Roughing it up

Air21's Ogie Menor has been ejected several times this season. (PBA Images)

The match-up between the Meralco Bolts and the Air 21 Express last Wednesday, 20 June 2012, which I covered with Quinito Henson, was an otherwise uneventful ballgame, which saw Meralco leading by 29 points at the half.  However, late in the third quarter, the game suddenly gained a little color.  Bolt Mario West, who had been playing splendidly from the get-go, drove the lane on the fastbreak, eluded bull-strong guard Wynne Arboleda, who was trying to take a charge, and went up on the left side of the basket for a lay-up.  From behind, Express guard Ogie Menor swiped at, he will say, the ball, but ended up hacking the head of West, sending the Meralco import to the hardcourt, where he would remain for a couple of minutes, trying to recover from the blow.

The referees sent the players to their respective frontcourts, reviewed the tape, and determined that Menor committed a Flagrant Foul 2, which meant automatic ejection from the playing court.  Despite trying to plead his innocence, the verdict had been rendered, and Menor headed for the showers.  West eventually got up, had to be restrained by at least four of his teammates, with hulking Asi Taulava practically bear-hugging him, calmed down, and hit one of two free throws.  The game went on, West continued to dominate, and with about a minute left on the gameclock, we determined that he would be the Best Player of the Game, and prepared to interview him after the final buzzer.

The interview never happened.  When the horn went off, West, as you all may have already read, rushed towards the Air 21 dugout, determined to confront Menor.  West and team officials would later say that the import wanted to make peace with Menor, to apologize, but his actions did not reflect his alleged intention.  Luckily, Menor was no longer in the dugout, and after a couple of shoves between West and Arboleda, emotions died down.  PBA Commissioner Chito Salud, however, was not finished.  He passed judgment on both Menor (one game suspension and Ten Thousand Pesos) and West (Ten Thousand Pesos, no suspension) for their misconduct.

Luckily, things did not get out of hand.  Fortunately, the players, all splendid athletes, mostly six feet tall and above, did not let their passion get the best of them, which could have resulted in a full-scale locker-room brawl.  Bystanders were jittery as we made our way to the TV production room, since, some said, it was alarming how these huge gentlemen suddenly rushed through the hallway at full speed, darkening the atmosphere as their stature blocked the lights.  Later, players emerged from their respective dugouts and were all smiles.  I kidded with Arboleda that at least this time, he was not the one involved, not knowing at the time that he did get shoved, and shoved back.

Through the years, the league has cracked down on fighting and hooliganism.  Flagrant fouls, formerly called "deliberate fouls", came to be, primarily due to the tendency of some players to not "go for the ball", but rather some body part of the opposing player, or to use excessive and/or unnecessary actions against the opponent during the game.  Accidents do happen, and many times, a simple action causes a dangerous effect — a clash in the air between two high-flyers, intertwining of limbs on the run, basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Menor himself was the victim of a Taulava elbow some plays before his hack on West, as Asi landed on a rebound play.  It was purely accidental, but it definitely hurt and sent Menor down.  In fact, it may have led to the hard foul on West some minutes later.  The referees are the arbiters as to whether any contact should be let go, called as a regular foul, or as a Flagrant 1 (where the guilty party has to sit out a few minutes and the aggrieved team gets 2 free throws and possession) or Flagrant 2.  Menor's foul on West was easy to categorize.

Menor has been ejected from a game at least once in each conference this season.  His penchant for committing hard fouls has put him under the microscope.  The frequency with which players around him drop to the court or wince with pain has made the presumption of his innocence vanish, and the referees watch him with eagle-eyes.  It is not just opposing players with whom he has tangled.  He has gotten into arguments with Coach Yeng Guiao of Rain or Shine, who was suspended for shoving Menor away during one game, and with Assistant Coach Allan Caidic of Barangay Ginebra.  Menor has to simply realize that he cannot continue acting the way he does on the court.  His toughness is something his team, once again at the bottom of the standings, needs, but not in the manner he exhibits it.  He fancies himself an enforcer, but he does not seem to intimidate the other team.  If anything, he seems to spur his opponents to test his mettle.  Oftentimes, he loses the mental battle.  He admitted earlier in the season that among his idols are both Ron Artest and Rudy "the Destroyer" Distrito, who are not exactly poster boys for good behavior on the hardcourt.  Like those two, Menor is a gifted ballplayer, able to create his shots and to finish on the break.  But, he has to harness his emotions and his desire to constantly showcase his masculinity, or he may end up banned from the league for a whole season, like Artest, or worse, in jail, like the Destroyer.

The conduct of Menor reminds me of Ronald Tubid early in his career.  Tubid was a jumping jack, an energy guy who ran all over the court, defended the opposing team's gunners, and scored quite consistently.  When he was still with the now defunct Shell franchise, he too was frequently called for hard, unnecessarily rough fouls.  Comments about Tubid from basketball analysts were consistent — he would let his emotions get the best of him, his enthusiasm and exuberance were (perhaps) mistaken for affronts.  His objective was to frustrate his opponent, to provoke him.  In the process, however, Tubid became a marked man from the officals' point of view.  Today, though, after transferring teams a couple of times and being in the league for many years, Tubid has succeeded in being a good player for Barako Bull, without all the excess baggage he brought along with him early on.  Yes, he is still fearless, but he does not have to go out of his way to prove it game in and game out with silly, and sometimes dangerous, fouls.

In the First Conference of this 37th Season, big Beau Belga of Rain or Shine let loose with several hard fouls.  He and Menor were being mentioned as the league's new breed of enforcers.  With his immense size, Belga could flatten any opponent with ease, but at the same time, he was such an easy target for the referees, someone they could not miss if he fouled someone excessively.  When Rain or Shine met Air 21 (then still Shopinas), Belga and Menor were featured at the start of the game as the bangers of their respective teams.  Obviously, Belga, although claiming to enjoy the contact and expressing his willingness to slam an opponent to the ground for the good of his team, gave his reputation some thought and decided that he did not want to be known as purely a rough-houser.  He has talent, although raw, but he can be very effective using his better-than-average outside shot and quickness despite his size, especially in the halfcourt set.  Whether consciously or not, he has managed to shed his image as purely an enforcer and developed as one of the more reliable big guys in the league right now.  The hard fouls have not altogether been abandoned, but they are not executed in the same manner as earlier in the season.  This is good for Belga, and much better for his team and Coach Yeng.

When imports come to play in the PBA, their team officials surely inform them that the league has a very physical brand of play.  Way back in the 1970s, when imports started coming here, they already started complaining about how threatening it was to compete.  Byron "Snake" Jones lamented that people would "go under" him whenever he leaped.  Locals and imports have gotten into several skirmishes in the past because of the rough style of play employed versus the foreigners, with the end in view of perhaps getting the import angry and destroying his concentration and, ultimately, provoking him to do something crazy, which could eject him from the game.  Flashbacks come to mind, such as Carlos Terry, Joe Ward, Ronnie Tompkins, but there are just too many too name them all.  Just this season, Mick Pennisi committed what has come to be known as the World's Greatest Flop, after he succeeded in annoying Petron import Will McDonald enough for the latter, who was playing his first game in the PBA, to toss the ball at Pennisi's forehead, and get thrown out of the game.  Prior to that, however, both Pennisi and erstwhile teammate Dorian Peña took turns being physical with McDonald.  McDonald's ball toss to Pennisi was just his boiling point.  Mission accomplished.

Some imports have gotten injured because of the rough play.  Donnie Ray Koonce's career ended here when he played for Alaska in 1986, after falling hard on a driving play.  Busted lips, cut eyebrows, scratches and bruises — these are some of the things that can happen to PBA players when they get overly physical.  Their size alone makes them dangerous, and the speed with which they play the game sometimes makes the hardcourt no different from a racetrack, where even seemingly incidental contact can be disastrous.

Whether import or local, player, coach, or team official, however, the key is to keep emotions and tempers under control.  Part of playing in the pros should be the ability to play within the rules, not to cross the boundaries of fair, hard play.  If somebody crosses the line, then the game officials have the responsibility to ensure that matters do not get out of hand, and should stop matters from escalating early on.  This may be easier said than done, since PBA players thrive on emotions, on physical contact, on trash-talking and daring opponents to outdo them.  It is clear, though, that there is no room in the league for hooligans, for those that hurt other players on purpose.  Bans have been meted out in the past against thugs in basketball uniforms.  League officials have, for the most part, been able to curb the possibility of violence during the games.  By deciding to punish Mario West for his postgame outburst, the PBA has also shown that it will not tolerate any type of untoward action even after the game, outside the playing court.  In a league where giant men usually dominate, it would be best for all to keep their cool.

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.