Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

My Photo
Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Thursday, September 21, 2006

PBA Draft Follies, Santa Lucia Woes

The PBA draft isn't a thrilling event. In this year's draft, there were ten teams, two rounds and about 15 guys who would definitely be drafted, and the afternoon's only suspense came from wondering if Gabby Espinas would be picked before or after Mark Isip. There was some human drama due to the fact that 56 players were eligible and only 20 would be picked, but that excitement was deflated by the fact that Filipino basketball fans follow most of the draft hopefuls from high school to college to the semi-pro Philippine Basketball League and they already know, for the most part, whose names will be called and who'll be left sitting behind the stage wearing PBA Draft polo shirts and dejected looks on their faces at the end of the day. Fil-Am players are more of a wild card because they aren't as overexposed, but this year's crop was small and unlikely to surprise anyone. It included Kelly Williams, a sure-shot #1 or #2 pick, and Chris Pacana and Don Dulay, two little-known point guards who were borderline 2nd rounders.

That said, it's a real testament to this country's basketball fixation that thousands of people crowded into the Market! Market! mall's activity center on the afternoon of August 20 to watch the event. I don't want to make too much of the crowd, because admission to the draft was free, and the sight of a couple dozen tricycle drivers crowded around a game of bottlecap checkers on the sidewalk is anything but uncommon. Thousands of people would be sitting around, watching the minutes tick away at Market! Market! on any Sunday afternoon, but it was hard not to be impressed by the crowd that assembled for the draft. The ground floor was packed like a rush-hour MRT train, so that everyone had someone else's forearm pressed into his back or resting on his shoulder. The four upper levels of the vaguely octagonal ampitheter had similar mobs leaning over the railings and looking down on the draft. One glance at the crowd -- mostly men between 14 and 40 dressed in some combination of shorts, t-shirts, jerseys, sneakers, flip-flops and baseball hats -- and it was easy to see why practically any basketball game with referees can get televised in the Philippines. The audience is ripe and ready to be seduced by advertisers.

The PBA is the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world, and throughout most of its 31-year history the league has emulated the NBA. Knowing this, I was surprised at how little hype and spectacle the PBA draft produced. The draftees were cooped up in a room behind the stage, away from the public eye, which meant fans didn't get to watch the players sweat and twitch as the number of remaining picks dwindled and they still hadn't been drafted. Moreover, all the draftees wore the same white PBA polo shirt, which meant no wacky suits. Kudos go to Talk-N-Text forward Harvey Carey, the only player dressed appropriately for the draft in an oversized lavender blazer with lapels as big as bedspreads. Sadly, no other players followed Carey's lead and wore Dick Tracy suits. Only the top three picks were interviewed after they were drafted, and all they said was "I want to Thank God," an appropriate response in this nation of devout Christians, but it doesn't rank high on the excitement scale. The Draft only took an hour, which was something of a disappointment considering it took an hour and a half for all the people to squeeze into their spots and another hour for me to weasel out of the stuffy mob.

The Santa Lucia Realtors, a team that has made a point of avoiding Fil-American players since the late 1990s Fil-Sham scandal, had no choice but to junk their all-Filipino policy and select Kelly Williams with the number one pick. If they passed him over, they would officially be anointed the league's laughing stock. Williams, who played for Oakland University in Metro Detroit, has an NCAA Division I pedigree, which is rare and coveted in the PBA. Most Fil-Ams ran a year or two of junior college ball at some school no one's ever heard of. If other players who've jumped from D-I to the PBA are any indication -- former Wagner player Danny Siegle, for example -- Williams is going to be a star. It certainly looks that way. At 6'6'' or 6'7'', he's the same height as most PBA centers, but he's quicker than most PBA two-guards. It's hard to think of anyone in the league who matches up with him physically. Once he develops a scorer's mentality and starts to nail his outside shot consistently, he'll be putting up major numbers.

But then again, there's always the Santa Lucia factor. No PBA franchise is as consistently bogged down with strange rumors and general infamy as the Realtors. The anti Fil-Am policy doesn't seem to be working as a competitive or marketing ploy. Their roster is full of over-the-hill stars with bloated bellies and out-of-control contracts. Kenneth Duremdes is a sure PBA hall-of-famer, but at this point of his career the odds are 50-50 that he'll end the season with more surgeries than field goals. Dennis Espino and Marlou Aquino are legendary big-men, but they lumber up and down the court like members of a real legends team. When the PBA released the list of draft-eligible players, one of the best ways to piss off draftees was to tell them Santa Lucia was interested in them. The team's practices are rumored to be lazy, boring two-hour shootarounds. Bizarre stories about the team's management abound, such as one about a former SLR guard who was doing plyometric training outside of practice to improve his quickness and jumping. Supposedly, when the coaches learned about his private workouts, they cut the player because they were furious that the guard thought their practices weren't sufficiently challenging.

Are all the rumors about Santa Lucia true? I doubt it. In most of them, there's probably a small nugget of truth wrapped in layer upon layer of embellishment. Still, no other PBA franchise has the same train-wreck reputation, and I have to think there's some reason for it. One of the craziest stories, that of Hawaii-raised Filipino Alex Cabagnot, is certainly true. Cabagnot played college ball at U. Hawaii-Hilo and was the #2 pick in last year's draft. After Santa Lucia drafted him, he fled the country, and had to be coaxed back by family and friends. He endured two losing conferences in the 2005-2006 PBA season, then went AWOL again over the summer. He was playing in California pro-am leagues and supposedly never returning to the Philippines. Santa Lucia threatened to ban him from the league for life, and even implied that he might never be allowed back into the country. A week or two ago, the prodigal Cabagnot returned once again, hopefully for good. The issues between Cabagnot and Santa Lucia have never been aired publicly, but they have to do with the team culture, the team's losing record and, of course, money. We'll probably never know the full story, but we can probably assume that Santa Lucia isn't the ideal team for a talented rookie to start his career with.

It remains to be seen if Williams will have the same problems. He's off to a good start with the team, and there's reason to believe that things will stay that way because the only gripe anyone has about Williams is that he's too nice. He works hard in practice, compliments his teammates and coaches and spends his time off the court bowling, producing gospel songs in his apartment and going to church. With his ability on the court and gentle nature, no one seems to be worrying about Williams' success.


Anonymous Professor/Fan said...

Excellent analysis of the PBA draft, and a good taste of the behind-the-scenes drama of Fil/Am drafting, not drafting.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Jo-Anne said...

poor "joe"! almost raped! hey, im not a basketball fan. I hate it! I only read that part about the inquirer assignment. So funny ! especially about your room mate! heheheh!

6:49 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home