Is the Philippines Ready for One True National Basketball Championship?

An Opinion Article by Mark Daniel Chan

We have recently seen an exciting conclusion to the US NCAA Basketball Championship.  For both the Men’s and Women’s Division 1 programs, the month of March provided a great backdrop for some of the most exciting basketball the world has seen. In the Men’s Division, perennial powerhouse North Carolina continued its tradition of basketball dominance as it fought off a fierce challenge from Oregon in the semifinal and delivered when it counted against first time finalist Gonzaga in the final.  The Women’s Division witnessed even greater drama when eventual champion South Carolina ended the University of Connecticut’s dominance with a 66-64 OT victory in the semifinal. Head Coach Dawn Staley, a longtime stalwart of the US Women’s National Team for much of the 1990s, won her first title as a Head Coach days later when the Gamecocks dispatched Mississippi State 67-55 in the title game.  

Such intensity and drama in sport, which has been coined as “March Madness” in the United States, currently does not take place in the Philippines. While there have been invitational tournaments in the past that have sought to answer the question of “who really is the best,” schools have traditionally given importance to winning their respective leagues.  This is the reason why there is a separate champion for the NCAA and the UAAP, even if both leagues have players of generally similar caliber.  Some experts have defended this stance, saying that having multiple leagues and champions is good for the basketball scene in the country, as more teams can have “bragging rights” and the title “champion.”  While part of me agrees with this view, the more competitive part of me (and hence the greater part) actually wants to find out once and for all why there has never been a quest to find out who really is Number 1?

UAAP Season 73 Finals: Game 2, Ateneo Blue Eagles vs. FEU Tamaraws (Photo by Diana Moraleda | CC by 2.0)

Is It A Question of An Uneven Playing Field?
Because of the geographic composition of the Philippines, the “major” leagues in college basketball have generally been Manila-centric by nature.  As has been common practice, the talented hoopsters of the South generally take their talents to Manila to be featured. Not moving to Manila has had its consequences. Players who do not get noticed at the college level generally have a harder time crafting a professional basketball career for themselves.  Manila leagues such as the UAAP and the NCAA have generally gotten more media attention, with both leagues currently being aired by a major TV network at the time of writing.  

Colleges (and high schools) from the South (Visayas and Mindanao) have had trouble hanging onto talent because of this market trait. This comprises part of the reason why teams from the South feel that they would not be in a fair fight if they were to take on the giants of the major collegiate leagues. This does, however, beg the question: “What if there were a way to somehow level the playing field?” Moving to a brand new culture in Manila must be a difficult proposition for some players. This is the reason why several players tend to struggle once they move to a new environment.  Even “superstars in the making” have to contend with Spartan accommodations, as student quarters generally house 15-20 players at a time in a very small room.  Relationships also tend to suffer as a result of this move.  Several players are forced to move away from home, and while this may be a good thing for some players, it may also be a bad thing for those who have not developed the requisite maturity to do so.  

While this article will not touch upon the debate of whether a 16-20 year old may be able to handle the move to a new (and even if it is in the same country, it still would be a) foreign place, this article will talk about the concept of giving people a choice to do so.

PCCL 2010 Quarterfinals: De La Salle Green Archers vs. San Beda Red Lions (Photo by Joseph Nebrida | CC by 2.0)

Leveling the Playing Field in Terms of Exposure
The main problem in this scenario is one that may be seen from a player’s perspective: “If I don’t move to Manila, I won’t likely get noticed by the people who need to notice me and I hence will not be able to play professional basketball later.” What is the constraint in this scenario? It is simply the lack of coverage or a ratings system for players and teams around the country.  

Why is it important to have a national ratings system? It is important because a player knows that he must be properly evaluated (or at least rated to the best of one’s unbiased opinion) in order to be professionally drafted.  This problem has been an underrated reason for why our basketball competitiveness has slowly eroded as a nation.  

Let’s think about the effects of this system. In our country, people only get attention if they score a lot of points. Newspapers still do not publish actual box scores showing rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks alongside points. I once made a joke that if Draymond Green were to have had his historic game (the one in which he scored a triple double without reaching double figures in points) in the Philippines, he would have been relegated to the back end of the sports news as he only scored four points that day.  Therefore, young basketball players think that the only way to economic success is to want to score a lot. This leads to a “score first” mentality that permeates every level of basketball in our basketball-crazy nation.

In Europe, kids are taught the fundamentals of the game and are taught to move the ball with the precision of a scalpel. In the United States (maybe after disregarding the AAU system), collegiate players are noticed for the little things they do that make their teammates better. This is why Jason Kidd was such a highly ranked prospect coming out of the University of California (Berkeley) system and why Lonzo Ball (UCLA) is the same way. Scouts notice their ability to pass and make their teammates better.  The lack of a proper statistical rating system has harmed our game to the extent of teaching us how to value “ball hogs” and “volume shooters” over truly versatile and valuable players.

The Proposed Solution
Having a national and unified ratings system would go a long way towards fixing what is wrong with our country’s basketball talent evaluation system. I started this article with the question of: “Is our country ready for a true national championship?” It turns out, this is not just about the need to find out about who the No. 1 team really is. This is about addressing the need to fairly evaluate our young basketball talent so that we may regain our global competitiveness in the sport (and so that we are not at the mercy of making players who have not previously set foot in the country Filipino citizens).

A national ratings system would level the playing field for teams across the country and would give the Southern schools a chance to retain talent (and the players of those schools a chance to have more choices).  A national ratings system would also address the problem of information asymmetry that later shows up in the professional draft.  It would represent the start of something noble and pure – making sure that the country’s best young talent is evaluated in the best way possible.