Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #172 Pride (In the Name of flag, club, money, and playing time)

(In the name of flag, club, money and playing time)
It’s too easy to say that Japeth Aguilar should have not joined the draft if all along he wanted to play for flag and country. There’s more to this than a simple press statement.
by rick olivares

Isn’t it every Filipino basketball player’s dream to make it to the Philippine Basketball Association? And isn’t it a dream and honor to represent one’s country in international competition?

Normally, the two go hand in hand but when does the dream turn into a nightmare?

There is much more than Japeth Aguilar’s statement that he’d rather play for flag and country. He once spurned the longer term Smart Gilas National Team to turn pro and suit up for the Powerade Pilipinas squad to the Jones Cup and the Fiba Asia Men’s Championship. Burger King selected him as the overall number draft choice and the club felt as if they added a crucial piece to their championship ambitions.

But somewhere in between Tianjin and opening day of the first conference of the 35th season of the PBA, the worm turned. There is speculation that the young player out of Western Kentucky was unhappy over being benched as the tournament progressed.

Whether he was being onion-skinned about it no one can be sure since he wasn’t the only one to burn a hole in his pants while seated on the bench. Forwards Arwind Santos and for a while, Gabe Norwood, rode the bench as well. The team found itself struggling to find a consistent go-to player. And any good games by James Yap and Kerby Raymundo were few and far in between.

Although the team had a chance to secure an opportunity for a berth in the zonal qualifiers, the Powerade Team faltered when the going got tough.

The team had fallen apart under the weight of its own hubris. The lessons of previous international failures were not learned. Word filtered out that National Coach Yeng Guiao did not scout the opposition and that the players kept late nights about town. They had treated an international tournament like it was being played in their own backyard and under their own rules.

Though they finished eighth – better than the San Miguel Pilipinas team that landed ninth in Tokushima two years earlier – there was a feeling that the team had been ill-prepared and poorly equipped to compete in the international arena. If that statement needed underscoring, Guiao’s post-Tianjin public assessment of the players validated that but it was perhaps better off left unsaid to a fickle public. You know the saying… what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Aguilar was said to be unhappy with the public grading. He was a rising star with the Ateneo Blue Eagles when he was made to leave for the United States to play for Division 1 school Western Kentucky presumably to help his family. But a series of injuries kept him mostly to the bench and suddenly there were missed opportunities. Perhaps being an expensive observer in Tianjin conjured images of sitting once more.

That’s the rub when the tag of “potential” is slapped on any player whether fairly or not. Either they live up to it or they don’t.

When Aguilar and his representative, veteran sports media man Ronnie Nathanielsz, met with Burger King officials last Wednesday afternoon and declared their intentions not to sign with the ballclub, its representative, the PBA’s new President Lito Alvarez, was reported to have hit the ceiling.

Burger King offered the young player a maximum contract that would also free him for national duty yet the Aguilar camp’s reticence at first perplexed the Burger King executive then enraged him. And that too is an understatement. Guaio was also said to have blown his top.

A day after, both Alvarez and Guiao expressed hope that the two parties could put aside their differences and start anew. But in a press conference last Friday morning, it was revealed that negotiations had broken down. Later in the day, Aguilar, through Nathanielsz, sent an emailed statement to the media signifying his intent to join the Gilas team.

The repercussions of this incident will resonate in the league for years to come. Its full effects can only be surmised for now but will be determined later.

One on hand, it is seen as disrespecting a 35-year old institution’s rules and the PBA will surely close ranks with the aggrieved Burger King that went from being draft day winner to WTF! Although players are not obligated to sign should they not come to terms, this is the first time that the top pick will not ink a contract with the team that drafted him. How this affects Gilas’ participation in the upcoming PBA tournament is not clear. And there is talk that Aguilar, the son of former national teamer and pro player Peter, will be banned.

There are no rules in the league that sanction players who refuse to sign. Whether this is lawful or not isn’t clear yet. But for the sake of argument, is every player who is drafted signed to a contract?

The incident isn’t new as it happened before when FEU standout Victor Pablo was said not to be crazy about suiting up for Ginebra San Miguel, the team that selected him second overall in the 1993 draft. Pablo eventually went to Shell.

Most recently, a repeat of this happened when Fil-Am Alex Cabagnot, also the second overall choice in the 2005 draft, refused to sign with Sta. Lucia. Team representative Buddy Encarnado threatened to have him banned and Cabagnot who was in Hawaii at this time, high-tailed it immediately back to the Philippines where he played two years for the Realtors before he was shipped to the Coca Cola Tigers.

In the American National Basketball Association, Duke’s Danny Ferry, another second overall pick refused to play for the woebegone Los Angeles Clippers that he saw action for a year in Italy before moving back Stateside with the Cleveland Cavaliers and lastly with the San Antonio Spurs where he won a title.

Several seasons ago, Chinese sensation Yi Jian Lian made it clear to Milwaukee Bucks representatives that they were wasting their time because he had no interest playing for them if they drafted him. Bucks officials had to fly to Hong Kong and China to court the athletic forward. NBA officials couldn’t ban Yi because they ran the risk of losing the Asian market that has been instrumental to their international growth.

And in the NBA Draft of earlier this year, Spanish point guard sensation Ricky Rubio stated that he was not going to play for the lowly Memphis Grizzlies in spite of the presence by his compatriot, center Marc Gasol. Clearly the shabby treatment of Gasol’s older brother Pau remained fresh in their minds. Now Rubio could instead be staying put in the Iberian Peninsula where he might wear the colors of Barcelona.

Unlike the NBA where they cannot sanction a draftee who refuses to sign because of its many obligations, labor laws, and delicate undertakings, Aguilar does not have that leverage in his current situation. The league has asked SBP Executive Director Noli Eala to advise Japeth properly about the situation and to go on record in doing so. What started as a PBA problem is an association problem and one that has to be managed well because it could possibly lead to the pro loop bolting the SBP.

The Gilas team will officially enter Year Two of its program to claim an Olympic berth in 2012 in London. Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas President Manuel V. Pangilinan, who sponsors Gilas, is also the team owner of Talk ‘N Text and a minority owner of Burger King, and thus can only stay away to avoid speculation that the PBA was hit by friendly fire.

There is still much that will happen and time can only reveal such.

But aside from the different jersey that Aguilar will be wearing now, one thing is for sure. He will no longer be playing just for national pride -- it’s for his basketball life.

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