The FIBA Asia Champions Cup, a club competition designed by the international basketball federation to gather some of the top club teams from the region, will be returning this September. The ‘big three’ East Asian professional leagues, namely the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Japan’s B-League, and the Korean Basketball League (KBL), all hold a direct qualifying spot in sending their league champions (or runners-up) to the annual Asia Champions Cup.
The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is the only other league to be granted an automatic berth to the Final 8, and while the Philippines has been one of the most active participants in FIBA competitions, they have yet to be represented by a professional squad at the club championships.
There have been six previous appearances by the Philippines at the Asia Champions Cup since the organizing body was renamed from the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) in 2002, however, all of those teams consisted of national team members and were never an actual pro team.
In the past, the Philippine National Team competed under corporate sponsor San Miguel during the 2005 and 2007 editions of the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, as Smart Gilas between 2009-2011, and finally under Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas in 2017, all of whom failed to finish at the podium.
For FIBA’s annual club championship, two foreign reinforcements are allowed per team with no restrictions regarding height or nationality. This rule could serve as an advantage for PBA teams, who are accustomed to playing with only one or no imports, but with how the Philippines has decided to select its participating rosters in the past, could we ever see top PBA teams, or any team at all for that matter, competing against the region’s elite clubs?
The PBA runs a very tight, three-conference calender each year, beginning with the all-Filipino Philippine Cup from sometime in December to April, followed by the Commissioner’s Cup (one import of 6’10” and below) from April through August, and finally, the Governor’s Cup (one import of 6’5” and below) which runs from August to around November. This competition calendar leaves players and teams with very little time for additional plans in the off season.
If the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), the Philippines’ national basketball federation, claims to always have a hard time coaxing the league to adjust their calendar to accommodate an ample training and competition schedule for major FIBA events, what makes us believe the PBA will ever bend for a club competition?
In comparison, other lesser ranked club teams from Southeast Asia’s ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) have never backed down to the superior competition. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Dragons readily took up to the challenge despite finishing dead last in both the 2011 and 2016 seasons, while Indonesian squad Satria Muda BritAma completed a respectable sixth place finish in 2009. Most recently, Thai club Mono Vampire booked their second straight appearance in the Asia Champions Cup after finishing sixth behind Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas last year.
Just last month, the Asia League (not directly connected to FIBA) organized its second annual Summer Super 8 tournament, a competition which shares a similar design to that of the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, but due to one of its rules which contrasts that of the Asia Champions Cup, could be seen more as a premiere preseason all-local tourney despite featuring teams from the CBA, KBL, B-League, and Chinese Taipei.
Also featured in that tournament were the Blackwater Elite and the NLEX Road Warriors, and while it is very promising to finally see Filipino pro teams in the international stage, both squads finished at the bottom of the PBA standings and were already eliminated from playoff contention which made them to available to participate.
Both teams’ showing should be applauded as they played very well and proved to have earned every right to play in the tournament, but most of the other participating teams were legitimate playoff contenders in their own domestic leagues. Still, there is more to be desired with fans clamoring for a chance to see the top caliber teams clash in the international stage.
The Asia League will return for the Terrific 12 in late September and has extended two slots for PBA teams, but with the Governor’s Cup in full swing, it remains to be seen which teams will be available to participate, if at all. Needless to say, it would be great to see more PBA clubs competing, even if it were to be made up of those whom have already been eliminated from playoff contention.
Now, what would it take for basketball fans to finally be treated to seeing perennial champion clubs San Miguel Beermen and the Ginebra Gin Kings compete with CBA or Korean league champions?
If they do join, some of the PBA’s Filipino-foreign players’ status as locals might also come into question under current FIBA rules. For example, San Miguel rookie Christian Standhardinger can only play as a naturalized player for the Philippines in international competitions.
The SBP, aligned with the ‘MVP group’ (Talk N Text, Meralco, and NLEX), and having a sort of longstanding cold war with the San Miguel group (Beermen, Gin Kings, Purefoods) may be part of the reason this remains just a pipe dream, but I believe the PBA not budging with their calendar of events is the more obvious hindrance.
Then again, even without the aforementioned PBA teams, it would still be a treat to potentially see a proper Filipino basketball champion club like the reigning ABL title-holders San Miguel Alab Pilipinas test their mettle against the top East Asian teams in the Asia League Terrific 12, and though far-fetched but not impossible, at the 2018 FIBA Asia Champions Cup as well.
Follow the author on Twitter at @kicksmvp.