Prodigal sons

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.

– Luke 15: 4 – 6

All’s well that ends well? The Philippine Basketball Association has made the conciliatory move to soften its restrictions against Filipino players who seek employment abroad. The sit-out rule and other limitations on their return have been changed. Those who return within three years of being drafted will have to deal with their mother teams, so as not to construe playing overseas as an attempt to choose which team to play for. This is a significant sign of growth for the league, as it takes more steps forward to take its rightful place among the international giants of basketball.

In the late 1980’s, the league was quite insular, preferring to keep its affairs within the geographical boundaries of the country. But with the advent of open basketball, the PBA was pulled by the Basketball Association of the Philippines into supporting the national team, which it wholeheartedly did, and continues to do so, regardless of any potential risk. And when the dust settled after the 1990 Asian Games, the Philippines was second to China in Asian basketball, a big blow to the country’s pride as a basketball powerhouse. Then again, it was a disheartening result only if you look at it negatively, instead of as a checkpoint for where the country truly was in the international game. (This writer believes that having two imports to compensate for the temporary absence of the best players at the time did more harm to the PBA than the outcome of the Asian Games basketball tournament).

Instead of being a big fish in a small pond, the PBA is now a significant, organized, professional ambassador for the Philippine game everywhere. It can take credit for at least inspiring these players to become who they are today, accomplishing what they have in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea – and even Lithuania – in so short a time. I am absolutely certain that these players all grew up watching and dreaming of playing in the PBA, the way much older generations once dreamed of suiting up for the national team. Playing overseas really only entered Filipinos’ mass consciousness a few years ago, although several coaches had already been working abroad for decades.

The PBA can only accommodate roughly 200 players. The mountaintop is narrow. Yet there are tens of thousands of young men who want to play professional basketball. It’s the same with the NBA. Thousands of undrafted players find gainful employment in Europe, Latin America, Asia and other places. And – think about this – many have returned to the NBA, and their sons have made it to the league, as well. After setting a scoring record of 105 points in one game in the PBA from 1992-1993, Swift guard Tony Harris was able to join the Boston Celtics for the 1994-1995 NBA season. That proves that players who play in the PBA can do well anywhere; that its standards are on par with anyone.

This major shift in demeanor transforms the PBA from a strict gatekeeper to a benign and magnanimous patriarch, welcoming back its sons who have seen the world and want to come back home. It’s a good look for the league, which has been a trailblazer in Asia for close to half a century. The NBA itself went out of its way to court China, and became better and more prosperous in the process. Now, there is a demand for Filipino talent, and that is largely thanks to the mere existence of a PBA. In the next few years, as these prodigal sons return seasoned and experienced, they will enrich the league, and strengthen the national team in the process. The game does not belong to anyone; it’s everyone’s. But it always comes back to those who have given to it.


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