Naturalized players boost Gilas Pilipinas’ chances

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Last week, the House of Representatives quietly passed on second reading a bill that allows an American playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to become a naturalized Filipino.

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If it finally hurdles Congress, House Bill 4084 will make 6-foot-11 Andray Blatche, who plays center for the Brooklyn Nets, eligible to join Smart Gilas Pilipinas when the national team plays in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Madrid in August.

HB 4084, authored by Deputy Speaker Robbie Puno of Antipolo, was approved less than eight hours after it passed the House justice panel.

The Philippines earned a ticket to the World Cup after placing second to Iran in the FIBA Asia Championship in Manila last August.

Basketball fever swept the country after the Filipinos hammered out a dramatic 86-79 victory over longtime rival South Koreans.

It will be the first time in 35 years for the Philippines to enter the World Cup where it will go up against the basketball world’s elite teams.

HB 4084 is meant to give the national team a fighting chance in the premier tournament.

It needs a tall, experienced center to match up against behemoths from such powerhouse teams as the United States and Spain. Blatche fits the bill. The 28-year-old has averaged 9.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game in his eight years in the NBA.

There is urgency in recruiting the American because the deadline for submitting the roster of players in the World Cup is July 30. Blatche also needs to practice with the rest of the team.

In defending his bill, Puno said FIBA allows a national team to field one naturalized player, and many countries have taken advantage of that rule.

“There’s no reason why the Philippines should not have its own naturalized player,” Puno said.

Basketball player agent Danny Espiritu agreed. “The naturalization process is allowed by the FIBA to give other countries a chance to be on equal (level) with other countries in terms of height and talent. There is nothing wrong with it,” Espiritu told The Manila Times in a phone interview.

At the FIBA Asia in Manila, Smart Gilas Pilipinas sent in six-foot-9 Marcus Douthit to man the center slot. The former Los Angeles Lakers center has been a mainstay of the team since he was naturalized in 2011.

Basketball officials will have to ultimately choose between Douthit and Blatche as the Smart Gilas Pilipinas’ naturalized player.

House Majority Leader Sherwin Tugna said basketball has always been a source of national pride and if naturalized players can help Filipinos win, then he’s all for it.

“We have done it with Douthit and we have seen good results. We’re already here in the World Championships. It is public interest that we perform well in Spain because it will put our country in the World Basketball map. When that happens, a myriad of things can happen to our country like influx of tourists and investors,” Tugna said.

In his explanatory note, Puno proposed to naturalize at least two players, with one acting as a reserve.

“We need to reinforce its strength so we can be assured of a solid fighting chance in the FIBA World Cup. We can only accomplish this goal by doing what other countries have long done—naturalizing athletes that would prove to be great assets to their teams,” Puno said.

Espiritu, who trains at least 68 professional and amateur basketball players in his stable, said that “If we’re not going to naturalize a tall player, we can’t win in the international field because other countries also have their own naturalized players.”

Another NBA star, 6-foot-11 JaVale McGee of the Denver Nuggets was also considered for naturalization. But the Samahan ng Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) dropped him after he suffered a knee injury.

“Of course, we have to choose the right player to be naturalized. He must have the heart to embrace the Filipino culture,” said Espiritu. “Basketball is loved by the majority of Filipinos that’s why SBP is doing everything to give the team a fair chance of competing against the world’s best.”

Gilas Pilipinas’ shooting guard Gary David, who plays for Meralco in the PBA, agreed that naturalized players will boost the Philippine team’s chances.

“We really need to naturalize a tall dominant player, otherwise we are not going to make it,” said David, who represented the country in the Southeast Asian Games in early 2000 when he was still an amateur.

In defending his bill, Puno said naturalized athletes in other sports have brought glory for the Philippines.

He singled out swimmers Akiko Thompson, a two-time Southeast Asian Games medalist and three-time Olympian, and Christine Jacob Sandejas, who shone consistently in the Southeast Asian Games and was a one-time Olympian.

Funding for naturalized players amounting to million of pesos will be shouldered by private groups like telecommunication magnate Manuel V. Pangilinan, a known basketball aficionado.

A Gilas Pilipinas officer, who requested anonymity, said naturalized players will be paid the same rate as that of imports hired by teams in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

A typical import in the PBA is paid to P400,000, exclusive of bonuses and other perks, allowances.

PBA players, led by Calvin Abueva of Alaska, Wynne Arboleda of AIR21, Solomon Mercado of San Miguel Beer and Billy Mamaril said there was nothing wrong with a non-Filipino player in the national squad as long as he makes the team competitive.

Basketball legend Ramon Fernandez gives a resounding no to naturalizing players for the national team, saying they crowd out local talents.

Fernandez conceded that the Philippines would have a hard time competing in a top level tournament like FIBA World with homegrown players, and suggested that the country concentrate on the Asian stage.

In 1981-1982, the national team, bannered by naturalized Americans were Dennis Still, Jeff Moore and Arthur Chip Engelland and bankrolled by business tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco, dominated tournaments in the Asian region.

Our sports officials want to bring back the glory days of Philippine basketball, and they strongly believe foreign players can help them reach that goal.

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