I presume only La Sallians are happy that Ben Mbala has been named UAAP MVP for the second straight year. The rest of the league’s universities, unable to match Mbala’s strength, talent and, presumably, paycheck, are left watching on the sidelines.
Mbala, to the few who may have forgotten, joined La Salle last year. He had played for the Southwestern University of Cebu, was spotted by scouts, and was thereafter recruited heavily by Manila schools. La Salle won the jackpot.
Mbala, a Cameroonian by birth and nationality, did not disappoint. In his first year at La Salle, the 6-8, 22-year-old won the league’s MVP and helped bring La Salle the UAAP champion’s trophy.
This year, Mbala missed La Salle’s first two games because he had to play for the Cameroon national team competing in the Afro FIBA championship, where he emerged as that team’s most outstanding player, despite being a rookie. NBA scouts talked to him after the tournament, he said.
Mbala is such a gifted import that missing those two games did not stop him from posting enough statistical points to win the UAAP MVP award this year. Why, he could have missed the entire first round and still be MVP! His statistical point average of 96.5 per game dwarfs even that of the seriously good Thirdy Ravena of Ateneo, who came in second at the MVP race with 66.5.
Of the eight UAAP schools, only University of the East did not have an import to beef up its lineup. UE ended up second to last after the two-round eliminations, posting three wins in 14 games. Even lower was University of Santo Tomas, which beat UE in its final game, thus avoiding the ignominy of ending the season winless. Although UST played with an import, and we assume the Dominican friars prayed hard for them, none of that saved UST from the cellar. Its lineup was simply underwhelming.
UST — and the rest of the UAAP teams — could conceivably upgrade their imports next year, but none of that is going to be enough to stop Mbala. I predict that the fellow will be MVP through his entire UAAP playing days and that La Salle will be UAAP champ, or at the very least a regular contender for the championship, as long as the fellow is in its lineup.
This may be fantastic for La Salle's trophy countdown as the school prepares for the Final Four beginning Saturday — but it’s a terrible commentary on the UAAP. This is a league that produced some of the country’s best and most-celebrated hoopsters – Robert Jaworski, Bogs Adornado, and Francis Arnaiz being prime examples. But ever since the UAAP did a copycat of the NCAA’s reliance on imports – absolutely no Filipino blood needed – college basketball has never again generated the excitement and competitiveness of old. Because, today, the contest is just about which school recruits the best foreigner.
Without imports, La Salle-Ateneo encounters have routinely generated sellout crowds, fired up alumni, and excited even nonpartisans. Disappointingly, even these two universities are now not about firing up patrons, energizing students, satisfying alumni, or even minding what the Christian Brothers or the Jesuits find edifying for the schools they painstakingly built. Right now, it’s just about being the champ.
Mbala will graduate from La Salle, perhaps with flying colors, but I wager no one will remember him as fondly as La Sallians still remember Lim Eng Beng, Mike Bilbao, Don Allado, and Jun Limpot. Mbala will be idolized, but only briefly and only while he is around.
When Mbala leaves, no one will really remember him, except when basketball aficionados recall this period in UAAP history, when the once-proud and competitive league lost all interest in discovering and nurturing homegrown talent, and succumbed to the dictum that winning is not the best thing — it is the only thing.
Mbala may be the best talent in basketball in our universities today, but he is also the best example of what’s wrong with Philippine sports. The country competes in the Southeast Asian Games, the Asian Games, and the Olympics with a lineup peppered with Fil-foreigners. These Fil-foreigners come to the Philippines because they can’t make it in their adopted countries, and here, where there is an absence of first-class talent, they shine.
We have a population of 100 million – and we actually need to import athletes? What is it with our sports leaders? It’s impossible that we don’t have a hundred first-class talents out there. Impossible. But there it is: the sorry state of Philippine sports. Basketball simply shows us just how sorry.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Beginning with this piece, veteran sportswriter/columnist Ding T. Marcelo will be writing a weekly column for SPIN.ph. His bench warmer column will appear on this website every Thursday]