'Ma Jian phenomenon' in defunct PBL inspires plan to tap Asian reinforcements in PBA
The PBA board, led by chairman Pato Gregorio, are unanimously behind the plan to tap Asian players as reinforcements in the pro league next season. Jerome Ascano

SEOUL, South Korea – It worked before, so why won’t it work now.

Plans to tap Asian players as PBA reinforcements took its cue taken from the defunct Philippine Basketball League (PBL) during the mid-90s when then popular Chinese player Ma Jian suited up for Hapee Toothpaste.

Long before the rise of Wang Zhi Zhi and later on, Yao Ming, Ma was the biggest name in Chinese basketball. He played college ball at the University of Utah before coming close to becoming the first player from China to suit up in the NBA until he became the last cut in the Los Angeles Clippers' roster prior to the 1995-96 season.

Quick to pounce on his reputation, Hapee Toothpaste owner Cecilio Pedro tapped him as import for the 1996 Reinforced Conference, which the franchise eventually won.

“During our board meeting, Mr. Dioceldo Sy (Blackwater owner) and Alfrancis Chua (Ginebra governor) mentioned the Ma Jian phenomenon, if you remember it so many years ago in the PBL,” said PBA board chairman Patrick Gregorio, who is behind the push to have Asian players standing 6-foot-4 or lower to see action in the season-ending Governors Cup.   

“Everytime he (Ma Jian) played, all the Fil-Chinese were there (at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium).”

Chua, then calling the shots for multi-titled Stag Pale Pilsen team, lost to Ma and Hapee in the Finals.

Gregorio believes bringing over players from neighboring countries – which he termed as ‘Asian integration’ - to see action in the PBA would be a big boost to the popularity of the league.

[See PBA looking to tap Asian players as reinforcements in Governors Cup]

“So that is also the excitement of Kia Motors, if and when it decides to get a Korean player,” said Gregorio at the end of the league board’s annual planning session here. “Imagine the one million Koreans in the Philippines. Hopefully, that attracts now the other sponsors like Samsung or LG to sponsor in our league.

“It is a branding game. It is reaching out, maybe an integration process.”

The proposal is still to be fully approved by the board and remains optional as far as the 12-member teams are concerned.

But Sy said he’ll definitely go for it, adding he’s already running through some Chinese and Indonesian players.

“Maganda kasi sa marketing yan especially in countries where population is big like China and Indonesia. So pwede mong i-market `yung product mo sa kanila especially kapag nalaman nilang naka-lineup sa team mo `yung isa sa mga players nila,” said the Blackwater team owner.


Gregorio is confident the program, strictly to be implemented for just a conference under a trial basis, will get the backing of the board.

“The board has started its deliberation on the restrictions and rules concerning the Asian players, and they will just present this formally to the owners for ratification.

“The commissioner will just be very careful in making sure the rules are very clear,” added the chairman.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @gerardmos