The best of ’em all
Imports in the Philippine Basketball Association come and go, even the best of them. That’s why the majority of these elongated, high-flying specimens are called journeymen in the first place.
Many fly to Manila in hopes of repairing tattered careers, some to test the waters in this faraway league that opened in the 1970s and changed the continent’s hoops landscape forever.
So when Asia’s first play-for-pay league opened its import-spiced Commissioner’s Cup on Friday, there was the inevitable anticipation for the reinforcement who will shine the brightest and take his team to the championship.
There has been a veritable parade of do-it-all imports in the PBA’s 42 years, but we haven’t really heard from the experts who among these is the best of all time. Do they select the greatest one based on points scored? Or championships won? Or Best Import awards secured? Or charisma?
Past and present PBA players and coaches view this question so analytically they’d rather play it safe, thus making it impossible for them to name just one man worthy of the honor. So we tried to pick the brains of veteran sportswriters. After all they were there on April 9, 1975, when the PBA held its very first playdate at Araneta Coliseum, and are still very much around.
And they are spot on. Inquirer News editor Artemio “Jun” Engracia and longtime Sports editors Lito Tacujan of Philippine Star and Ding Marcelo of Manila Bulletin have only one man in mind, hands down.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s Billy Ray Bates,” says Engracia, a deadline beater for the defunct Philippine Daily Express who later edited the sports pages of the Evening Express. “He was a performer and it wasn’t reflected in his outstanding statistics. The crowd showed up during Crispa games to watch him play, not just to watch him win.
“He was a very colorful character on and off the court.”
Tacujan concurs but points out that there were actually “two Bates” that took the PBA by storm in different seasons: “The one that came in 1983, not the one that came back years later and caused a ruckus,” says Tacujan, the Times Journal’s PBA man during those days.
Marcelo says the “one that immediately comes to mind” is Bates: “Hands-down, it’s Billy Ray. He was spectacular and became a legend for that.”
Many modern-day fans will dispute the choice of the three scribes, perhaps because they never got to see Bates in action. Engracia, Marcelo and Tacujan, all recipients of a PBA award for their pioneering reportage on the league, offer sound justifications.
“The first time Bates arrived, before the conference started, and with Crispa and Great Taste sharing the same practice facility, we knew that Crispa had someone special,” Tacujan recounts.
At that time, Great Taste was being handled by the late great Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan, and Crispa had Tommy Manotoc as coach. They were to clash in the season’s first game, and Dalupan had the chance to see his former team’s import strut his stuff during practice.
“After seeing Bates, a very close friend of Baby quoted him as saying that Great Taste—also a relative powerhouse back in the day—was playing for second place,” says Tacujan. “When the official game came, Bates left Black (Norman, Great Taste’s import) in a breakaway and dunked, taking off from the free-throw line.
“That was the first time I saw the majority of people (at Araneta Coliseum) stand up and howl with joy. The next game he showed up in a white cape, earning for himself the monicker ‘Black Superman’ from adoring fans and the media.”
Marcelo describes Bates as “unstoppable,” a showman whose “appeal affected people in a different way.”
“He took the PBA by storm and became the standard for imports because of his swagger and the way he played,” says Marcelo. “He is the one you will remember the most for what he did during his prime.”
For the record, Bates led the Crispa Redmanizers to their second Grand Slam in 1983. He wrapped up his PBA career with an average of 46.1 points—the best by any import—in 98 games spread over four seasons. In 1985, he teamed up with Michael Hackett and powered Ginebra San Miguel to its first franchise title.
The nearest challengers to Bates are no pushovers either, according to the three scribes. There’s the late Bobby Parks who won seven Best Import trophies—the most by any man.
There’s Norman Black, also a former Best Import and the league’s first “Mr. 100 Percent” honoree.
There’s Sean Chambers who won six championships and the only other recipient of the give-it-all-you-have award.
And there’s Tony Harris who lit up the scoreboard in a way only he could.
But as far as recall is concerned, there’s no man who made a bigger impact than Billy Ray Bates.
“There were imports who were also great,” says Marcelo. “Snake Jones was a good import, among the top 3 of all time for me. But my recall is always of Billy Ray, because when he plays he brings the house down.”
“How great is Billy Ray?” Engracia asks. “David Halberstam wrote a book about the Portland Trailblazers (Bates’ NBA team) called ‘The Breaks of the Game,’ and Billy Ray was in that book. I remember reading a lot about Bates in that book. The author wrote extensively about him. Is there another PBA import in a Halberstam book?”
Sadly, though, there is another side to Bates’ greatness.
“Off the court, Billy Ray was hard to describe because of all the troubles that he got into,” Marcelo says. “He was also legendary because of that.”
Engracia recalls an article he read about Bates, whose NBA career dipped alarmingly as vices and a devil-may-care attitude took the better of him.
“There’s a Billy Ray article on Sports Illustrated that came out last year saying that he is down on his luck,” he says. “That’s just sad.”
When the PBA inducted Bates into its Hall of Fame in 2012, the league picked up the tabs for his expenses for a week. Admittedly hard up, he chose to stay a bit and was hired by the Philippine Patriots to help guide the team in the Asean Basketball League. He eventually overstayed his welcome.
In and out of rehab in the United States before flying to Manila, Bates resumed drinking and partying. The Patriots eventually let him go.
Though it all, though, Bates will be remembered as the yardstick for all imports trying to get a second wind here. Not for the sad lifestyle that wrecked him after his stint in the PBA.