PBA’s integrity still at risk

To Take A Stand
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr.

Posted on July 17, 2012

“PBA games are fixed. They control who is in and who is out. It’s a disgrace to be in this league. In my opinion, this league has little credibility left,” Barako Bull Don Carlos Allado tweeted. Allado’s mistake was accusing the league itself of fixing the games.

Rumors of game-fixing have been circulating furiously since the early years of the league. The Games and Amusement Board had even asked the National Bureau of Investigation to invite players of the Crispa Redmanizers and Toyota Tamaraws at the height of their storied rivalry because a number of the key players on either side were suspected of throwing the games, what with usual high scorers missing easy shots one night and good ball handlers turning the ball over too many times the next night.

Rumors of game-fixing flew again in 1988 when Ramon Fernandez, playing coach of the new franchise Purefoods, was suddenly benched and replaced as coach by the young and inexperienced Cris Calilan on orders of Purefoods chairman Rene Buhain.The local basketball world was abuzz again with rumors of game-fixing during the finals of the 2008-2009 All-Filipino Conference between Talk ‘N Text and Alaska. Alaska Coach Tim Cone fueled somewhat the rumors when, halfway through the series, he said in response to a question of a broadcast courtside reporter that winning the championship depended on Willie Miller. He made it sound like it was up to Willie to play well or not.

In Game 5 of that finals series, Willie emerged the hero when he made a game-clinching three-pointer in the final seconds of the game. However, in the deciding Game 7, Willie failed to send the game into overtime when he missed two free throws in the dying seconds of the game.

In all the episodes of game-fixing, the league officials were never implicated. Anyway, the investigations involving the Crispa and Toyota players turned up nothing that could lead to charging players with wrongdoing. As regards the Ramon Fernandez controversy, Purefoods just traded him to San Miguel for Abet Guidaben. After the 2009 season, Alaska sent Miller to Ginebra in exchange for Cyrus Baguio.

In reaction to Allado’s accusations, PBA Commissioner Chito Salud said, “The Office of the Commissioner is on top of it. We have our own sources to see if there’s game-fixing. The answer is no. The integrity and credibility of the league is at stake. There’s no game-fixing here. Our games are played, won, and lost, on the merit and not because of influence.” However, the suspension of the referee who failed to call the three-second violation that triggered Allado’s indictment of the PBA raises questions about the veracity of the Commissioner’s claim that games are won on the merit, not on influence. How many times have the broadcast color commentators on the games pointed out players overstaying in the shaded area or “camping”under the goal without any of the three referees blowing his whistle. Yet not one referee has been suspended for missing such violations.

But according to newspaper reports, the referee who failed to call the three-second violation that caused Allado’s bitter tweet has been suspended for the rest of the season. True, game officials have been suspended before for bad calls, but usually only for one or two games. In the case of the referee that caused Allado’s outburst, he has been excluded from the pool for the semifinal and final rounds of the current Governors Cup. That is a lot of games he will be missing; that is a lot of money he will be denied. The erring referee drawing such a severe sanction from league officials makes one wonder if the latter considered the referee’s non-call the result of influence from outside the PBA instead of just another one of those lapses that referees normally commit in the course of officiating a game. After all, the Commissioner himself had said “our referees are not perfect.”

Granting that there is no game-fixing in the league, the integrity and credibility of the league still remain at risk. They may not control who is in and who is out as Allado claimed, but many fans believe that league officials do try to influence to some extent who goes in and who goes out of the championship round. The influence appears to fans and insiders alike to have been exercised in various ways.

The league has allowed lopsided player swaps. At the beginning of the current season, 10-time all-star selection member Kerby Raymundo was sent by Purefoods to sister company Ginebra in exchange for J.C. Intal who still has to attain the stature of his schoolboy idol. J.C. was a Letran squire at the same time Kerby was a Letran knight. Last year Purefoods traded 2010 PBA Rookie of the Year Rico Maierhofer for Yancy de Ocampo, he with the flagging career. The trade was allowed because Rico was supposed to fill in the slot of Rudy Hatfield who had signified he was staying in the States. But Rudy came back after all. So, Ginebra now has in its roster Rudy, Kerby, Rico, Enrico Villanueva, Niño Canaleta, and Eric Menk, Class A-1 forwards all.

That is the other issue raised against league officials. Lavishly funded franchises appear to be free to break through the salary cap. Many followers of the PBA have wondered how those teams owned by big spenders could have so many superstars in their rosters without going over the salary cap. Talk ‘N Text has six US-born/-trained players in its roster: Ali Peek, Jimmy Alapag, Harvey Carey, Kelly Williams, Ryan Reyes, and Jared Dillinger. Ali, Kelly, and Ryan are acquisitions from other teams. Jimmy and Kelly are former MVPs, as well as former Rookie-of-the-Year. Ryan, Larry Fonacier, and Rich Alvarez are also former Rookie-of-the-Year. No less than Alaska team owner Fred Uytengsu had complained to Commissioner Salud about violations of the salary cap by certain teams.

The other beef against the Commissioner and his subordinates is their seeming leniency towards referees generally perceived to be biased in favor of the crowd favorites, notably the Ginebra team. A couple of years ago Talk ‘N Text Coach Chot Reyes called on his players to walk out of a game against Ginebra because he felt the referees were favoring the Gin Kings.

The same leniency was shown again recently. In a free throw situation in the game between Ginebra and Petron the other Sunday, Ginebra player Dylan Ababou and a Petron player entered the shaded area before the foul shooter released the ball. Dylan got the rebound. A violation should have been called but Ginebra was allowed to keep possession. The possession was key to Ginebra winning the game.

It seems no action has been taken by the league against any of the three referees who officiated the crucial Ginebra-Petron game. Fans wonder if it is because the non-call favored Ginebra which team league officials, from the time of Commissioner Jun Bernardino to the present, seem to want to be in the finals because it packs the stadium.

Speaking of Bernardino, I wrote in this space in November 1995 that the integrity of the PBA might have been compromised. The Commissioner fined Sta. Lucia P100,000 for the “glaringly sub-par performance” of its players in their game against Alaska earlier in the year. He scolded in a separate letter Gerry Esplana and Jun Limpot for their lack of sensitivity to play their best. The sportswriters who covered the match between Sunkist and Ginebra later that year found the game to be only an exhibition of spectacular alley-oop shooting, fancy behind-the-back passing, and fascinating one-on-one taunting between opposing players. Hardly playing with intensity, the Gins tumbled to their ninth straight defeat. But Commissioner Bernardino didn’t find listless the performance of the Sunkist and Ginebra players. No fine was imposed on either team, no letter scolding players was issued. It was generally believed that Sunkist escaped sanctions only so as not to appear lenient to Ginebra.

The bias of league officials towards Ginebra was manifested very recently when Robert Jaworski’s jersey number was retired. Normally, such events are organized and conducted by the team he played for or best identified with. Four-time PBA MVP Alvin Patrimonio’s No. 16 was retired by Purefoods in a very quiet ceremony. Three-time MVP William “Bogs” Adornado’s No. 33 was retired without any fanfare, understandably because none of the five teams he played for -- Crispa, U-Tex, Great Taste, Shell, and Hills Bros. -- still existed at the time his jersey number was retired. Ramon Fernandez, the other four-time MVP, has not had his jersey number retired. Maybe because he sported two different numbers during his playing days, No. 10 and No. 19.

In the case of the retirement of the Big J’s jersey number, the league, from all appearances, was the organizer and sponsor of the event. The members of the Board of Governors, the body composed of representatives of all the teams, were there in full force, not just as guests but as participants. It should be noted that the Living Legend was MVP only once.