Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rob Reyes: Welcoming back the imports!


Hello again guys! Sorry, it’s been a while. I got caught up with a few things last conference and just wasn’t able to write. Hope you missed me, it feels good to be in front of the computer doing something other than checking my Facebook/Twitter timelines. So on with the column.
I would love to see the ratings and attendance numbers for last conference. AKTV, as always did a great job, and the fans at the games had a lot of energy. There were some great story lines and down to the wire finishes. Talk ‘N Text continued its dominance and ran away with their third straight Philippine Cup crown, sealing its place in the history books.
Seeing the Tropang Texters win once again brought several thoughts to mind.

My first championship was with Talk ‘N Text, so there was definitely a little reminiscing on my part. As I thought about my first conference in the PBA, which ended with an all-Filipino crown, I remember thinking, “Well, if we won that championship, we should at least make it to the finals next conference once we have an import!”

As any PBA fan would know, it’s not that easy. The only thing that is certain following an all-Filipino tournament is that each team will have an import in the next conference. Nothing else is sure. I was bitterly reminded again that last year — I was with Petron at the time — we fell a game short of the finals, and didn’t even make the playoffs the following import-laden conference.

For the most part, the introduction of a seasoned import, or even the right rookie reinforcement, to any team can spell a huge difference. That difference could be a negative one or a positive one. So I felt like this would be a perfect time to give my insight on imports in the PBA.

For the fans, the import conferences are exciting because along with their favorite cast of local players, they now have the opportunity to see a new batch of players. Some of them may have played in the NBA. Some could potentially put up fantastic numbers or highlight plays. Some could even turn out to suck, giving local fans a nice ego boost on the competitiveness of the PBA versus other leagues.

Tony Harris was an all-time great import, and one of Rob's favorites
Tony Harris was an all-time great import, and one of Rob’s favorites

As a fan of the PBA myself growing up, there are three imports that instantly come to mind.
I was in awe of Tony Harris, who put up 105 points with Swift while my Tito Eric Reyes was still on the team. Another import I will always remember was Tee McClary, who was another teammate of my tito’s. I loved how he was small, but he played so big.

Lastly (and sorry, it’s another teammate of my tito’s, this time with Alaska), there was Chris Carrawell. I was a huge fan of his at Duke, and then when I got to meet him and watch him play live, I felt like I was given a front row seat to watch the Blue Devils play at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
So I can appreciate how exciting it must be for fans as a new batch of imports come to help their favorite teams, or even just bring something new to the PBA.
Now, for PBA players, there are all kinds of things that go through our heads when the imports come to town.
For the teams who finished the Philippine Cup at the bottom of the standings, a common thought is, “I hope this import is good, because we need some help!” The teams that finished at the top, meanwhile, are hoping mostly for “a good fit.” All PBA players know that the right import could possibly be the missing piece to a title run, and we all want to win championships.
If an import comes in and right away makes it obvious that he is really good, the mood of the team is automatically elevated. On the other hand, nothing is more discouraging than when an import shows up to practice out of shape, isn’t very good, or just maybe isn’t suited for the PBA game.
When this happens, the following exchange typically happens between players from opposing teams:
Player from Team A: “Pare, kumusta ang import nyo?”
Player from Team B: “Magaling… magaling mag-English!”
You never want to have to say that about your import, but you always hope your friends on the other teams say it!
The eye test
Before any import meets the official height requirements, or passes a physical, they always take “the eye test”. The second an import walks in to the gym, everyone from the ball boys to the team manager are dissecting him. “Is he really 6-foot-10?” “He looks overweight” “My God! He looks athletic!”
Now, failing the eye test won’t mean the import is getting sent home, but it will definitely put him under the microscope. One team I played for brought in an import that was older than most imports coming in. He had a great resume, high basketball IQ, and just seemed to make the right plays in preseason.
But since he was older and failed the eye test — he looked older and was probably a step slow — it was easy for teammates and coaches to dismiss the good things he did and just assume he wouldn’t be a top-caliber import. He didn’t make it to the first game before he was sent home.
His replacement had muscles on top of muscles, threw down some impressive dunks early, and asserted himself immediately in the first practice. He eventually started to have trouble getting his shot off and shaded away from contact, but that got overlooked early on. He definitely passed the eye test… but he didn’t make it through the conference before getting changed.
Last year, Petron brought in Nick Fazekas, who had an awesome resume, was drafted and played in the NBA, a college standout, and he was 6-foot-11. His height helped his eye test score, but his mobility left people wondering whether or not he could get it done.
You could tell immediately that he walked with a limp — this earned him a nickname among PBA players, “6-10, 6-11″ because one step he was 6-10, the next he was 6-11.
In his first tuneup game, he had like 40 points, and anyone who watched that conference could tell you, you were blind if you couldn’t tell that he could play. So the eye test isn’t make-or-break for an import, but every import takes it, and it will have some bearing on whether or not they keep their job.
Nick Fazekas had some great NBA stories... and he could ball too! AKTV/Paolo Papa
Nick Fazekas had some great NBA stories… and he could ball too! AKTV/Paolo Papa

Story time with ex-NBAers

I’ve never met a fellow PBA player that doesn’t follow the NBA. So ultimately, at the end of the day even PBA players are fans.

When imports who have played in the NBA come to the PBA, we all do several things. One of the things we do is we judge and try to see what makes this person an NBA player. We have all dreamed of playing in the NBA at some point in our lives, and now that we have someone on our own team who made it to that level, we want to know how they got there. Sometimes we see right away. Other times we are left scratching our heads.

One of my favorite things to do with the imports who have played in the NBA is to listen to their stories. They have stories about our favorite NBA stars and life in the big league. Some are hilarious and some are meant for mature audiences only.
My personal favorites are the stories of rookie hazing. Nick Fazekas had a classic story about how he had to make a run to Popeye’s Chicken to buy food for the entire team, including staff, and he was panicking because he almost missed the team flight. Nick was full of stories; I mean, the guy played with Dirk Nowitzki.

But for PBA players being fans of imports does not last long. Once the games start our season rests on their (often broad) shoulders.

For all of us, we know how much we are relying on this person to be an integral part of our season. We know that if they underperform there is a good chance we won’t win.
We all may be excited to see nice dunks or blocks in practice and games, but whenever an import has an off game, or maybe has a minor injury that begins to affect his game, we all get a little nervous. And if the wins aren’t adding up we all start to ask if this guy can help us get the job done.

Decreased roles
Another aspect of the arrival of imports is the fact that a few players are going to have to accept less playing time and/or a decreased role on the team. Whichever import comes to a team he will have a position that was previously held by a local player.
Teams don’t pay large sums of money to fly in role players. Most imports are expected to carry their teams, or at least be impact players. Because of this, a player who started or played heavy minutes might become a bench player.

As a PBA player you accept that if an import plays your position, your role will change. But you better believe that same PBA player will take full advantage of every opportunity in practice to try and earn more playing time, or at the very least earn an import’s respect.
Every year there is a new crop of imports introduced to the PBA. Occasionally, there are some returners, but at the moment all the imports signed up this year are fresh faces.
So I would expect nothing less than some pretty exciting imports, some shocking busts, more than a few replacements, and definitely at least one import losing his temper toward a ref or local player that introduces him to “Pinoy-style basketball”.
So good luck to all the other teams out there, may their imports be magaling… magaling mag-English

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