For the Love of Basketball, Part One
Manila, PHILIPPINES -- There were the usual drums and pep squads, frenetic dancing, and teenagers and grown men bellowing school cheers. For the La Salle community, however, this year’s “Animo Night” on November 18 had particular poignancy.
Last October, a shadow was cast on the integrity of the prestigious private university when it revealed that two players in its men’s basketball team had faked their high-school equivalency tests to gain admission to the college. The school was still licking its wounds when its alumni gathered for “Animo Night,” although by the time it ended, there was a sea of fists pumping in the air at the St. Benilde gym as more than a thousand La Sallians sang “One Voice.”
For many alumni of De La Salle University and other colleges, school spirit provides a strong sense of identity and pride. In the Philippines, nothing provokes this kind of ferocious and fanatical tribal loyalty more than basketball. For this reason, alumni invest millions in their alma mater’s basketball teams and schools race against each other to get the best players. In the process, critics say, ethical lines are crossed.
The La Salle scandal is an example of the worst that could happen. Up to now, some La Salle alumni are still angry about the apparent falsification of the admission papers submitted in 2003 by basketball players Mark Lester S. Benitez and Timoteo D. Gatchalian III, and that it took two years before the university found out it had been had.
To its credit, the school held a press conference in October in an effort to come clean on the matter. But the disclosure only upset some alumni and many basketball fans, who said the two team officials implicated by La Salle – statistician Raul Lacson and assistant manager and La Salle alum Manny Salgado – looked like scapegoats. Alumni and fans also suspected that some school officials and the team’s head coach, Franz Pumaren, were not completely clueless about the boys’ fake documents.
Although they both left La Salle after the incident broke, Lacson and Salgado still deny knowledge of their players’ bogus papers. Pumaren has since resigned, as has team manager Terry Capistrano. The trophy has been handed to runner-up Far Eastern University (FEU)
Schools know the importance of keeping alumni happy. Not only do they donate multimillion-peso sums regularly, they also open their wallets more whenever their school wins the basketball championship. Often, too, it is their money that pays for a variety of perks for players, including monthly allowances, stays in luxury hotels during important games, and even all-expenses-paid overseas vacations for winning teams.
In addition, enthusiastic alumni and other fans ensure healthy ticket sales during the games. Official documents show that in this year alone, the University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) grossed P31.5 million, almost triple of what it made in 1997, and most of it coming from basketball.
Such influx of money has helped develop not only basketball, but also the other sports in leagues such as the UAAP and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). Another result, however, is that some schools and student athletes seem to now have a questionable set of priorities, with education and fair play sometimes being sacrificed in the name of team victory.
La Salle alumnus Kurt Bachmann remembers the days when this was not so. In the late 1950s, when he was one of La Salle’s star basketball players, the sport was already hugely popular – but not profitable. Also a National Team Hall of Famer, Bachmann went on to play with both Yco and Ysmael, under amateur league Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA), the precursor of today’s Philippine Basketball League (PBL).
“Nobody got paid,” says the 68-year-old Bachmann, who still speaks about the game with exuberance, peppered with salty language. In college, they were provided uniforms, he says, but “we had to provide our own shoes!” He adds that several players even developed jock itch; they each had only one supporter that was almost always moist because there had not been time to dry it properly. Sighs Bachmann, “We went through a lot of sacrifice.”
He is obviously not happy over his alma mater’s recent UAAP fumble. “La Salle was supposed to be upstanding in building character,” he says. “’Religio, mores, cultura’ –that’s the motto. All that went out the window when this happened.”
In fairness, the La Salle-players fiasco is not the first scandal in the UAAP. More than a decade ago, Adamson University’s basketball team was suspended for a year from playing in the league, its infraction discovered by accident. Ex-star player Marlou Aquino had applied for a slot in the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) draft, and the transcript he submitted revealed he had taken less than 20 units during the course of his stay at Adamson.
That meant he should not have been allowed to play in the UAAP at all. Recounts Fr. Maximo Rendon, Adamson’s treasurer and current UAAP president: “His academic records were doctored or manipulated by the board member himself.”
Some observers say that other schools – including those belonging to the NCAA – also only loosely follow the rules on player qualifications. While that may or may not be true, there is no doubt that colleges do go more than an extra mile – and peso – to ensure that they have the best possible players on their basketball teams. More often than not, too, they are helped in their efforts by eager and deep-pocketed alumni.
Yet when asked if other schools in the UAAP had also investigated themselves for possible document falsification, league secretary and Adamson representative Dr. Ricardo Matibag replied sharply, “No. No. No. Because the anomaly is only La Salle, why (would) they want to do (that) with other schools? The anomaly is only with La Salle because La Salle has the motto of winning at all costs.” When interviewed, several UAAP schools said that it was already part of their protocol to crosscheck documents with source institutions, instead of using presumptive validity.
As yet, the extent of the involvement of the university itself in the duplicity remains unclear; the league is taking its time with its formal inquiry. Over several phone interviews, UAAP President Fr. Rendon has asked, “Why rush?” He has said, though, that the investigation could take until early 2006, due to the gravity of the offense and possible legal implications – not only for the perpetrators, but in case La Salle decides to take the UAAP to court over an unfavorable ruling.
The slow pace, however, suggests a lack of urgency, and a lack of initiative in seeing how the league might reform its own policies to encourage better sportsmanship in general. In the meantime, league insiders and observers say practices that may or may not be questionable continue, driven largely by “school spirit.”
Recruitment for collegiate teams can start in early high school, when scouts scour Manila and elsewhere for potential players. They even keep their ear to the ground for U.S.-based talents, who are often found through alumni connections. Recruits still in high school are reported to already begin to receive allowances to “lock” them with certain colleges – again, a practice believed to be funded by alumni.
In addition, alumni informally fund sports teams as managers, paying for team meals, snacks, supplements, equipment, medical fees, tutors, athlete condo-dormitories, coaching staff salaries, and player allowances. This is on top of scholarships, dorm and school fees, and food allowances that players receive officially from the college. UAAP and PBA commentator Dominic Uy conservatively estimates that the total cost of running a strong college basketball team, including recruitment equipment like computers and editing machines, is 10-12 million pesos a year.
During Bachmann’s time, schools did not have to go far to find players for their basketball teams. Open tryouts were the norm, with more than 50 hopefuls from the student body showing up for a handful of spots. The coaches were usually members of the faculty or alumni mentoring teams for free.
But according to sportswriter and La Salle alumnus Quinito Henson, things began changing in the late 1960s. He says, “In ’69, Ateneo (de Manila University) started a new trend of recruited athletes not from Atenean institutions.” These recruits included Joy Cleofas and Marte Samson, and “with their efforts, Ateneo won the championships that year, but were declared ineligible the next year.” In 1970, La Salle discovered Lim Eng Beng at Chiang Kai Shek and gave him a scholarship. In return, Lim helped La Salle win the championship in 1971 and again in 1974 after a 15-year drought.
(La Salle and Ateneo are known archrivals on and off the court, and the games they play against each other usually have the highest attendance. Both used to be part of the NCAA, but they eventually left it – Ateneo first, and then La Salle— after hooliganism and rioting came in the way of the sport. Occasional violence, however, still breaks out in NCAA games and even those in the UAAP. In the “Dream Game” between Ateneo and La Salle alumni players two weeks ago, La Salle’s Joseph Yeo was thrown out of the game after he gave Ateneo’s Enrico Villanueva a bloody lip. Moments earlier, Villanueva’s elbow had violently jabbed Yeo in the chest during a rebound.)
Filipino basketball came of age during the Marcos era, which marked the founding of the PBA in 1975, the PBL in 1983, and ushered in a generation of intense competition and and commercialism. In 1980, then President Ferdinand Marcos also appointed business tycoon and avid sports fan Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco as national project director for basketball. Cojuangco was tasked with returning the Philippines to its former glory. In the 1936 Olympics, the Philippine basketball team had placed fifth. Two decades later, the Philippines won the bronze at the World Basketball Championships.
With his ample government resources and entrepreneurial instincts, Cojuangco quickly adopted the European practice of bringing in and naturalizing U.S. and Fil-American players and coaches like Ron Jacobs for the PBA. His imports upped the athleticism of the sport, while his overflowing coffers introduced a level of commercialism previously unknown.
Cojuangco also served as a godfather of sorts for the basketball program of La Salle, where he had studied high school, popularizing provincial and overseas recruitment, player allowances, and tutoring services.
These days, alumni fundraising and support – especially at La Salle and Ateneo – is more widespread than ever. Interestingly enough, Henry Atayde, who has participated in alumni development within the La Salle community in the last five years observes, “When we lose or something like that, there’s a little bit of resistance when it comes to donations…I can see a difference [in donation totals] in the championship year and a non-championship year.”
Such donations may not be confined to sponsorship of the basketball team, but can also be in the form of academic grants, professorial chairs, or even buildings or other infrastructure.
Sponsorship specifically for a school’s basketball team is usually an informal arrangement undocumented by the school. And because private, voluntary donations or corporate sponsorship for teams are not regulated by the UAAP, funding can reach astounding levels. Former La Salle player and women’s basketball coach Mon Jose estimates that a manager-alumnus could spend “a little over a million” pesos each year, and must drum up additional funds from other alumni.
Some do not need much prodding; La Salle alumnus and regular basketball team sponsor Enrique Razon Jr., owner of the International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI) even donated the newly built Razon Sports Complex, which cost P75 million. This year, Razon’s company funded the men’s basketball team’s jaunt to Hawaii for an exhibition invitational.
The De La Salle Alumni Association also has a special fund for basketball, a kitty that can reach as much as P400,000 a year in exchange for season tickets to the UAAP basketball games – including those to the coveted championship games and centerpiece Ateneo-La Salle match. La Salle college trustee and former alumni president Lito Tanjuatco says the fund pays for the team’s operational costs, including a budget for serious injuries that medical insurance doesn’t cover, and support for the pep squad.
Teams from other schools have sponsors who are as equally prominent and generous. Those from Ateneo and San Beda College (which belongs to the NCAA), for example, can count on Manny Pangilinan, big boss of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), for regular support. Businessman Anton Montinola supports the FEU team. The Ateneo team has gone to South Korea and even the United States just for training.
But this isn’t true for all schools. Fr. Rendon says Adamson’s alumni support sports teams only by paying for post-game dinners. Dean Gilda Uy from the University of the Philippines College of Human Kinetics meanwhile reports proudly that this year, for the first time ever, they were able to raise funds from alumni specifically for basketball. The amount, “a little over P300,000,” was modest – but it does not include the money that is unofficially raised by fraternities at UP, a practice Uy says she wants to discourage because it does not promote unity.
At the University of Sto. Thomas, alumni provide no official support for athletics, but according to the athletic department’s assistant director Felicitas Francisco, this is on purpose. “For us,” she says, “all funding is from the university.” She explains why: “From personal experience, they (alumni) try to influence even the coaching staff. If the coach is not a winning coach, they try to pressure the coaching staff. They really have so much to say!”
Such lack of alumni donations has not barred the UST team from winning the championship, which it has done four times since 1986, doing Ateneo one over. La Salle, however, has become champion seven times within the same period, and FEU five. (Curiously, the UST team has also gone to the United States on at least two occasions, both times with Francisco.)
The alumni themselves often view their donations as a way to give back to their alma maters. Several De La Salle alumni cast the overwhelming financial support in philanthropic terms, arguing that they help out less fortunate athletes who are increasingly being recruited from provinces. But to young, media-savvy PBL commissioner Chino Trinidad, the reason for the alumni largesse is less high-minded: “Ego. It’s ego. The race to be number one.” He adds that in many cases, the donations are “undocumentable” and that sometimes, the schools “don’t even know what’s happening.”
Tanjuatco, for his part, notes that big donors are often serious sports enthusiasts, but allows that “some might want it (financial support of basketball) as their way of announcing their presence in the world.” Yet certainly, he says, basketball itself can be seen as a “unifying factor,” one that encourages alumni participation in college events.
It can also be argued that basketball has kept the other collegiate sports from disappearing. Without the millions in revenue that basketball brings into the leagues such as UAAP and NCAA, schools would be hard-pressed to fund other sports. In the UAAP, tennis took in a grand total of P23,000 in gate receipts and sales this year, a far second from the top-earning basketball’s P18.7 million. That’s not counting the income generated by the latter from its TV deal.
For this year, enough income was generated by basketball to allow the UAAP to give a total of P1.8 million back to its eight member-schools for general sports development, or P220,000 each. Says Atayde: “Basketball is the life-giver of all the other sports.”