Are height limits outdated?

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

Eight-time National Basketball Association All-Star and Strong Group Athletics import Dwight Howard expressed his desire to play in the Philippine Basketball Association. He even posted video measuring himself in a local grocery just to prove that he falls within the league’s 6’9” height limit for the Commissioner’s Cup/ (It’s 6’6” for the Governors’ Cup. He also added that, if the PBA were to relax its height restrictions, it would be possible to see “twin tower” alignments, with two tall imports on the floor at the same time for each team. Most leagues around the world do not have height restrictions, so this begs the questions: are height limits outdated?

There have been (and still are) basketball leagues with upper height limits.  The International Basketball Association or IBA, a league for players 6’4” and below, introduced Sean Chambers to Filipino basketball fans. Michael Jordan’s older brother Larry, at 5’9”, played in the Global Basketball League, which had similar height restrictions. The World Basketball league or WBL initially had a limit of 6’5” for participants, then increased it to 6’7”. Meanwhile, former FedEx/Air21 team owner Bert Lina went in the opposite direction. He created a tournament for players over six feet tall, ostensibly to develop skills ascribed to guards in big men.

The PBA’s original design, attributed to its first commissioner Leo Prieto, was more for variety than anything ese. One conference was for taller imports, a second for smaller imports, and the third was entirely for Filipinos. The league experimented for several years. It has had unlimited height, two imports, even Asian imports. The 1990 season was infamous for having two imports dominate scoring for the brief period (nine days) that the PBA’s best players were at the Asian Games in China. Upon their return, they found that they had little to do with the imports pretty much hogging the ball and each averaging 40 to 50 points a game.

The NBA and other leagues around the world do not have height limits. Charles Barkley was listed as 6’6” when he’s below 6’5”. Kevin Durant has been described as a seven-footer though he is closer to 6’9”. They don’t have imports, either. Everyone is considered equal, more so now that we are moving towards “positionless” basketball. In Europe, it is the same thing, even though they have imports. Depending on the league, a team may have two to four foreign reinforcements. They recruit based on what the team needs, not height. Imports have clearly defined roles. In the Philippines, they basically have to do it all and carry a team, though not as much as in previous decades.

If a height is there to mitigate the dominance an import could have, then perhaps it is time to revisit it relative to how talented – and how tall – Filipino players are. Is a seven-foot Filipino not as impactful as a 6’9” American? As we’ve seen with the Bay Area Dragons experiment and with Filipino players playing overseas, a height advantage does not make a team uneatable. However, the PBA believes that the prescribed heights promote parity, and that may very well be. So far, taller imports or naturalized players have helped the national team, which means that is their niche for now. Inevitably, as Filipinos themselves get taller and taller, we will similarly see taller imports. When the PBA started, centers were 6’2” to 6’5”. Now they’re 6’6” upward. It’ may be just a matter of time.

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