[Editor's Note: First of a series]
PLAYING overseas has long been a dream for Filipino ballers.
From Japeth Aguilar to Bobby Ray Parks to Kiefer Ravena to Kai Sotto now, a professional career overseas has always been something our young dreamers have aspired for but somehow, never felt achievable.
Times have changed and it seems the world has become significantly smaller for Filipino ballers, as evidenced by the continued migration of talents overseas.
Thirdy Ravena opened the doors to Japan when he became the first Filipino signed in the B.League last season with San-En NeoPhoenix. Since then, seven players have followed suit, all set to debut this 2021-22 season.
Among them are Thirdy's brother Kiefer (Shiga Lakestars), Bobby Ray Parks (Nagoya Diamond Dolphins), Kobe Paras (Niigata Albirex BB), Dwight Ramos (Toyama Grouses), siblings Javi (Ibaraki Robots) and Juan Gomez de Liano (Earthfriends Tokyo Z), and Kemark Carino (Aomori Wat's).
Meanwhile, Sotto continued to chase his NBA dream, taking a detour to Australia to play for the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League (NBL), as Lebron Lopez headed to the US to play in the fledgling Overtime Elite League.
Even female ballers got a piece of the action as Jack Animam signed with Serbian club Radnicki Kragujevac to become the first Filipino to play professionally in Europe.
What was once improbable is possible now. So what has changed?
For player agent Charlie Dy, the phenomenon started seven years ago when the Gilas Pilipinas team coached by Chot Reyes made heads turn in the 2014 Fiba World Cup in Seville, Spain.
"The basketball world took notice of the Filipino players once again because of that stint," noted the soft-spoken executive, who is one of the owners of the Virtual Playground management company.
Gilas only won one of five games in Seville, yet it made opponents sweat en route to its 21st place finish. Players like Jimmy Alapag, Jayson Castro, Gabe Norwood, Ranidel de Ocampo, and June Mar Fajardo opened the eyes of the world to the potential the Filipino players have, Dy said.
PJ Pilares, head of the Titan Management Group (TMG) that handles the careers of the likes of Ramos, said it is important to note that other leagues in Asia embracing globalization and adapting to it opened new opportunities for Filipino players.
"What has changed is the leagues' ability to adapt and be premium at the same time," Pilares said.
Take the case of the B.League which instituted the Asian Players' Quota back in 2019, allowing the Japanese ballclubs to sign talents from China, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia that won't count as imports but as locals.
The NBL also introduced the Special Restricted Player rule in 2016, giving Aussie teams the concession to sign players from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, India, and Singapore as unrestricted players.
Following suit is the Korean Basketball League (KBL), which is set to expand its own Asian Players rule starting in the 2022-23 season to cover all Asian players. Currently, this luxury is only given to Japanese players.
After the raft of changes, it was only a matter of time before these leagues found Filipino players,
"We have a network of agents across the globe now and I believe this will be the new trend," said Paula Punla of Hype Sports, who handles the careers of the Gomez de Liano brothers.
It is easy to understand why these Asian leagues like Filipino players.
Aside from the talent and understanding of the game that they bring to the table, their arrival extend the social media footing of the B.League and NBL that signed them up by virtue of the Filipinos' sizeable following online.
"We have one of the best fans in the world and getting a Filipino player to suit up for your team will add to your teams' following," said Dy. "Filipinos will always support a team with Filipino players. So marketing-wise, it’s good also for the team."
Marvin Espiritu, the man behind Espiritu Manotoc Basketball Management (EMBM), said heading overseas is in no way easy, even for players. But he pointed to two things that make the decision easier for youngsters.
The salary and the level of competition.
"Sa totoo lang, hindi rin naman madali na mag-abroad to work, di ba? You have to sacrifice a lot, too," said Espiritu. "First, of course, is the compensation package and most of the time, it's attractive since dollar rate ang sweldo nila doon."
A number of sources SPIN.ph talked to bared that some Filipino players are bound to get salaries in the vicinity of US$30,000 a month (around P1.5 million) in the coming Japan B.League season.
One agent put the base salary for Asian imports at $10,000 a month and the average pay at $20,000 - which is over twice as much as the P420,000 a month that serves as the ceiling for the salaries of superstars in the PBA.
Aside from that, the B.League clubs usually take care of all the players' expenses, from accommodations to meals to transportation.
Aside from the compensation, Espiritu said the young Filipino players are atttracted to the competition in the Japan B.League, which they see as a launch pad for bigger opportunities in Europe, China, Australia and may be in the NBA.
Espiritu said the players feel the Japan league "can open doors to possible offers from a higher level of league like in Europe, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), the NBL in Australia, and who knows, maybe the NBA."
Unlike PBA stars in the past who except for a few like Jayson Castro and Aguilar were reluctant to go out of their comfort zone, today's rising stars are more adventurous and likely to try and push their boundaries.
The young players also have the self-belief that they can cut it overseas.
"Dati, ayaw lumabas ng bansa ang mga players dahil, yun nga, mahihiwalay sa mga asawa at pamilya," said Espiritu. "But these young players are more daring, mostly since mga single rin, at ang tingin nila dito is an adventure.
"This new generation of Pinoy ballers want to explore and see all the options available for them," he added. "They believe na kaya nila maging pro sa international game and they are more willing to embrace the life of a pro baller."
Dy agreed: "I think the millennials and the Gen Zs are more adventurous. They really want to explore and try different things. Gone are the days where one has the mindset na as long as you're in your comfort zone, you’re okay.
"This generation is more independent."
One agent bared that the eight Filipino players who are set to make their Japan debut in the coming B.League season are just the tip of the iceberg, saying that more are expected to follow once health protocols ease worldwide.
The eight players initially signed by B.League teams, he said, were actually those who were able to apply for special visas [or often referred to as entertainment visas] from the Japan government before the June deadline.
Most of these players from the first batch have already come to terms with their B.League teams since then and the signings were only announced after their application for visas were approved, he added.
Given that the Japan B.League window for the signing of new players and imports won't close until January or February, the agent expects more and more Filipinos getting opportunities in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Dy, Punla, and Espiritu agree these opportunities open a new horizon for the Filipino player and eventually will be good for Philippine basketball as a whole.
"Ang laki na ng chance ng mga bata from college now and I think that will help them transition to become pros overseas," said Punla.
Dy added, "If you go to a high level league, you can only grow, develop, and be more competitive. And I expect more players to follow that path."
"I always believed that at the end of the day, this will only benefit Philippine basketball as a whole," he said.
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