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    benchwarmer

    MPBL commissioner Kenneth Duremdes believes they’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg in the game-fixing scandal that recently rocked the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League, a 31-team hoops tourney organized and financed by Manny Pacquiao.

    Duremdes suspects that many more teams and coaches are involved.

    “We have asked the National Bureau of Investigation to continue running after offenders, no matter who is involved,” he said after the NBI filed criminal charges against 21 members of the Soccsksargen team, including its coach and owner, and three suspected ringleaders, for alleged game-fixing.

    To drive the message home that the league means business, Pacquiao himself took centerstage in a press conference to identify the culprits, where he was joined by the NBI.

    Whether such a show of force will have an immediate effect is another matter. The thinking is that so entrenched is game-fixing in Philippine basketball that it hasn’t just affected the big leagues like the PBA, the UAAP, and the NCAA, but even the smaller ones, with the MPBL a prime example.

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    Then and now, game-fixing talk has never been far from basketball talk. It’s the thing most often blamed when a favored team falls. Though upsets are part of the sports landscape anywhere, those don’t figure in the chatter of the local bleacher crowd that always sees a fixed game in every unexpected loss, a bought player in every surprise setback, and a compromised coach in every failed team press.

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    But the MPBL had the goods on Soccsksargen, a Mindanao-based team. This was a team that had lost all of its 18 games before Pacquiao and company lowered the boom. The league rechristened it Sarangani, where the team is based, to bury the sour taste of Soccsksargen. Then it gutted the squad and retained just three players, all of them from Sarangani, that the league believes did not participate in the scam.

    But at this writing, the team remains winless, dropping two games under its new name.

    It seems that Soccsksargen was not even trying to conceal its machinations. The league had been suspecting that the team was into something, but could not put its finger on it. There was no smoking gun. And unfortunately, advanced technology made it difficult to pinpoint the culprits, the deal, and the payoff.

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    That all changed about two weeks ago when a whistleblower surfaced.

    His knowledge of the modus operandi and the characters involved in the game-fixing was extensive. He was, after all, part of the official team — although he has denied being in on the scam — as the assistant coach.

    Manny Turalba, the whistleblower and assistant coach, said he could no longer accept the blatant way his team was throwing games. He decided to meet with league officials who, in turn, got in touch with the NBI, which then filed cases against the suspects.

    Sadly, the discovery of the scam and the subsequent filing of charges have not animated the sports scene. No outcry against this crime and no demand to look into other reports of game-fixing in other leagues followed. In fact, the suspects remain scot-free. Even the three persons suspected as the brains of the operations have never been fully identified, except to say they were “Chinese.”

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      Still, one has to appreciate the length to which Pacquiao and the MPBL have gone to expose the crime, even knowing it could hurt a league which has already begun attracting huge crowds. Then there is the harm that might befall brave witnesses. Game fixers are known to be a violent lot. In the past, top college players reportedly involved in fixed games were threatened, intimidated, or actually gunned down when they failed to follow instructions.

      Duremdes says they will not be intimidated and will continue to cleanse the league, no matter who gets hurt. He says Pacquiao himself is on top of the situation, and that the senator and boxing icon intends to make sure that the league continues to flourish and expand.

      Duremdes — a former PBA star and MVP, many times named to the national team, and an All-Star mainstay — admits that game-fixing will be a difficult animal to slay.

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      Although he has first-hand knowledge of the basketball scene as college player and pro-ball star, he admits that he personally cannot sense if a game is fixed or not. The tactics, he says, are the same: Players will miss easy shots, they commit turnovers, they foul opponents needlessly while their own foul shots go astray. “It’s just so difficult to prove,” he laments. “But I know it continues to exist, in practically every level of basketball competition.”

      Whether he and Pacquiao can do basketball a favor by eliminating this scourge remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: Beating game-fixing will be Pacquiao’s greatest win.

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