As they have learned to do with devastating effect, one of the little Filipino guards fired a long pass to Bruce King. In two seconds the big American stuffed in the basket, then hung onto the rim to swing slowly and scowl dramatrically as the crowd in Manila's Araneta Coliseum went wild.
The malevolent look, a King trademark in this basketball crazy country, hides the happy winter Bruce (sky) King and his friend and fellow Detroit Piston draftee John (Dr. I) Irving have had even though they are 8,000 miles away from the NBA.
Here is the happy go lucky Philipine Basketball Association they have found fame and a goodly amount of cash playing the hole of skyhooking Gullivers in Lilliput. To the diminutive Filipinos, King and Irving and the 14 other U.S. "imports," as they are called, look like a pack of Kareen Abdul Jabbars even if King's 6 feet 7 1/2 inches and Irving's 6-7 are somewhat modest by NBA standards. They are the college stars not quite good enough for the American pros, but with enough talent to make a living from what is a world wide explosion in the popularity of professional basketball. After the Philippine season ends this month King and Irving hope to move onto the European leagues and in the end earn at least the $30,000 minimum the NBA would have paid them, not to mention adulation, travel time they never would have gotten in the states.
This is the third year of the PBA, the Philippine's first professional basketball league, and it is a resounding success. The arenas are packed, most the games are televised and the players are national celebrities as befits a national craze. "I'm just getting used to being recognized whenever I go out in the street," said Irving, 24, a Hofstra graduate. "They've got basketball courts where you wouldn't even think they would be. I've seen them playing in the rain."
Even without the imports, who aren't allowed to join the league until halfway through the season in September, it is a very American game in an Americanized country. Some of the Philippine players have names like Webb or Jamorski, the sign that they are the sons of American GIs who have passed on a little much needed size. Sonny Jaworski, the 6-1 Filipino teammate of King and Irving, deadpanned to an American reporter: "Haven't you heard of my cousin, Leonard?"
The weather is always hot and the Filipino players are tough, often shooting practice baskets throughout the halftime break while the imports sit gasping on the sidelines. Everybody speaks English, but it is with a Hispanic accent that an American ear will sometimes not quite understand, American players find in the jumble under the basket. "The Filipinos will sometimes come under you and they are hard to see," said King, who spent 90 seconds during one game writhing on the floor after one misstep beneath the backboard. Under the Philippine rules there could be no timeout and play went on without him.
Still King recently scored 73 points in one game, coming within two of the league record, He says he would like to come back if the Pistons again cannot be persuaded of his real worth.
Off the court, King, 22, from the University of Iowa, and Irving are friendly, talkative young men eager to discuss the delights of Philippine women and the generosity of Philippine basketball club owners. Although cagy about their salaries, they appear to make about $3,000 to $4,000 a month, compared to the $1,000 a month paid to the average Filipino pro.
Their team is the Toyota Tawaraws, fittingly named for a local species of antelope, and it is owned by Ricardo C. Silverio Sr., contoller of the national Toyota automobile franchise and a close friend of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
King and Irving have nothing but praise for Silverio, for his son, Dante, who coaches the team and for Marcos. whom King calls "a genius" for the peace and quiet his martial law rule has brought.
All the PBA teams are owned by, and named for commercial companies, and sports headlines read like advertisements. Toyota Flatterns United Textile, Seven-Up Crushes Tru-Orange, The rules don't differ too much from the NBA, although the key is somewhat wider and there is a 25 rather than a 24 second clock. To King officiating is the big difference. "There is a consistency as to what is allowed an what is not allowed," and games can be crisp and fast or wild and ragged.
The PBA still handles the imports like come secret weapon, quite gingerlY. Each team can have only two and the top four teams after the first, all-Filipino, half of the season can use only one import on the court at a time in the season's second half.
But they are well cared for. King and Irving live in team quarters in the fashionable Bel Air subdivision. They have a swimming pool, a pool table and closets full of Toyota-financed wardrobes.
And King, with his 225 pounds, delights in the chance the Philippine rules give him to bend every rim in the league.
"In the NBA its a technical foul, King said of his habit of holding onto the rim after a particularly satisfying dunk. "But here I can hang up there all day."