In the past week, two of the league's best-ever big men, each one-time winners of the MVP award, Asi Taulava and Eric Menk, made decisions that essentially ended, or at least put on hold, their PBA careers.
Asi, whose contract with the Meralco Bolts expired after the 2012 Governors' Cup, decided to reject the offer of Meralco for renewal, and instead try his luck with the San Miguel Beermen of the Asean Basketball League (ABL). Menk, on the other hand, who has been a mainstay with the Ginebra franchise for more than a decade, agreed to a deal where he will be a reserve player with Ginebra, but most likely be playing with the Beermen in the ABL as well.
The Philippine basketball careers of these two giants began practically at the same time in the PBL, where they would wage war time and again, creating a rivalry that Filipino fans had never before seen. On size alone, these two were different from past centers. Menk was listed at 6'6 and was very muscular. He had an outside shot and could drive to the basket. Asi, though, was even bigger, at 6'9, and could outmuscle everybody else. He did his work in the paint. It was only Eric that could give Asi a hard time then, and their battles became legendary.
There will be many tributes to the both these players, if indeed their PBA careers are over. We will hear of their numerous awards and accomplishments, and their lasting impact on the league. I have so many memories of each of them and admit that it was a delight to watch them both at the top of their games.
From multi-awarded careers in the PBL, both these gentlemen came into the PBA and made immediate impacts for their teams. My interest in the PBL immediately rose when they were there. They just seemed to make things more interesting for local fans. The statistics speak for themselves. Both of them could score, especially early in their careers where they averaged more than twenty points per game. They grabbed a ton of rebounds, making the double-double a regular PBA statistic for centers.
They thrilled Filipino fans because they brought a different dimension to their position as frontliners in the PBA. Nobody could guard Asi one-on-one inside, and it was fun to see opposing center after opposing center trying to contain him. Eric could step out and hit three-pointers with regularity, but also throw right or left-handed hook shots in the post.
Each won championships with their respective teams and were adjudged best players for an entire season (Asi was the 2003 MVP, Menk won it in 2005). They also donned the national colors on several occasions, (they were teammates on the 2002 Asian Games Philippine team) with Taulava being a national team mainstay over a longer period of time. I have several cherished memories of Taulava battling against much bigger centers in international competition, and many times holding his own, giving his all for flag and country.
Despite their greatness, basketball-wise, what many will choose to remember them for is the controversy they underwent in their careers, particularly on the issue of citizenship. Both big men surfaced in the Philippine basketball scene at a time when there was a flood of alleged "Fil-foreigners" who wanted to showcase their talents in the PBA. You all remember the names. Segova, Parker, Harp…the list goes on and on. Even after some of them produced the requested documentation, questions still hounded them. Both Menk and Asi had to stop playing in the PBA for some time in order to reinforce their respective claims of Filipino citizenship.
Eventually, despite many of their contemporaries vanishing without a trace or having short, uneventful PBA careers, they were able to satisfy the authorities, both in the PBA and in the Philippine government. Despite continued protests from some sectors, they were able to resume their careers and continue pounding their opponents on the basketball court.
I always hoped Asi could produce all the requested documentation and present all the necessary proof to show he belonged in the PBA. He was, for me, our hope to, somehow, challenge the big guys from the other countries. Huge as he was, his role in our national team was even bigger. We had never had anyone as big and strong as Asi and, for me, without him, we did not stand a chance.
As the years went by, fans saw a noticeable drop in both their production. Age and constant battles with the other big men obviously were taking their toll. But the two men were not travelling on the same path.
For Eric, injuries started popping up one by one. In the past few seasons, he has sat for prolonged periods, cheering on his teammates from the bench. He would come into games in spot duty, showing occasional flashes of the great post-up player he always has been. However, the flashes came too few and far-between. This past season, he only played in seven games, and averaged a career low in points.
Asi, on the other hand, stayed practically injury-free. He got bigger, heavier, and lost some lift for sure. The dunks did not come as often and, even when all alone, Asi would opt to lay the ball in, instead of expending energy by throwing it down. But he got himself back into shape recently and was playing inspired basketball in last season's third conference, which ended just a couple of months ago. He was averaging a double-double once again and being his intimidating inside presence once more.
I remember saying on the air during a great performance he was having at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City that he would be back this coming season, the way he was playing. Somebody had to offer him a contract. How many guys as big as Taulava could play as effectively? Surely, there was a team that could use his still above-average big man skills.
During a recent conversation about these two players, as well as Danny Seigle, one of my companions said that Menk should retire already, considering how his playing time was dwindling, as was his production. I replied that Menk, given the chance, can still post up anyone, yes, anyone in the PBA, no matter how big or strong, and score on him. He is that skilled.
Menk himself believes he can still play in the PBA. He wanted a new contract for sure, as he wondered aloud recently on Twitter why he had not yet been contacted by team management. On Asi, though, there was no question about his still being able to play and be dominant, in the PBA.
I was able to hang out a few weeks ago with Asi during an episode of a popular sports talk show, where I guested to talk about the PBA Rookie Draft and he guested to speak about the charity game he organized for the benefit of the flood victims. He was keeping busy, reaching out to the Filipino community, making a difference not just on the court. I heard the news last week that he had rejected the Meralco offer and read that he would move to the ABL. I was shocked. PBA Stat-man Fidel Mangonon was correct in saying that there was something seriously wrong when the PBA, where Asi truly belongs, has teams that are not interested to give him a good contract, but other leagues are.
When I read about Menk's tweet that management had not contacted him yet, then a few days later a news item that he would not accept an offer to be an assistant coach, I was interested on how the story would end. I found out that he accepted the reserve role and might play in the ABL about the same time I heard of Asi's decision, and immediately thought about how entering the 38th Season of the PBA without these two players on the floor surely marks the end of an era.
Controversy and all, these two players survived and were able to have long and meaningful careers in the PBA. They achieved everything a player could hope to, winning championships, individual awards, being recognized as All-Stars again and again, playing for the country and endearing themselves to the basketball-crazy Filipino fans.
Critics can say what they want, but I have seen for many years how fans go out of their way to approach these two gentlemen whenever they have the chance, and how these two accommodate the fans for pictures or autographs. They were game-changers in the PBA. Whenever they would stand up from the bench to be sent into the game, their team's fans would cheer loudly, anticipating some power plays, some easy baskets inside, to perhaps get their team back on track or seal the victory. They are two of a kind, and they will be missed.
Hard as it may seem to PBA fans to accept that Asi and Menk will not be parading into the coliseum when the season opens on September 30, it is still good to know that they will continue playing basketball and that we will all have a chance to see them with San Miguel in the ABL. Menk will probably still be around cheering for Ginebra as a reserve. Asi will surely make appearances at the PBA if only to heckle his former teammates and good friends, and always cheer on his favorite UST Tigers in the UAAP. Let us remember the impact these two talented basketball players had on the PBA.
Let's recall all the oohs and aahs and loud cheers and jeers they drew from the fans. For now, let us not say goodbye to Eric and Asi. Let's say, "Thank you!"
You can follow Charlie Cuna on Twitter @Charlie C.
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.