PBA and Thirdy are both right
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - February 10, 2020 - 12:00am

A big story this week is the possibility that former Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagle Thirdy Ravena may run headlong into a Philippine Basketball Association rule banning eligible players who do not enter the draft for two consecutive years. The little-known rule prevents potential draftees from picking the teams they want to play for by skipping the annual Rookie Draft until the teams they want to join can select them. Ravena, a three-time UAAP men’s basketball champion and last season’s Finals MVP, did not enter the 2019 draft. Of course, he wasn’t the only one, but he has become the focal point of the story, partly due to his hoops pedigree, and partly due to his tremendous potential as a pro player. So far, both sides are diplomatically standing their ground.

In past seasons, the PBA has made changes in its eligibility rules due to changes in the basketball landscape. In its first few years, there was no rookie draft. Almost all member teams entered the league wholesale from the MICAA. Over the years, the minimum age has fluctuated from 19 years old up. At times when the league was weak, it allowed younger, undergraduate players to bring in a younger audience and showcase their abilities. The influx of Filipino-foreign players in the late 1990’s also caused several controversies, including Senate hearings, lower TV ratings and player departures. In 2003, PBA commissioner Noli Eala tightened eligibility requirements for mixed-race players. These rules were strengthened by the birth of the PBA Developmental League, as hybrid players are required to play there before ascending to the pros. 

There have been formidable players who have been the subject of eligibility concerns. All-Star center Marlou Aquino was in the middle of a tug-of-war between two teams, which delayed his entry into the league. Eventually, he ended up playing for and winning championships with both teams. When the Metropolitan Basketball Association was launched in 1998, the PBA had to clarify its stand on players who had already played professionally elsewhere by adopting a new rule. Players who earned salaries in other leagues could enter the PBA as direct hires. Five-time PBA Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo actually played in the ASEAN Basketball League before being drafted into the league first overall in 2012. Fajardo, Aldrech Ramos and Jerick Canada joined that draft class after seeing action for the ABL’s San Miguel Beermen, AirAsia Philippine Patriots and Indonesia Warriors, respectively. 

Ravena, meanwhile, cannot escape the limelight, both because of who he is and for what he has accomplished. Both his parents have been athletes. His father Bong was a sky-walking forward at the University of the East and a big contributor to the gold-medal winning 1991 Southeast Asian Games Philippine team. Bong later had a solid career in the PBA before becoming a long-time member of the Talk ‘N Text coaching staff. Thirdy’s siblings are stellar athletes, and his older brother Kiefer had a spectacular collegiate run before turning pro. Both Ravena boys have served the national team selflessly. 

The PBA’s rule on alleged draft dodgers was merely a precaution to prevent teams and amateur athletes from conspiring to ensure who would draft said premium players. Since a player has the flexibility to enter the Rookie Draft early, he can opt to stay in school for another year to avoid being picked by a team he doesn’t want to play for. At any rate, the player would still be earning from his commercial team (likely in the D-League), the Philippine team, and other perks. Bobby Ray Parks, who played for National University despite a supposed offer from Georgia Tech, could have been drafted in 2013. He elected to try out for the Texas Legends (the Dallas Mavericks’ farm team), the ABL, and the MPBL before joining the PBA five years later. It seems that his decisions were not questioned or contradicted. 

The PBA is not being unfair to anyone for having its rules. It is protecting itself from, well, itself. After all, a player cannot use the eligibility rules to maneuver his way into a particular team if that team isn’t colluding with him. So the rule is in place to augment other rules that boost parity. And the PBA is a private business interest composed of large corporate interests. It can do whatever it wants to protect its interests, within the bounds of law. They want to avoid having anyone game the system. Nothing wrong with that. 

Meanwhile, Thirdy Ravena wants to explore the best possible path for him. He has supposedly received offers to play commercially in four other countries, which is good for him. Like Kai Sotto -- who is just a few years too young to be on the PBA’s radar -- there is also a glimmer of a hope that this path may lead to a shot at an NBA team. Or he could learn what he can by playing overseas, and bring all that knowledge and experience back to the Philippines to enrich the PBA. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

In the early 1980’s, the PBA and Philippine team had a gentleman’s agreement that the league’s member teams would not recruit players of the Northern Cement national squad. This gave those players five years’ growth playing in international tournaments and as a guest team in the league, after which, they contributed mightily to the PBA’s popularity. That agreement no longer exists, as the bulk of national players now comes from the PBA itself.

The central question is one of motive. Unfortunately for the PBA, it appears that it is their burden to determine whether a player’s reason for skipping the draft is noble or merely selfish. Thirdy Raveha wasn’t the first to forego starting his pro career in the PBA, and he won’t be the last. Basketball is an international game. The PBA accepted that when they first agreed to support the national team in 1990. The good news is that Thirdy does not need to cross the bridge to the PBA yet. And nobody knows what hand the future will deal him, and the PBA: The PBA can choose to leave the door open if and when Thirdy comes back home, if they so desire.

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