MANILA, Philippines — In the late 1980s, Cebuano dynamo Ric-Ric Marata was signed by the Vancouver Nighthawks, a World Basketball League (WBL) team.
Jojo Lastimosa also received a contract but passed up the opportunity to play in the WBL, a minor professional league in the United States and Canada that imposed a height restriction of 6ft 5in, which was eventually increased to 6 feet 7 inches. .
Some of the notable names that saw action in this North American league were former New York Knicks star John Starks and several outstanding PBA imports like Sean Chambers, Jamie Waller, Vincent Askew, Willie Bland and Jose Slaughter.
Marata’s stint with the Vancouver Nighthawks, although reported by the nation’s media, was not widely reported by local media and Filipino fans. At the time, the development did little to create ripples in the local basketball scene and was not seen as a seminal moment that could open doors for other local players to join. recruited by professional teams abroad.
Fast forward to over 30 years later when Thirdy Ravena became an Asian import in the Japan B. League. His first season with the San-En NeoPhoenix attracted massive media coverage and Filipino fans could keep tabs on his exploits with San-En games streamed online and on TV.
Until a few years ago, a young Filipino basketball player‘s ultimate dream was to enter a university college, graduate in the D. League, and then be drafted into the first paying professional league in the Philippines. Asia, PBA.
It was the natural progression for any Filipino who aspired to a career in the country’s most popular sport. This seemed to be the only option available to a local player.
This is no longer the case today.
Ravena’s entry into Japan in the 2020–21 season ushered in a wave of Filipino players signing with ball clubs overseas. The following season, his older brother Kiefer, Ray Parks, Dwight Ramos, Kobe Paras, Matthew Aquino, Kemark Cariño and his brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño joined the B. League.
This year, more than 20 Filipinos will equip teams in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.
Filipino fans have mostly enjoyed watching their young hoop favorites strut their stuff in foreign professional leagues.
But there has also been resistance from PBA officials and supporters who, admit it or not, see this migration of players as a threat to the very existence of the oldest and most enduring professional league in the game. this side of the world.
Sports journalist and documentary filmmaker Bill Velasco said what’s happening is actually not a recent trend.
“Filipinos have been playing overseas for decades, just like Filipino coaches have also been working overseas. Indonesia has had Filipino imports in its commercial leagues for over 20 years,” Velasco said.
“The ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) has at least three Filipinos in each team. Filipinos have been an integral part of the development of commercial basketball in Asia and the Middle East.
Velasco noted that other sports also had their own share of Filipino imports.
“It’s happened in other sports like rugby and snooker, and is starting to happen in women’s volleyball,” he said. “You only notice it now because the basketball players involved are better known.”
Velasco sees it as an affirmation of the quality of players the country has produced.
“It’s a recognition of the talent of Filipino players,” he said. “In 1990, we learned the hard way that we were no longer the dominant force in Asian basketball. The country has come a long way since then.
This progress is manifested in the fact that Filipino players are now sought after as reinforcements not only in regional leagues in Southeast Asia, but also in top leagues across Asia like the Japan B. League and the Korean Basketball League (KBL).
For a country that has long been prized for its deep pool of highly skilled basketball players, the Philippines has actually been slow to export talent to bigger markets.
Asian rival basketball stars have played in various leagues outside of their home country.
Iranian center Hamed Haddadi and point guard Mehdi Kamrani, Jordanian Zaid Abbas and now retired Sam Daghles, and Palestinian Sani Sakakini have all played more than three years each in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) since 2009.
Years before Kai Sotto became the first Filipino in the National Basketball League, there were already a number of Asians Down Under. Anatoly Kolesnikov from Kazakhstan, Amritpal Singh from India and Japan’s Makoto Hiejima and Yudai Baba have all joined Australian clubs.
Two of the best Asians of the past two decades have even played as imports in European leagues, Iranian Samad Nikkah Bahrami who played for French clubs Cholet and Pau-Orthez, and Lebanese legend Fadi El Khatib, who joined BC Cherkaski Mavpy in the Ukrainian Championship. in 2007.
Perplexing as it is that Filipino players in large numbers haven’t gone beyond the Southeast Asian region until recently, it’s also not a bit surprising.
Being based in another country brings with it its share of discomfort. Whether it’s dealing with the language barrier, adapting to different cultures and foods, or being away from the comforts of home and family, being a professional gamer in a foreign country is not as simple as simply changing your jersey.
For veteran American coach Chris Daleo, however, it’s something local leagues and federations should encourage.
“It shows the strength of your league and your country,” said Daleo, the current head coach of RANS basketball club in Indonesia, who is also the former head coach of the Thai national team.
“I always encourage players to challenge themselves and explore the world. Show up.
One of Daleo’s proteges, big man Chanatip Jakrawan, recently made history by becoming the first Thai player to play professional basketball overseas when he signed a contract with the New Taipei club.
Daleo explained what this means for Thai basketball.
“It was like the first man had landed on the moon when he moved to Taipei to play ball,” he said.
Another sticking point for local players was that playing abroad was often a short-term, sometimes even one-off affair. Life as an import means having to look for another contract even before the existing one ends.
There is no guarantee that the current club will get the player back, and there is stiff competition for places in the various foreign leagues.
PBA, on the other hand, offers more security. In addition to the familiarity of being on national soil, local actors received multi-year contracts which ensured them longer-term employment.
These reasons, however, have been overtaken by a number of factors that have emerged recently, which have made jumping overseas a more alluring proposition.
This helps foreign clubs offer lucrative contracts.
Kiefer Ravena and Ray Parks are reportedly each earning around US$40,000 (2.2 million pesos) per month in Japan, possibly even more, including bonuses, this season.
A mere one-season stint overseas would equate to a long-term contract in the PBA. And as Filipino players have learned, good performance and good attitude are also rewarded by foreign clubs.
Thirdy Ravena is now entering his third season in Japan, while Kiefer, Parks, Ramos and Kobe Paras will return for another tour of duty.
An agent said Asian imports to foreign leagues could earn a base salary of at least US$10,000 (P560,000) per month. For a young Filipino star in his rookie season, that amount is not something he can earn in the PBA in his first year of play.
Asian clubs have also recognized the marketing value of Filipino cagers who bring with them tens of thousands of followers, which ultimately led to a massive increase in the fan base of clubs obtaining their services.
The reality is that basketball has become borderless.
The younger generation of gamers have also broadened their horizons and are less insular than their predecessors.
And with only 12 teams in the PBA, there simply aren’t enough slots for the many basketball enthusiasts who dream of becoming professional players.
“[The millennials and Gen Z] are more likely to travel or work abroad than previous generations,” Velasco said. “These sociological phenomena are a factor.”
Velasco also noted that even if local leagues implemented changes, there might not yet be a check on the Asian basketball exodus.
“There is no place in the PBA for everyone, hence the proliferation of commercial leagues in the country,” he said.
“The PBA may, if it wishes, make changes to its Uniform Players Contract, to make it more attractive. But the fact is that teams will find the players they need wherever they can, and Pinoy players are now among the best in Asia.
“If we want to keep them, we have to make them want to stay.” – Rappler.com