It felt pretty sad to hear the news that the AirAsia Philippine Patriots, one of two Philippine teams currently competing in the ASEAN Basketball League, has terminated the services of legendary PBA import Billy Ray Bates as their skills coach. Not really surprising, but sad nonetheless.
In a statement, Patriots manager Erick Arejola said they had no choice but to give Bates the pink slip due to "repeated misconduct and acts detrimental to the team and to the league."
Bates blew into town in October last year to attend his PBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It was his first visit to the country since last suiting up as an import in 1988. That last tour of duty, with Ginebra, didn't end well; he was out of shape and cut after four games. Sadly, it looks like this last stint of his will end in similar infamy.
I guess many local basketball fans, especially those of us who are old enough to have watched Bates utterly dominate the PBA in 1983, were kind of hoping this would work out, because we were kind of hoping for a happy ending for the Black Superman. His post-playing career was one of utter waste, and he even ended up in prison for assault.
Before all of that, though, there was a tale of a poor boy conquering huge odds. As one US-based article noted, before Jeremy Lin, there was Billy Ray Bates, a nod to the difficult paths both players took to get to the NBA and how they both exploded on the scene once they got there.
But Bates's journey was certainly more arduous than Lin's. A whole chapter on his tumultuous youth in Mississippi is detailed in beautiful prose in Breaks of the Game, the bestselling book by David Halberstam on the Portland Trailblazers, the team that gave Bates his NBA break in 1980. Unlike Lin, who grew up in a stable middle-class family in California and had the brains to be admitted to Harvard, Bates spent most of his childhood in the cotton fields of Kosciusko, Mississippi, in a time when segregation was still very much rooted in everyday life.
Yet his raw athletic talent took him out of the cotton fields and onto the basketball court of Kentucky State University, even though his academic capabilities weren't exactly outstanding, to put it kindly. He was drafted by the Houston Rockets in the third round of the 1978 draft, but failed to land a contract. He was tearing up the Continental Basketball Association when the injury-hit Blazers came a-calling, and he became a valuable sixth man off the bench for the remainder of the regular season. He averaged 25 points a game in the 1980 playoffs and 28 a game in the 1981 playoffs.
Bottom line: this guy could play, and in his prime he was a legitimate NBA starter. In his very first week as a Trailblazer, he was named NBA Player of the Week. There was also a Portland game later that season where he came off the bench and scored 32 points in just 25 minutes.
But he threw it all away on vices, and by 1983 he was out of the NBA. Like many other athletes from poverty-stricken backgrounds, he was ultimately ill-equipped to deal with trappings of NBA fame. He found a second life — and second round of vices — in the PBA, where he would sometimes show up for practice reeking of alcohol then go out and drop 50 points the following night. But the fans loved him, and he led Crispa and Ginebra to championships. Everything just came so easy to him that he never really tried, and he never developed the discipline to prolong his career.
He was pretty much doing nothing when the PBA called again last year. He had been out of prison for several years and was struggling to make ends meet. After his induction, he made an impassioned appeal for a coaching job in the Philippines, even though he had no prior coaching experience at any level.
Patriots owner Mikee Romero gave him a chance, I'm guessing more out of pity than anything else. Romero admitted he was a big fan of Bates, so he hired him as a skills coach. The idea of Bates teaching basketball skills to young players was a little amusing, considering he relied mostly on sheer athletic talent and explosiveness during his playing days.
But we all played along with it, because, hey, it was Bates, and we all wanted to see him go out a winner. Maybe, just maybe, he would live up to his promise of giving back to Philippine basketball, and everything would come full circle: the Black Superman, the greatest PBA import ever, returning to the local hoops scene, putting the past behind him and holding down a job, however farcical, for a local team.
Turns out it was too much to ask of Bates to get it right. Since it was he who asked to be given a chance, and since his celebrity status was probably the only thing that got him the job in the first place, you would have thought he would at least try to show he deserved his position. But as Arejola noted, there were just too many missed practices and unprofessional behavior that they had no choice but to let him go.
There's also a twinge of irony here. Bates's dismissal was announced on March 8, which also happens to be the birthday of his last PBA coach, Robert Jaworski, whose discipline and conditioning allowed him to extend his playing career well into his 40s. He was, in some ways, the anti-Bates: he shunned vices, he rarely stayed out late, and he was obsessed with physical conditioning. A pity this healthy lifestyle didn't rub off on his former import.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Sid_Ventura.