give a P500,000 reward. Then, Soccsksargen happened. No wins, 25 point losing average. We have an agreement with an agency to monitor each game and each stat. They give us weekly reports. All Soccsksargen games had many red flags. We knew it was happening but we didn’t have proof yet. We tried preventive measures like memos banning cellphones on the bench during games. But they still found ways. We put microphones near the bench but some teams instead huddled in the middle of the court.”

Viernesto said an MPBL coach volunteered game-fixing information. “He was a vital link in the chain,” said Viernesto. “We knew he was part of it for sure but he came out first and that’s all we needed. So the players and officials were identified. The players were most affected because their MPBL careers are now over. They were just pawns but accepted money. This Chinese syndicate, we found out, is not only involved with one team but three. Soon, we will come out with findings on the other teams. The NBI is watching all games from now on.”

The first serious case of game-fixing in Philippine basketball happened in MICAA, the PBA’s precursor, in 1973 when six players from Crispa were charged and slapped lifetime bans for throwing a championship game against Mariwasa. They were pardoned after a year.  Rigging in basketball has also plagued other Asian leagues. In 2015, 11 players were investigated in the Korean league. In 2017, eight players were banned from the Indonesian league for game-fixing and a scheme was uncovered in an amateur Korean 3x3 tournament where teams conspired to fix results. In the US, college basketball has been rocked by game-fixing scandals dating back to 1946 with two Brooklyn College players sent to jail.

This year, seven players from CEU were sacked for game-fixing in a UCBL summer league. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said, “unfortunately, (game-fixing) is an old, familiar story (and) point-shaving suspicions are probably never going to be completely removed from basketball’s little circle.” But with public attention focused on the games, police authorities on the ball and leaders like Pacquiao determined to clean up the ranks, the days of fixes are surely numbered.

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