With the PBA still on break after the conclusion of the 2022 Honda PBA Philippine Cup, attention largely shifted towards the player exodus that has, depending on one’s perspective, either been disturbing or proven that Philippine basketball players are sought after talents.
Among the recent headlines that took center stage was that of William Navarro not being cleared by FIBA to join the Korean Basketball League’s (KBL) Seoul Samsung Thunders. The chief reason basketball’s governing body cited Navarro’s live contract with the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) as a Gilas Pilipinas player.
While Navarro is technically part of the PBA’s NorthPort Batang Pier, he was selected by the Batang Pier in the Gilas special draft, which means he is pretty much stuck with the national team unless Gilas and SBP release him or allow him to participate in any of NorthPort’s games or team activities.
Navarro’s situation is much more complicated than the likes of Kiefer Ravena and Bobby Ray Parks, whose last PBA teams were simply fine with or resigned to retaining their rights. One also can’t blame Navarro, who is stuck with being in basketball limbo after not being included in the pool for Gilas’ recent games against Lebanon and Saudi Arabia for the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers. After all, players just want to play at the end of the day.
Nonetheless, the case of Navarro in its totality is one of the many where promising young Filipino players are moving abroad to play basketball in other leagues.
When the compensation abroad is comparably greater than what can be offered to them locally, players will certainly go with the better option. For the likes of Justine Baltazar and Matthew Wright, it also allows them to provide for their families and set themselves up for the future. The likes of Kiefer and Thirdy Ravena, as well as Parks and Dwight Ramos also have their respective futures in mind, as a solid career in Japan could translate to a chance at playing in leagues with higher competition.
Japan’s B.League isn’t the only other game in town as Korea also provides lucrative incentives. The likes of Navarro, SJ Belangel, Rhenz Abando, and RJ Abarrientos have all signed up to play in the KBL. Let’s not forget Kai Sotto as well, as he will be entering his second season with the National Basketball League’s (NBL) Adelaide 36ers.
With all the young talent moving abroad, the PBA and the SBP have sounded the alarm on what they see as a direct threat to the future of their product, going as far as calling the exodus “poaching” and pointing fingers at personalities like former Gilas program director and Ateneo Blue Eagles head coach Tab Baldwin.
Regardless of how they characterize it, they might as well do something about it rather than cry wolf. Other leagues have gotten creative and have put out reforms to improve their product, keep their players, and attract those from outside. Basketball leagues or any sports league for that matter have to be in that survive-and-advance model, where they have to be better lest they want to be left behind.
The PBA has had some conversations with the B.League and the KBL regarding matters surrounding players and while that can be a good start, change usually starts with one’s self. Improving player pay could be a start, especially when the standards of living have changed significantly. Besides, these players also never explicitly said anything about closing their doors on the PBA and a change there could make them consider returning. Steps can also be taken towards shedding the PBA’s reputation of lopsided trades and its effect on league parity since no one likes it when the beauty of victory can only be experienced by the few.
Players always just want to play the game they love, but some are at the point where other priorities are in play. Philippine basketball authorities must understand that and rather than viewing those leaving in a negative light, players taking in experience from abroad and getting better will eventually trickle down to the rest of Philippine basketball.