Hamed HADDADI (Iran)
Enzo Flojo's Asia On My Mind
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Philippines breaks new ground by having Asian imports

MANILA (Enzo Flojo's Asia on my Mind) - The Philippines is a country known for its fanaticism when it comes to basketball. The sport is treated practically as a religion. Basketball courts can be found in every village center, and it's no strange sight to come across basketball camps filled with children as young as four years old.

With that kind of basketball culture, one might expect that the Filipinos would be warm to the idea of having imports play in local leagues. After all, they tend to have superior size, international experience, and a unique skill-set. One would think that basketball-mad Filipinos would love the prospect of seeing their own local players compete with these imports.

That is, however, not exactly the case. Filipinos see imports from two opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, imports raise the level of play and can make games more exciting, but, on the other hand, imports also take away roster spots and playing time that could have belonged to a local player. Historically, and as can be expected, most Filipinos would rather see their countrymen under the bright lights rather than foreign recruits.

This is quite different from what is standard in most high-level international leagues, where club teams have anywhere from two to as many as five or even six imports playing in a team. For many of these leagues, it's all about raising the level of play no matter from where the talent comes.

This is why having Asian imports in the Philippine Basketball Association's (PBA) season-ending conference, also known as the Governors' Cup, is a big deal. It's a big deal because, for the first time in the league's history, teams can opt to have two imports (one "regular" import with a 1.95m/6ft 5in height limit, and one Asian import with a 1.90m/6ft 3in height limit). It’s a big deal because, as far as I know, the PBA hasn't really had any "homegrown" Asian imports in the past.

It's an initiative that has divided many PBA fans, coaches, and players, but, as far as the league's leadership is concerned, it is a necessary step to try and see if the league can widen its horizons.

As I see it, Asian imports will definitely add a different flavor to the PBA. The league's millions of fans are already used to imports who ply their trade in the United States and in Europe, but it would be quite interesting to see if our Asian neighbors can also hack it in a pro circuit known for its physicality.

I, for one, think it's a brilliant idea (or experiment, depending on who you ask). It definitely wouldn't be the first time that Asians would be playing as imports in other Asian leagues. This phenomenon has, in fact, been happening for a long time, especially in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and China.

In the PBA, the only Asian import who was recently employed, as far as I can remember, was naturalized Lebanese Jackson Vroman, who donned the Ginebra jersey in the 2012 Commish Cup. In 11 games, he averaged 16.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.4 steals per game.

In pro leagues in Lebanon, Jordan and China, having Asian imports has pretty much been par for the course. Iranian big man Asghar Kardoust has seen action for Champville in the Lebanese Basketball League. Palestinian star Sani Sakanini has played for Al Riyadi Amman in Jordan, Qingdao in China and Hoops in Lebanon. Jordanians Sam Daghlas and Zaid Abbas have seen action for several teams in the CBA, too. The same can be said for Iranian dynamic duo Samad Nikkhah Bahrami and Hamed Haddadi, who have also played in the CBA.

Even naturalized Filipino Marcus Douthit has played in China (for the Foshan Dralions in 2011-2012). Heck, former NBA player and Gilas Pilipinas bulwark Andray Blatche actually just signed another lucrative deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.

One advantage of having Asian imports is that they probably wouldn't have to get paid as much as regular imports (unless it's an Asian with NBA experience like Haddadi, Yuta Tabuse, or Ha Seung-Jin), but they can still play at a very high level alongside and against the best our country can offer.

I have no doubt that this will increase the entertainment value of the league, raise the level of competition significantly, and perhaps be the first step in the PBA's being able to expand its fanbase across the continent. Maybe PBA games featuring Asian imports can be picked up in neighboring countries, and then merchandise can be sold as well. Foreign sponsorships might pour in, too.

The challenge, especially for the coaches, is how to evenly spread playing time among the imports and locals. There is also the question of communication. As early as now, reports have come in about some imports not easily understanding instructions from their teammates and coaches. These are valid concerns, of course, and should be taken into consideration.

As of this writing, here are the Asian imports who have signed and are already training in Manila:
- Sanchir Tungalag of Mongolia (Bgy. Ginebra Gin Kings)
- Omar Krayem of Palestine (GlobalPort Batang Pier)
Chang Tsung-Hsien of Chinese Taipei (Kia Carnival)
- Benny Koochoie of Iran (Meralco Bolts)
Michel Madanly of Syria (NLEX Road Warriors)
- Sam Daghlas of Jordan (Talk N Text Tropang Texters)

*Reportedly, Liu Cheng of Chinese-Taipei, Mahdi Kamrani of Iran, and Imad Qahwash of Jordan were also supposed to come over, but, for a variety of reasons, plans fell through. Only four teams haven’t signed any Asian import yet.

For now, having Asian imports is on a "trial basis" for the 2015 Governors' Cup. Should it prove to be successful, I don't see why it should be discontinued in the future. At the very least, I applaud the league for actually trying this out. It sends a clear message to Filipino hoop nuts – that the league will not be content to rest on its laurels and that it is brave enough to break new ground.

Enzo Flojo


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Enzo Flojo

Enzo Flojo

Enzo Flojo, one of Manila’s top basketball bloggers, always has Asian basketball on his mind. His biggest basketball dream? To see an Asian team as a legitimate gold medal contender in world basketball. He believes it will happen in his lifetime. If you have big basketball dreams like he does, then you’re in the right place.