THIRDY Ravena happily announces in an online prescon that he has been signed to play in Japan's professional basketball league. Amid the fanfare, the former Ateneo high-flyer had to pause and grapple with the question on whether he is in danger of being labelled a 'draft dodger' and banned from the PBA.
That is quite a dampener for Ravena and other top prospects who, in their desire to get better, step out of their comfort zones and head overseas, only to face the spectre of being banned by the biggest basketball league back home.
Blame all these on a contentious rule that the PBA board put in place post-haste back in 2018, which threatens a ban on rookie prospects out of college who pass up on the pro league's draft for two straight years.
It was rushed into law as Ray Parks once again stood non-committal on the draft, a good five years since leaving UAAP side National University. Hence it came to be known as the Ray Parks rule.
"Nakita ko ang pinanggagalingan ng mga [board of] governors at mga teams when they agreed on the rule," said Commissioner Willie Marcial, remembering the rule as the most integral change the league's by-laws had undergone since he took over its stewardship from Chito Narvasa.
The board, Marcial explained, merely wanted to protect the spirit and the sanctity of the rookie draft, which, year by year, gives teams in the lower tier the opportunity to restock their lineups or, if they hit the jackpot, land the once-in-a-generation talent that can change the future of a franchise.
The rookie draft is the one single equalizer on league parity, Marcial added, and the PBA can't afford to have top prospects bypassing the draft one year or the next, just to avoid being picked by a team he didn't fancy.
"Papaano lalakas ang mga ibang teams kung papayagan mo ang ibang mga magagaling na makapili ng [teams na] pupuntahan," said Marcial.
Marcial, and the board members for that matter, are not alone in that thought. Former PBA commissioner Noli Eala and NLEX coach Yeng Guiao both recognize the rookie draft is paramount in maintaining league balance, therefore the need to protect it.
"I agree with the rule and the logic behind it. If it were not imposed, we would see more rookie prospects delaying their entry for a more 'opportune' time," said Guiao, who once served as the commissioner of the Philippine Basketball League (PBL).
It is for this same reason, Guiao said, that he agreed with the PBA board imposing a ban on the trading of top draft picks.
"Its serves as a deterrent but not a guarantee that top prospects enter the league to enhance the parity of the teams," Guiao added. "That's why I also support the prohibition of the top pick being traded by the team that picks him."
Eala agreed, but at the same time warned about the difficulty of applying the rule across the board without being unfair to some rookie prospects.
"I personally support and respect the spirit and intent of the "Ray Parks Rule" especially if a player is deliberately and blatantly dodging the draft simply to avoid a particular team," said the television commentator.
"Having said that, it is however very difficult to prejudge the intentions of a player in order to apply this rule. Players today have so many options for career pathways after their college days. And the PBA should not stand in their way."
There lies the problem, really, especially at a time when opportunities are opening up elsewhere in the world for Filipino basketball players.
Before Ravena, a number of top college stars have tried their luck overseas, including Parks and Thirdy's own brother Kiefer. Kai Sotto is set to play in the NBA G League once that NBA-organized developmental league is able to open its new season amid the pandemic, while some college players have headed out to New Zealand while basketball is at a standstill locally.
The point, according to former PBL commissioner Chino Trinidad, is that in this day and age the PBA is no longer the only option for college prospects and it's high time the league rethinks its position, especially on that controversial rookie draft rule.
"May right to choose ang individual. And kung magaling talaga ang platform then the PBA can rest easy," said Trinidad. "But with options now available like the G League at Japan B.League, maganda for the PBA to rethink its position.
"In the olden days, the PBA was the only destination. With the Ray Parks, Kai Sotto and Thirdy Ravena experience - the PBA is now becoming just as an option."
Marcial believes the league board's position is flexible when it comes to the Ray Parks rule, saying the lack of a precedent for a relatively new rule leaves the door open for the PBA softening its stance, on a case-to-case basis.
The third-year commissioner, in fact, said he is open to the idea of rookie prospects entering their names in the draft before being allowed to explore other opportunities elsewhere 'but only for a certain period of time.'
"Dapat lang may time frame. Otherwise, kawawa naman ang team na nag-draft sa kanila," said Marcial, who was nonetheless quick to point out that such revisions are entirely in the hands of the board.
Eala proposed letting rookie prospects be drafted in absentia. The former commissioner said the league can also try 'incentivizing' the draft process, giving perks to incoming rookies who do not pass up on the rookie draft instead of threatening those who do with stiff penalties.
"I believe that instead of such drastic penalties, the PBA is served better to incentivize players to enter the draft. These incentives can be in the form of eligibility to a hefty rookie salary rather than a lower one if he dodges the draft. Another incentive could be a shorter period to become a free agent," Eala said.
"The Ray Parks rule has a lot of room for change particularly in an era where the basketball market is so open and free to players," Eala added. "The PBA needs to learn to compete and be competitive and attractive to players. It cannot always rely on draconian measures."
Guiao said he is open to new ideas that 'can bring together common interests,' but warned the league should never compromise on the spirit of the rookie draft, 'lest it be held hostage by the threat of these youngsters playing somewhere else."
In the end, Guiao said the PBA is still the primary option for most Filipino players and will remain to be so in the foreseeable future.
"I feel that as Filipinos, they will prefer to play in the PBA in front of their countrymen. If the league gives in, it will always be held hostage by the threat of these youngsters playing somewhere else," the multi-titled coach said.
"I believe the player loses more in the long run than the league. Ray Parks bounced around foreign leagues for years. It would have been more productive for him if he had played in the PBA earlier," Guiao added.
Eala agreed, but said that should not stop the PBA from cleaning house.
"I still believe that the PBA is the primary choice, if not, the final destination of the Pinoy basketball player," Eala said. "But that doesn't mean the league cannot find ways to further improve its house."