MANILA, Philippines – Manny Pacquiao’s decision to accept a player-coach role with the Philippine Basketball Association expansion team the Kia Sorentos has sparked curiosity and confusion both internationally and domestically in recent months.
Pacquiao, who was picked 11th overall in last week’s draft, is, by most accounts, a far better boxer than he is a basketball player, having won world titles in eight divisions in his nearly 20-year career. At 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, Pacquiao isn’t likely to intimidate anyone while boxing out for rebounds the way he does boxing in the ring.
At 35, Pacquiao is the oldest rookie ever selected in the league’s 40-year history, and of the 41 players selected in the draft held in Manila, only Pacquiao was absent as he made his way to Macau for the opening press conference of his media tour to promote his WBO welterweight title defense against Chris Algieri on November 23.
Pacquiao has never played college or high school ball. Where he’s sharpened his game is in informal pickup contests, where he’d fly in local pro players to his General Santos City, Philippines compound to play marathon full-court games at his home.
Pacquiao has always sought out extracurricular activities that strain his already stretched schedule, from being a sitting congressman in the Philippine province of Sarangani to recording soft rock music and starring in action films and variety shows in his native country.
“I love basketball very much that even if I’ve already accomplished a lot in boxing, I’ve never forgotten about it and basketball is still in my heart,” said Pacquiao. “I need to prove that I’m not only good at boxing, but I can also be good in basketball.”
It’s all a part of the renaissance man act that is Pacquiao’s life, but unlike many of those endeavors that he’s been identified with in recent years, basketball isn’t fading from his life any time soon. Like most Filipinos, Pacquiao shares in that most unlikely of national passions that is hoops. Basketball is a religion in the Philippines and it’s likely that Pacquiao spends more time on a basketball court than in a boxing gym.
The PBA, with its hard-nosed play reminiscent of the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s, holds a lot of physical danger for a player his size. Unlike in the National Basketball Association, where a simple hand check will garner a whistle, many jokingly say the officials govern with a “no blood, no foul” attitude.
In addition to playing the point guard position, Pacquiao will also hold the head coaching position, which will hold him responsible for 12 professional players. The next season will start on October 18, while Pacquiao is deep into training camp for a multi-million dollar fight.
Freddie Roach, who has guided the eight-division champion since 2001, has grown accustomed to negotiating around Pacquiao’s schedule and says he has reached an agreement with Pacquiao to not engage in basketball activities for four weeks before the fight.
“He’s a grown man, I can’t tell him what to do but if we negotiate a deal, it’s a done deal,” said Roach.
While Pacquiao moving from boxing to basketball is an uncommon novelty, the reverse path has been a staple of the heavyweight division for years.
Promoters looked towards the basketball court to fill the dearth of American heavyweights with big men like Jameel McCline, who used his 6-foot-6, 260 pound frame to box out for rebounds at Oneonta State University and Potsdam State University before becoming a heavyweight title contender.
Tye Fields, the Montana native who failed to make a mark on boxing with his 6-foot-8 frame, averaged 11 points per game for San Diego State in 1996.
Former NBA first round draft pick Kendall Gill, who played 15 years in the league and flirted with an All-Star selection on a number of occasions, had four pro fights after his basketball career wrapped up as a side venture, finishing with a 4-0 (3 KOs) record.
The most ambitious case of boxing and basketball crossing paths was in 1996, when Roy Jones Jr. played a game for the Jacksonville Baracudas of the now defunct United States Basketball League the morning of his IBF super middleweight title defense against Eric Lucas. Roy Jones scored six points in the morning before making Lucas’ corner throw in the title that night.
There are far more boxers who use basketball as a way to fill down time in camp. John Scully, the former super middleweight and light heavyweight contender, recalls playing ball with Jones and James Toney during different stints as their sparring partners in the ‘90s.
“I remember Roy and training camp, it was a thing where his trainers and his sparring partners and his family members all got into the games. They were very, very competitive,” said Scully, who as a trainer has led Chad Dawson and Jose Antonio Rivera to championships. “When he decided to really turn it on he was hard to stop.”
How was Toney on the court?
“Well…,” said Scully with a laugh. “I don’t think James played much basketball. Football was his thing.”
The cardiovascular benefits of basketball are certainly a help for fighters in a sport that requires supreme fitness.
“If you play in a high-speed game it’s very similar to boxing if you want it to be,” said Scully, who says Jones was a fan of his fadeaway jumper. “All the quick stopping and starting and jumping and then having to turn around and run right after simulates some of the physical situations that arise in boxing.
“The problem is that rolling an ankle are catching an elbow is not unlikely.”
Pacquiao is hardly the only world class boxer who enjoys basketball. Floyd Mayweather Jr, Pacquiao’s arch rival for the pound-for-pound considerations in recent years, scored 14 in the 2008 NBA All-Star weekend’s Celebrity Game and once said he could’ve played in the world’s premier hoops league.
“He’s good, extremely quick, has a decent range jump shot and a lot of hustle. He plays hard like he fights because he hates to lose,” says Floyd’s uncle Jeff Mayweather. “He usually plays when his fights are over. He loves basketball but not enough to mess up millions.”
Jeff Mayweather recalls playing with a number of his Las Vegas gym mates during his fighting years in the ‘90s, including his brother Roger Mayweather, cruiserweight contender Yahya McClain, former lightweight title challenger David Sample and welterweight Skipper Kelp. The best boxer he’d ever played with before was a former baseball prospect turned heavyweight contender.
“Michael Grant,” says Mayweather, the fighter who challenged Lennox Lewis for the heavyweight crown in 2000. “He was also 6-foot-6, probably could have made it to the pros if he had pursued basketball.”
Mayweather also echoes Scully’s sentiments about the danger of playing basketball while a fight is approaching. “It’s also a serious risk because it only takes a poke in the eye while someone is reaching for the ball, spraining your finger or twisting your ankle to cause a fighter to either postpone or cancel a fight.”
Back East, basketball was a staple of life at Buddy McGirt’s gym in Vero Beach, Fla. McGirt’s son James McGirt Jr, who most remember for his 23-3-1 (12 KOs) career as a super middleweight, was the undisputed King of the Court that rolled out in the driveway of the warehouse gym. McGirt, who many felt could’ve played college basketball had he not followed his famous father into the ring, stands 6-foot-1 and was noted for his jump shot and ability to drive and dunk.
Also joining McGirt on the court was former IBF light heavyweight titleholder William Guthrie, heavyweight journeyman Sherman “Tank” Williams – whose game was reminiscent of Knicks great Charles Oakley – plus Arturo Gatti and Edvan Dos Santos Barros.
Few expect Pacquiao to give up his boxing career to play basketball full time but his involvement in the PBA will bring out a few interested spectators eager to see the ring legend in any capacity. Roach meanwhile will continue to work around this latest Pacquiao venture, doing his best to keep Pacquiao focused on his best skill.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.