The ball’s in our court
It was always known as a league where players kickstart or revive their careers in a bid to get bigger and better opportunities.
Long before June Mar Fajardo became a dominant force in the PBA, he toiled as a raw, back-up center for the San Miguel Beermen in the Asean Basketball League (ABL). The same league also gave center Asi Taulava a new lease on his career after his stint in the PBA was stalled.
Tropang TNT’s Mo Tautuaa, GlobalPort’s Stanley Pringle and Alaska’s Chris Banchero boosted their stock in the ABL, before joining the PBA, while Kris Rosales parlayed an impressive stint with the Singapore Slingers last season to make the Tropang Texters squad.
Leo Avenido never really fulfilled his potential in the PBA, but the former Far Eastern U gunner was a regular fixture in the ABL, winning the Most Valuable Player award in 2012 with the Beermen and playing as an import for several teams, the last for the Saigon Heat two years ago. It was also in the Vietnamese capital where former Ateneo star Jai Reyes made a name for himself as the “Saigon Mamba” for his explosive game, in reference to retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
“The ABL is always about opportunities,” says ABL CEO Jericho Ilagan. “Countless players in the PBA either started or revived their careers in the ABL.”
This season, however, the league has become more than just a springboard to careers for Filipino players. Following the entry of Alab Pilipinas, the league is slowly but surely gaining a solid fan base—even outside Metro Manila.
Three games into its debut season, Alab has been drawing packed crowds from Biñan, Laguna, to the Olivarez College Gym in Parañaque, where only last Sunday former two-time UAAP MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr. exploded for a record 41 points in a 93-87 victory over the Kaohsiung Truth. Alab will also hold stops in Davao and Sta. Rosa, Laguna, for future home games as they continue to bring the team closer to the fans.
Philippine teams have won the ABL twice, but the league has gone under the radar in what was supposed to be the hotbed of basketball in the region, following a forgettable season by the MX3 Kings last year. The Philippine Patriots ruled the inaugural season of the league in 2009, while the Beermen matched the feat in 2013. There was no Philippine team in the ABL in 2014.
“We’ve been amazed by the turnout,” said Alab Pilipinas co-owner Charlie Dy. “The ABL has been around for seven years, but the turnout for Philippine [representative] teams wasn’t always like this.”
Alab attracted 5,000 fans to its home opener at Alonte Gym in Biñan that ended with a 66-71 loss to the Singapore Slingers, before luring 3,000 at Baliwag Star Arena in Baliuag, Bulacan, for the second game—a 91-82 win over the Kaohsiung Truth.
“We had to call in additional security because some fans destroyed the barriers outside the arena in Baliuag just to get in,” says Dy. “We are very happy with the support.”
Parks has been the star of the show for Alab, averaging 30 points an outing in his first three games, a year after playing for the Texas Legends in the NBA D-League. “He’s helped us get the fans because a lot of people are interested in how much he has improved since his UAAP playing days,” Dy says of Parks.
Dy admits getting sponsors to back the team is still a tough task, but they take solace in the fact that they’ve been able to establish strong links with the local government units where they play their games. Alab holds basketball clinics a day before each game for children in the community where they play. In return, the LGU allows the team to use the gym for free for their games.
All of the Alab games are also shown live on ABS Sports and Action. “It’s a huge factor,” Dy says of the television aspect.
While the league’s main thrust is to make basketball grow in the region, Ilagan says the presence of Alab as the Philippines’ representative has been a boost to the league. “The Philippines is always the barometer in terms of basketball in Southeast Asia,” says Ilagan, who is fresh off his first full season running the league.
As the players of Alab obliged fans with selfies and autographs last Sunday, Ilagan can’t help but feel a sense of pride as the league finally made strides in his own country, after witnessing how it has impacted other teams in the region.
“A turnout like this in the Philippines is really heartwarming,” says Ilagan. “A lot of credit goes to Alab and their approach [in getting fans].”