Naturalized players

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Saturday, February 15, 2014


THERE is currently a raging debate in sports about the plan to grant National Basketball Association (NBA) players Javale McGee and Andray Blatche Filipino citizenship through a congressional fiat so they can suit up for Gilas Pilipinas’s campaign in the Fiba World Cup in August this year.

(Update: McGee of the Denver Nuggets may be dropped because he is currently injured, although some sectors are pushing for his naturalization anyway so he can suit up for other important international basketball competitions in the future.)

Bills have been filed in the Senate primarily by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the committe on games, amusement and sports, for the purpose. Counterparts measures were filed in the House of Representatives primarily by Antipolo City Rep. Robbie Puno. Cebu first district Rep. Gerald “Samsam” Gullas co-authored the said bills.

A group of Cebuano sports leaders have expressed their opposition to the move, including basketball legend Ramon “Mon” Fernandez. But Samsam and his grandfather, former first district congressman Eduardo Gullas, are supporting the lobby made by Gilas Pilipinas and the team’s finacier, businessman Manny V. Pangilinan.

The arguments for or against naturalization actually hew to the age-old struggle between the purist and the pragmatist lines. And it’s an age-old debate that brooks no middle ground.

I got a chance to talk last year with another basketball legend, the Waray Rosalio “Yoyong” Martirez and I was taken aback by his vehement stance against the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) rule that has resulted in Filipino-foreigners dominating the league at the expense of locally bred players.

I would say that the same opposition has been raised in the case of Philippine football, whose current winning ways can be attributed to the practice of recruiting Fil-foreigners into the team and appointing a foreigner coach to lead the charge.

But naturalization ups the ante a bit more. For patriots, citizenship is hallowed ground. Fil-foreigners have at least Filipino blood in them (although the PBA and the defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association were conned by foreigners who faked their Filipino “roots”). Naturalized players don’t have that.

But that is on the aspect of patriotism. Sports competition is a different arena.

Fiba rules allow a national basketball team to have at least one naturalized player sans residency requirements. Many teams have availed of this rule and competed well in international tournaments because of it. Gilas Pilipinas went that route when it added naturalized player Marcos Douthit to its roster.

The Philippines is a basketball crazy country, but its dominance in Asia was cut short by the Filipinos’ natural limitation in physical size and a corrupt sports program that allowed the physically bigger Chinese team and later Middle Eastern teams with naturalized players and foreigner coaches to take over.

The current Gilas Pilipinas program is a good one, and it wouldn’t have succeeded had it followed the purist line. In the Fiba-Asia finals against Iran with a behemoth NBA player at center, Douthit was injured and Gilas made do with locally bred Jun Mar Fajardo. We were beaten.
Imagine having Blatche in place of Douthit in that tourney.

But we managed to qualify for the World Cup in Spain and compete with the best in the world. In that tourney, we can be purist and field an all-locally bred line-up or even a mix of Fil-foreigners and see Gilas Pilipinas being bludgeoned by bigger teams with naturalized players in them. Or we can give Gilas a chance to be decent with a naturalized player like Blatche in the line-up.

I am a patriot. It is because of this patriotism that I don’t want Gilas Pilipinas to be buried by 40 or 50 points by the competing team in a competition watched by basketball loving fans throughout the world. Of course, the contrarian view is that there is no shame in rooting for a genuinely Filipino team.

Obviously, I favor Gilas Pilipinas’s naturalization push. But it should come with a condition: players targetted for naturalization should promise to embrace Filipino nationhood and culture fully.

(khanwens@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 15, 2014.

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