By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor
The professional basketball league founded by legendary boxing champion and Sen. Manny Pacquiao ordered the disbandment of one of its teams last week due to suspected game fixing perpetrated by its owner-financier, who coerced coaches and players to throw games.
The Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) was rocked by the scandal sparked by the suspicious play of the Soccsksargen Marlins, which had not won a single game this season.
Initially, the league ordered the suspension of the team but the Marlins were considered kicked out of the MPBL when the Department of Justice was called in to investigate the team owners, officials and players.
Retired superstar and national team cager Kenneth Duremdes serves as the commissioner of the MPBL. He noted the “very doubtful” actions of the Marlins on court.
“They keep on fouling, they get technical (fouls),” Duremdes said.
Initial results of a probe being conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation found that the actual owner of the Marlins is a certain Mr. Sung, although the registered team owner is Kerwin Espinosa. Sung allegedly paid team officials and players up to PHP40,000 (about US$800) per game to intentionally lose and with a pre-determined losing margin.
So regulated were the results that even the points scored per quarter had to be based on instructions from the team’s financier.
It was some members of the coaching staff and the players who informed the MPBL management of the game fixing.
Most of the betting on game results were done on-line, according to investigators.
In exchange, Sung supposedly earned as much as PHP1 million (US$20,000) for every game involving the Marlins that they intentionally lost.
Pacquiao said game fixing may occur in other leagues, “but not this one.”
Ironically, the Marlins play out of General Santos City, birthplace of Pacquiao.
Duremdes said his suspicions were raised when the Marlins would lose in games they would have seemingly won.
Pacquiao and Duremdes promised to pursue the case to the end, with hopes that the league would come out of the scandal stronger than before.
Duremdes looked at the scandal from a positive point of view, saying that while illegal betting “has been happening in many sports here for a long time now, this is our chance to infuse change.”
He added: “We’re still positive. This is a challenge for us but we are ready against this (game fixing) as an organization.”
It is not clear if the coaches and players who served as whistleblowers will still be allowed to join other teams in the MPBL.
“Friendly wagers” and multi-million peso bets are known to take place in the biggest amateur basketball associations like the UAAP and NCAA, as well as the two existing pro leagues. As such, players are considered to be most vulnerable to losing games for profit.
Earlier this year, almost the entire senior basketball players of an NCAA team was dismissed by the school. The coach of that team was forced to play the remainder of a tournament with a depleted line-up.
Except for horse racing, gambling in sports is illegal in the Philippines.
Besides his professional boxing career, basketball-loving Pacquiao also had a short, uneventful stint as playing coach for a team in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the oldest professional basketball league in Asia.
The MPBL is the second attempt to put up a professional basketball league to rival the PBA.
Despite full backing from broadcast giant ABS-CBN, however, the Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) folded up after a few years.
Like the MPBL, the MBA had local governments as principal sponsors of the teams, backed up by businessmen, sportsmen and private corporations.
The MPBL was founded in 2017 and now has 30 teams. While calling itself a “semi-professional” league, its top players can earn six-figure monthly salaries.
Fading stars and benchwarmers from the PBA often end up in the MPBL, which is also considered the training ground for future stars who are not yet ready for the PBA.
The PBA has its own development league but its games are not covered by print or broadcast media.