I remember the good ole days when my dad used to bring me to the “Mecca” of amateur basketball, the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, back in the glory days of the Philippine Amateur Basketball League (PABL) in the ‘80s. I was barely a teenager then but I was able to witness some good basketball teams in action like Jag Jeans, APCOR, Masagana 99, etc. Those were the days that the likes of Leo Austria (now San Miguel Beer head coach in the PBA), the late Jerome Cueto, Aldo Perez, Totoy Marquez, and Leo Isaac dominated the field before taking their acts to the pro league.

Back then, you’ve got to bear the brunt of the humidity inside the Rizal Coliseum but hey, we are basketball fans and we will endure hot weather and traffic (yes there were traffic pile-ups already in the ’80s) just to watch a good game.

Ever since my old man taught me how to commute to Taft Avenue, I’ve been eagerly watching amateur and collegiate games in my spare time. I find amateur ball more interesting than the pro game back then. As the 80s progressed, I was able to witness the rise of amateur stars like Ronnie Magsanoc, Benjie Paras, Paul Alvarez (from the mighty San Sebastián Stags of the ’80s) and his teammate Eugene Quilban, and a gangling rookie out of Jose Rizal College, a virtual unknown until he showed up one day in the PABL slam dunk contest winning the title against the more favored stars of that time … The Aerial Voyager, Vergel Meneses.

I was able to witness a JRC Heavy Bomber game against the Mapua Cardinals and it was really fun to watch Meneses slam his way through the warm-ups but what really made me awe at his athletic ability was when a Mapua Cardinal drove through the lane after faking a Heavy Bomber from the key … it was supposed to be a wide-open layup but Meneses soared high out of nowhere and swatted the ball away from mid-air which led to a fastbreak play. It wasn’t a dunk that made my day. I can still remember how he elevated, like in slow motion to block the ball.

The amateur and collegiate games back then were normally triple, even quadruple, headers so a fan can stay all day watching the games at Rizal.

The ’90s are no different as I witnessed the collegiate powerhouse dynasties of the UST Growling Tigers of Aric Del Rosario and another batch of dominating Stags led by The General, Rommel Adducul and coach Turing Valenzona.

Those were the days of no-frills, just blue-collar, amateur basketball at its finest. Each school had its own recruitment program, scholarships, and player allowances were also given but very much unlike how things are today. Collegiate players in the day had to play in the PABL to earn extra money. In return, they get more exposure, more games, and more training. Personally I feel the players back then are more skilled and talented because of these exposures relative to the athletes of today.

Today’s amateur scene is very much commercialized already. TV network coverage, sponsors, perks for the athletes, you name it. Did you notice that school jersey is now heavily patched with corporate sponsors?

You won’t see that back in the ’80s and ’90s. The players played for the school they liked and played their hearts out. Uniforms didn’t have sponsor patches and the venues were played at low-cost gymnasiums like the Rizal, Ninoy Aquino Stadium and the Loyola Gym at the Ateneo … and the games were so much exciting to watch… pure competition without side stories or drama.

I believe the PBA DLeague should reinvent the way amateur basketball is constructed. Right now, the PBA DLeague is a revolving door, almost no constant membership, unlike the PABL which had Sta Lucia Realty, Mama’S Love, Casino Alcohol, Burger Machine, even Red Bull and Magnolia as steady members ensuring fluid continuity of player development. If a DLeague member is being screened, make sure part of the requirement is at least a two-year stint with the league and not just a one conference stand.

For the schools, allow your players to play in commercial teams too so they can get additional exposure. I understand that the focus might be taken away from the school but keep in mind the DLeague can always schedule their conferences before or after the collegiate season. The phenomenal bigs like Adducul, Danny Ildefonso, Jun Limpot, Benjie Paras, Dennis Espinosa, Marlou Aquino, and the power forwards like Alvin Patrimonio and Nelson Asaytono would never have flourished without them playing commercial amateur ball.

Grassroots development was at its apex a few decades ago. We should try to learn from the past and adapt old tricks in today’s sporting world. Technology and sports science may have taken over but no one said we can’t keep best practices from the past into improving tomorrow.

(The writer is a senior leader in the Business Process Outsourcing industry managing Philippine countryside operations)

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