Ten unforgettable Commissioner's Cup imports, either by sheer ability or unintended notoriety
Denzel Bowles, Renaldo Balkman, Robert Dozier and Daniel Orton lead the list of imports who've left indelible marks in Commissioner's Cup history. Jerome Ascano/ Jaime Campos

THE 2016 PBA Commissioner’s Cup has big shoes to fill in trying to sustain the momentum of the thrilling Philippine Cup.

Fortunately, the big guns, a.k.a. imports who are either new or returning vets, are here to help their respective teams, and hopefully heat up the title race and electrify the fans.

Traditionally, the second conference of the year following the all-Filipino tournament, the Commissioner’s Cup was established in 1993. There have been only been 15 of such conferences up to the present since it was discontinued in 2002 when the PBA adopted a two-conference format. But the league returned to a three-conference schedule in 2011 and reactivated the Commissioner’s Cup.

The influx of a new batch of reinforcements for this year’s staging that starts on Wednesday (February 10) triggers this look back at some of the imports who came, saw, conquered, and left indelible marks in Philippine basketball, either by sheer ability or unintended notoriety, during their time in the Commissioner’s Cup.

Now that’s a long list to trim since in the 15 times the Commissioner’s Cup has been staged, there have been countless imports who’ve played in the league — some for as short as one game, others for as long as years if you count the months they’ve spent here after numerous tours of duty.

However, SPIN.ph is not listing down the greatest imports by performance alone. A surprising fact: the nine imports who led their teams to win the championship failed to get the Best Import nod. Meaning, there are more memorable reinforcements apart from those who won team or individual awards. Some may not have even taken home any accolade at all, yet remain entrenched in the memories of Pinoy basketball fans.

This is a throwback to the most memorable men who have sowed fear, both in the good and bad sense, in their opponents — whose names carry instant recall and a rush of memories from the time they played in the Commissioner’s Cup.

Let’s start with some honorable mentions:

The epic finish to the 1996 Commissioner's Cup Finals.

Sean Chambers (Alaska)
No list of memorable imports can be complete without mention of Sean Chambers. Most of his achievements came in the Governor’s Cup. But the 1996 Alaska Grand Slam would not be possible without Chambers, who replaced Derrick Hamilton in the middle of that year’s Commissioner’s Cup. The Finals against Shell that conference was the toughest the Milkmen experienced, stretched to seven games that Alaska eventually won.

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John Best (Shell)
This here’s a nod to the Shell team, especially their dominant run from 1998 to 1999 where they went to four straight Finals appearances and won two titles. A constant in that stretch is import John Best, who wasn’t as tall and beefy as his counterparts. But what he lacked in height and heft, he made up for in his smarts, speed, toughness, and crafty scoring exploits. Injuries to their main stars then like Benjie Paras, Vic Pablo, Chris Jackson and Gerry Esplana derailed their run in the 2000s. But when these guys were humming, with Best in tow, they were close to unstoppable.

Antonio Lang (Red Bull)
The two-time NCAA champion and former NBA player led the Red Bull franchise to its first title in the 2001 Commissioner’s Cup, just one year after the ballclub entered the league. He won Best Import at the time and also helped them defend the title in 2002, although he left midway through the finals. Lang’s well remembered as a tough-as-nails, do-it-all player who can ball with the best. He’s also quite a pest, as San Miguel’s hulking import in 2002 Terquin Mott resorted to choking Lang in the semis series the Thunder dominated. Lang also got under the skin of another notorious San Miguel import, Art Long, that year as Long threw a punch at him that triggered a free-for-all.

Now to the 10 most memorable imports in Commissioner’s Cup history:

Chris King skies for the slam.

Chris King (Gordon’s Gin, San Miguel Beermen)

If only all imports had the heart of a Chris King. Hobbled by a left hamstring injury, the former Seattle Supersonic and Vancouver Grizzly soldiered on in the 1997 Finals against a talented Johnny Abarrientos-led Alaska team. King posted a triple-double of 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists in Game 1, hit a crucial three-pointer in Game 2 despite playing hurt, and anchored a defensive stand that limited the Milkmen to just five points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to finish the series. His 16-year basketball career would take him to the NBA, CBA, Europe, South America, Israel and two tours of duty in the PBA.            

Denzel Bowles (B-Meg, Purefoods)

“Monster” will be remembered (especially by Purefoods fans) for the two pressure-laden free throws he sank with 1.2 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2012 Commissioner’s Cup finals. The charities from the conference’s Best Import sent the game to overtime and made possible their team’s epic comeback that eventually ended in a championship.  Bowles is a double-double machine who also provides some timely blocks and has a knack for taking over in crunch time. No wonder the 6-10 center remains the go-to import for the Commissioner’s Cup and has suited up for the team in four of the last five conferences.

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Ginebra's Henry James with a clutch trey at the 3:20 mark

Henry James (Ginebra)

One common skillset that Robert Jaworski sought from his imports during his Ginebra coaching days was perimeter shooting. James had such talent in spades since he possessed one of the deadliest strokes of any import from beyond the arc. In 1996, the 31-year old NBA journeyman found himself in the Philippines where he quickly displayed the talent that allowed him to shoot seven three pointers in a single quarter when he was with the Atlanta Hawks. James was what the doctor prescribed for a Ginebra squad bannered by Marlou Aquino and Noli Locsin. His outside marksmanship and pinpoint passing perfectly complemented the big men and they became the last Ginebra team to defeat Alaska in the finals. After his playing days were over, James sank to the low depths of drug addiction. In 2007, James was convicted to a five-year jail sentence for dealing crack cocaine.      

Mitchell Wiggins (La Tondena Rhum Masters)

Despite an unimpressive five win and six loss record in the 1994 Commissioner’s Cup for a talent-starved team, Wiggins is in the PBA annals for his scoring. He showed his NBA pedigree by scoring 62 points in his debut, a 108-106 loss to Swift. He proved his scoring prowess was no fluke with a 78-point outing in an overtime win over Sta. Lucia. Wiggins was gifted with talent and had a few solid seasons in the NBA but substance abuse led to him being banned from the league. The 6-4 shooting guard continued his hoops career in Europe and some minor leagues in the US while exorcising his checkered past. And yes, the high-leaping import is also the father of Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins, who could be in town come July as part of Canada’s national basketball team in the Manila leg of the Fiba Olympic Qualifiers.     

Robert Dozier (Alaska)

The 2013 Best Import Awardee is a reminder that not everyone on this list should be remembered based on notoriety. Dozier is as calm as they come while producing averages of 20 points, 16 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks minus the fuss and fanfare. The quiet import was a crucial cog for Alaska when it swept Ginebra in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup finals. Now on his third tour of duty in the PBA, Dozier will need to be the steady hand for the Aces, who look to bounce back after a historic collapse in last conference’s Philippine Cup.  

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Ronnie Thompkins (Swift, Purefoods)

One of the most volatile imports to ever play in the PBA, Thompkins was named Best Import after he led Swift to the Commissioner’s Cup crown in 1993. The 6-5 lefty was a fearless scorer and used his rumored ballet background in twisting mid-air for seemingly impossible shots. He was no slouch on defense, too, and was an intimidating shot blocker. But the fiery import found himself in several on and off court altercations, notably when he comically chased Shell bruiser Ricky Relosa around the court and engaging center Rey Cuenco in a post-game locker room scuffle. And before his third go-around in the PBA, Thompkins was banned from the league after testing positive for drug use. In 2003, he was found inside a New York hotel room dead from a heart attack at only 36 years of age.   

Daniel Orton (Purefoods)

The former Kentucky Wildcat found out the hard way not to call Manny Pacquiao, well, anything. After a loss against Pacquiao’s team, Orton was asked by reporters what he thought of the Kia Sorento’s playing coach. The American described Pacquiao’s appearance in the game as “a joke” and criticized the referees. The PBA would have none of Orton’s candor, which it described as “disrespectful and disparaging." The powers that be meted a hefty P250,000 fine on the big man who was soon forced to pack his bags after playing only three games. He later tweeted an apology, but the damage had already been done.

The sweet moves of Jerald Honeycutt.

Jerald Honeycutt (Ginebra, Talk ‘N Text)

An import whose bulky frame disguised a combination of power and finesse, Honeycutt was instrumental in turning Talk N Text into contenders during the early 2000s. The NBA veteran posted per game averages of nearly 26 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and two steals an outing. And he utterly dominated the 2002 Commissioner’s Cup — he scored the most points, sank the most treys, hauled the most rebounds, dished the most assists and recorded the most steals, a performance that earned him the Best Import trophy.

Renaldo Balkman (Petron)

Imagine what might have been. One of the highest NBA draft picks to see action in the PBA, Balkman cemented his place in league history as probably the first player to turn on his own teammate. In the dying seconds of what was already a lost game, an agitated Balkman simply lost it with the officiating and turned on everyone on the court. And we mean EVERYONE. The 6-8 forward went after all three referees, blew off assistant coach Binoy Ravanes, pushed teammate Ronald Tubid who was trying to pacify him, and clashed with Arwind Santos in a shoving match that ended badly when Balkman put Santos in a chokehold. The volatile import later apologized but a lifetime ban soon followed. 

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Kenny Redfield with the top play.

Kenny Redfield (Purefoods, Shell, Pepsi)

The only two-time Best Import in the Commissioner’s Cup wars, Redfield was the nearest thing to Magic Johnson the PBA has seen. The 6-5 guard from Michigan State was a triple double waiting to happen and can play all five positions in a pinch, and it’s this versatility that got him wanted by numerous PBA teams. Redfield stood out in an era where imports were expected to score heavily by filling the stat sheets to complement the locals. Redfield led a Chot Reyes-coached Purefoods team to the title against Alaska in 1994, before losing in an epic seven-game series against the Milkmen in 1996 while he was with Shell.   

Follow the writer on Twitter: @rhoelfernandez