By steven lebron
The relationship between basketball and the Philippines dates back to the early 1900s. After the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, control of the Philippines was ceded to the Americans, and somewhat surprisingly, the rise of hoops in the country shortly followed. The country’s basketball program quickly became a dominant force on the national stage, winning the gold medal in the sport in every Far Eastern Championship Games — a multisport competition held among Asian countries from 1913 to 1938 — except for two. Before Wilt Chamberlain, there was Lou Salvador, who scored an international basketball record 116 points in the 1923 gold medal game.
Today, roundball passion remains extremely strong in the Philippines. The country hosted its first NBA preseason game last year, as the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers visited the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City. The country hosted the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships and qualified for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which begins on August 30th in Spain. It was the first time the island nation had qualified for the event in 38 years.
Despite their love of the game, there is very little chatter about the Philippines when it comes to top-level international competition — mostly because they haven’t been good enough. The Filipino government is trying to improve the national team’s fortunes by taking advantage of FIBA’s naturalization rule, which allows countries to roster one naturalized player with no residency rules applying. While likely to have a positive effect upon the Filipinos’ performances in Spain, the country and its government are neglecting the long-term viability of its program by deploying this strategy.
Naturalized players are nothing new; they frequent the rosters of almost every national basketball team across Asia and Europe. In South Korea, U.S. nationals Jarod and Greg Stevenson, who had been born in Seoul to a Korean mother, were granted citizenship and changed their name to Moon Tae-Jong and Moon Tae-Young, respectively. The Japanese team has J.R. Sakuragi, also known as Milton “J.R.” Henderson, a member of 1995 national champion UCLA and a former NBA player. The list also includes Samuel Hoskin of Lebanon, as well as more well-known cases like Serge Ibaka of Spain and Chris Kaman of Germany.
In 2011, the Philippines approved a naturalization request by Marcus Douthit, allowing the 6-foot-11 center from New York to become eligible to represent the country at all FIBA events. Douthit, who played at Providence and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Draft, helped the Filipinos addressed their long-standing basketball problem of being undersized in the paint.
And, as you might expect, Douthit made an immediate impact at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships held in Wuhan, China, averaging 21.9 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. The Philippines ended up losing the bronze-medal game to South Korea, but it was the first time in 25 years the nation had reached the semifinals. It was an obvious sign of progress, which motivated the Filipino government to replicate the naturalization strategy in an attempt to bolster the team’s roster.
In 2012, Antipolo City representative Robert V. Puno introduced House Bill 6169 to secure citizenship for Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee. The bill specifically states the purpose of naturalization is to help the national team “regain lost glory in international basketball competition.”
The bill cites, in part, McGee’s qualifications:
“Though he did not win the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, he was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for achieving a world record in most basketballs dunked in one jump, having used three balls in a single dunk during the competition.”
Luring McGee proved unsuccessful, so House Bill 2108 was introduced by Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” M. Angara in an attempt to naturalize McGee’s former teammate, Brooklyn Nets center Andray Blatche. That bill explicitly argues that acquiring Blatche would allow the team to legitimately compete in the 2014 FIBA Championships and improve its prospects to land a berth in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Not all government officials support the naturalization movement. Felix Tiukinhoy Jr. — commissioner of the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, a sports association comprised of 10 universities in Cebu, Philippines — shared his views in an interview earlier this year:
“Some of our basketball sports leaders do not value our [Filipino] citizenship anymore. It is now given away to anybody just for temporary reasons. They are blinded already just to attain fame and glory for themselves. I urge the sports community to uphold the dignity of Filipino citizenship and don’t just give it away. Naturalization of a foreign individual is legal in our Constitution but it should be done in the proper way. They have succeeded in giving citizenship to Douthit, that’s enough. I fear that someday we might be employing mercenary players, the way we give out our citizenship.”
Putting aside the subjective nature what citizenship means to individuals — and whether success on the international stage sans naturalized players would mean more to Filipino pride — the arguments for and against naturalization ignore a much larger problem. Amateur sports infrastructure in the Philippines is broken and the development of home-grown athletic talent there lags far behind other countries.
According to research conducted by Natashya Gutierrez of The Rappler, the Philippine Sports Commission (“PSC”) — the government’s funding arm responsible for the development of amateur sports in the country — was allocated 400 million Philippine Pesos (US $9 million) worth of funding in 2011. In comparison, Singapore, whose population is roughly 1/18th that of the Philippines, spent 7.4 billion Philippine Pesos (US $169 million) during the same year.
Per Guitierrez, Filipinos lack the nutrition, physical and mental conditioning to compete with the rest of the world. Basketball training facilities are substandard — not surprising, since the PSC only allocates funding to certain sports. Archery, bowling, boxing, taekwondo and swimming are well-funded, but basketball is not, with the government perhaps taking the local popularity of hoops for granted.
So while the government should not necessarily be criticized for playing by the FIBA rules to bring in international players, it can be questioned for not paying enough attention to the development of its own players at home. Parading out players like Douthit, McGee and Blatche may be (relatively) splashy short term answers; long-term solutions, those players are not.
Blatche’s naturalization request was approved by the House of Representatives in May of this year, and was yesterday ratified by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. Blatche will now represent the Philippines at the upcoming FIBA World Cup — and, potentially, the 2016 Olympics, if the team qualifies. By then, the Philippines will be looking to medal in Olympic competition for the first time in 20 years.
Ultimately, taking advantage of FIBA rules to add a players to its national basketball team is not the Philippines’ problem. Other nations are doing the same thing. But as long as an infrastructure to develop young talent doesn’t exist, then there will be a significant expectation gap between what the government wants and what the national team can deliver over the long haul.