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What Philippine basketball can learn from ‘That’s Entertainment’

By Jaemark Tordecilla Published Jul 17, 2023 10:51 pm

In many ways, the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup feels like a homecoming for the Philippines. Perhaps no other country loves the sport as intensely, and in no other country is the sport as entwined into the culture.

Books have been written about how the sport lives in our very core as Pinoys. You’d find a basketball ring at every street corner. Go to almost any town center and you’d almost inevitably find three structures — the church, the municipio, and the basketball court. And that’s not even listed in its order of importance to the townsfolk.

But the spotlight brought by the FIBA World Cup also puts into focus all the issues with basketball development in the country. For a nation that’s so in love with the sport, we seem to never be able to get out of our way.

Chot Reyes, who coached the Philippines in the 2014 edition of the tournament, is back at the helm of the Gilas Pilipinas squad that will be defending our home floor in Manila. But his appointment did not come without controversy, coming on the heels last year of the abrupt departure of Tab Baldwin from the national program.

The American-Kiwi coach had spent the past several years training a group of young Filipino stars together as a team, with an eye toward the World Cup. He left in January 2022, citing a conflict with his duties as the coach of Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP. Baldwin would admit, months later, that his decision was influenced by the fact that most of the young players he had on the program would not be available because of commitments either to the UAAP or to overseas leagues.

Roster changes: A game of musical chairs

Al Panlilio, the head of the country’s national basketball federation, was more blunt about Baldwin’s decision: “We started losing players. He didn’t want to coach in the February window. As a federation, we had to make decisions on how to move forward.”

Enter Reyes. His appointment did not exactly float the boat for Pinoy basketball fans as he already had two prior stints as Gilas coach end in ignominious fashion. In 2014, the team flamed out of the Asian Games in a tournament that saw Reyes order his players to shoot at their basket. In 2018, the team took part in a bench-clearing brawl against Australia that made many more international headlines than recent tourism launch videos.

Reyes stumbled out of the gate in his latest stint, as the Philippines suffered an upset against Indonesia in last year’s Southeast Asian Games to settle for the silver medal, the first time since 1989 that the country failed to win gold in the tournament.

He would later say that he tried to quit after that disastrous result, but the management of the national federation would not let him. Reyes framed the move to stay on, amid all the criticism he had been getting, as an act of service: “It’s very, very difficult, it’s very difficult for my family. But you know, somebody has to do the job and I’ve always said before that I will never turn my back on my duty to the flag and country.”

That was last year. The program (and the bashing from fans) has since settled down, and the Philippines even won the Southeast Asian Games basketball gold once again this year. The availability of players for various tournaments, from the qualifier windows to the Southeast Asian Games, is a constant problem. Reyes, though, does not see that being an issue for the FIBA World Cup, given that all other leagues, domestic and international, will be on pause.

The problems that Reyes and Baldwin faced when it comes to the availability of players are not unique to the senior's team. It happens at virtually every level of the national program.

Chot Reyes

“When I was coaching the Under-16 and the Under-18 a couple of years ago, that was also my challenge. It was really hard to convince coaches to lend their players for the national team,” Eric Altamirano told me in a conversation over Zoom.

The veteran coach had handled the country’s youth program from 2009 to 2010 but did not always have his best players available for the most important tournaments. For the FIBA Asia Junior Men’s Championship, national team stars Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal from the Ateneo Blue Eaglets and Kevin Ferrer of the University of Santo Tomas Tiger Cubs were only able to join the team midway through the tournament.

“They were in the playoffs, so their coaches did not allow them to practice with us for one month,” Altamirano said. “When they arrived for the games, that’s the only time they saw each other. And true enough, we were able to make it to the quarters, but that’s all we could reach. Because it’s different, we needed to be cohesive, and have chemistry by the time you get to the crucial part of the tournament.”

That was in 2010. It remained an issue when Charles Tiu, the young coach behind the rise of the College of Saint Benilde, joined the national youth program as an assistant coach to Sandy Arespacochaga in 2019. Even coordinating practice times for the players between the Batang Gilas squad and their respective high school teams was an issue.

“We’d only practice two times, three times a week, and we won’t even be complete,” Tiu told me in a conversation over Zoom. He estimates that the team was not even able to complete 10 full days of practice sessions, and theirs was a team going to the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup!

Schools and coaches are also hesitant about lending their players to the national program because of another concern: talent poaching. “Let’s say, a coach or an assistant coach that’s part of the national team is connected to a particular college team,” Altamirano said. The fear is that by the time the player returns to school, he’s already been recruited to transfer. “And to be honest, it happens. It happens a lot of times.”

Coaches, after all, are incentivized to win basketball games, even at the grassroots level. Beyond kneecapping our national youth teams, this kind of insular thinking does untold damage to Philippine basketball development.

“The problem is when we train our players, especially for the younger guys, who will win? It's usually the guys who are most athletically gifted at a young age,” Tiu said.

That’s all fun until that player needs to move up to a higher level of competition. “You’re putting all the emphasis on winning based on your athletic gifts, versus teaching them to play the right way,” Tiu added. “What happens when all the other guys catch up to him in terms of strength?”

Even today, there is a development gap between players from Metro Manila versus those from the provinces. “It takes them a lot of time to catch up to what we’re trying to do here,” Tiu said. “They get here, they’d have no idea what they’re doing. You’d have to teach them everything.” In contrast, there is a much smaller learning curve for players who came from the top high schools in the National Capital Region.

It makes me think about the case of six-time PBA Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo, who is arguably the greatest (and unarguably the most dominant) basketball player the Philippines has ever produced. He never had access to top-flight coaching in his early years, but it wasn’t until he was in college playing for the University of Cebu Webmasters1 that our crazy basketball nation became aware of the future of Philippine basketball, all six-foot-ten-inches of him. How much better could June Mar have been, with his never-before-seen blend of size, power, and grace, getting the training it deserves? We’ll never know.

Schools and coaches are also hesitant about lending their players to the national program because of another concern: talent poaching.

Ideally, young players would be trained to develop all the skills necessary for the game, regardless of their size, athleticism, or position. There have been efforts to address the situation, with Altamirano’s National Basketball Training Center, a program that seeks to bring together and train top prospects from Metro Manila, the provinces, and the Filipino diaspora, going on nearly two decades. Tiu, for his part, doesn’t see another June Mar Fajardo being stashed away from the public eye in today’s environment, especially with social media influencers posting highlights from even the smallest basketball leagues, in their desperate search for the next viral sensation.2

Investing in players early would also help with the availability problem. The new FIBA calendar often runs in conflict with league schedules, so player availability is an issue for every country with a basketball team. The best-run programs always somehow manage to remain competitive.

Tiu noted that while Gilas has been playing in Europe over the past several weeks, Australia won’t even begin its training camp for the FIBA World Cup until mid-August. But while they would have players from the NBA, Europe, and their own domestic National Basketball League joining up, their cohesion would not be as big of an issue. This is because most of them have been playing, if not together then at least under the same system, since their younger years.

Basketball Australia, whose Boomers won their first-ever world basketball medal with a bronze at Tokyo 2020, runs a national Centre of Excellence that has provided a pipeline of players to the NBA and the WNBA.

Spain, the most successful basketball nation outside the United States, reconfigured its basketball federation to function similarly to a club, establishing the same systems from the youth levels to the senior levels of their national teams.

I don’t know if those models would work for the Philippines; there are millions more Filipino basketball players than Australian players. But while fans have been breathlessly debating whether the national team should go with Chot Reyes or Tab Baldwin, I would argue that what we need is German Moreno — our basketball version of Kuya Germs.

Kuya Germs, Donita Rose, Lea Salonga, Chuckie Dreyfus

'The Master Showman'

Philippine show business began just as many institutions and industries in the country began: as an echo of what was happening in the United States. So the studio system in the Philippines began as a mimic of the old Hollywood system, with each major film studio building up its roster of stars and “love teams” for the masses. From the ‘30s through the first “Golden Age” of Philippine cinema in the ‘50s, the industry was dominated by the big three studios: Sampaguita, LVN, and Premier.3

Every actor had to have the blessing of the studio bigwigs to become part of the industry.

And just like in Hollywood, the studio system in the Philippines eventually crumbled, with numerous smaller film outfits taking its place by the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of the biggest stars of that era such as Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ Productions), Dolphy (RVQ Productions), Nora Aunor (NV Productions), and Niño Muhlach (D’Wonder Films) even began bankrolling their films.

By the ‘80s, the film industry had converged again with three outfits—Regal, Viva, and Seiko—proving dominant even as many small players remained. Still, none of those players had the machinery to build up their stars like the studios of old did.

Television emerged as a vehicle to promote the new generation of stars. Kuya Germs, who got his start as a performer in the iconic bodabil.4

Theaters in Manila in the ‘50s were the host of one such vehicle: GMA Supershow, where the biggest stars in the country and international performers would come on to publicize their projects.5

The resurgent Philippine film industry needed new faces for a public hungry for distraction, so while Sundays were reserved for the biggest stars, the rest of the week was still available for anyone hoping to be part of that galaxy. So in 1986, Kuya Germs launched That’s Entertainment, a daily program that would feature the future of Philippine showbiz.

Kuya Germs never signed the members to contracts, leaving them free to do their deals. The studios, for their part, also trusted him because he was an honest broker who didn’t play favorites.

And it worked! It’s hard to undersell the phenomenon that was That’s Entertainment, but as a kid growing up in the late ‘80s, it was impossible to escape. Even if you weren’t into showbiz or celebrities, you’d be forced to watch it because of your siblings, your titas, or your yayas.

There were so many aspiring stars that they would be divided up into daily editions—from Monday to Friday, with each group competing in a grand production number each Saturday. As a result, a whole generation of young men and women became familiar faces — on television, yes, but also in movie posters and showbiz magazines and even on notebook covers — nearly overnight.

The show would become so ingrained in everyone’s psyche that in its 1996 debut album, Parokya Ni Edgar had a song called Pangarap Ko Sa Buhay. And the dream that Parokya frontman Chito Miranda sang about in the title? It was to become part of the Tuesday edition of That’s Entertainment.

Kapag ako’y nakapasok
Ay siguradong malalaos
Ang pagkaguwapo ni
Mr. Chuckie Dreyfus

“Every now and then, when Chito and I get to talk or chat, he still calls me ‘Mr. Chuckie Dreyfus,’” Chuckie Dreyfus himself told me that with a laugh in our Zoom conversation. He’s had a packed schedule, and while we spoke, he was driving back from the Subic taping of the GMA-7 hit Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap, but he’s always game to talk about That’s Entertainment.

He joined the show a year into its run. He was already a child star, winning Best Child Performer at the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1984, and he was signed on as a Regal Baby. But the decision to become part of That’s Entertainment was a no-brainer. Because he was already friends with Sheryl Cruz and Rachel Alejandro, he chose to be part of the Wednesday group.

The cast of That’s Entertainment was a mix of budding young movie stars like Chuckie, second-generation celebrities, and virtual unknowns. Even their studio affiliations didn’t matter. “It’s either you were part of Regal, you were part of Viva, you were part of Seiko, or you’re a freelancer,” Chuckie said. They all shared the same stage on That’s Entertainment.

Kuya Germs never signed the members to contracts, leaving them free to do their deals. The studios, for their part, also trusted him because he was an honest broker who didn’t play favorites. “No one was ever jealous of him,” Chuckie said. “And I guess because he’s such a father figure to everyone, no one really thought of him as a threat.” Unlike on, say, Philippine national basketball teams, there was no poaching inside the Broadway Centrum studio of That’s Entertainment.

The movie companies took advantage of the exposure the show provided for their talents. “You tend to become a household name when you’re part of That’s Entertainment,” Chuckie said. “They don’t have to market you as much. When they put you in a movie, you’re well known, so people come out to watch you.”

For his part, Kuya Germs saw it as his mission to get the most out of the talents on his show. Chuckie describes That’s Entertainment as a workshop on live television.

They would do segments like “That’s News,” where they would try to become news anchors. There was “That’s Modeling,” which allows the members to walk the stage like a runway, and also doubles as a way for them to thank their hair, makeup, and clothing sponsors on the show. There was “That’s Acting,” where Kuya Germs shows a clip from a movie that was out in the theaters, and the members would act it all out. Then of course there was the usual singing and dancing.

A lot of it was cringeworthy, but that was the point: everyone needed to try everything, to figure out if it was the right avenue for them. “You find your niche, you find your market, you discover talents you actually enjoy doing,” Chuckie said.

It certainly helped him find a path forward away from the acting spotlight. He’s candid and thoughtful about how his career turned out, after the early success. “I reached a period where people still remember me as a child actor even when I had grown, and they couldn’t accept me as a more mature actor because in their minds I was still a kid,” Chuckie said.

While on the show, he discovered his love for music, and he began composing original scores and doing musical arrangements for That’s Entertainment and eventually, GMA Supershow. Away from the spotlight, he carved out a career as a music producer and composer, writing songs for Rachel Ann Go and Sarah Geronimo. Chuckie has since returned to acting.7

When That’s Entertainment closed its doors in 1996, it had touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people, hoping to chase their celebrity dream. Many careers ended after their stint on the show; others continued with their showbiz journeys, to wildly varying degrees of success. A couple of them even became real news anchors after all the training they got on That’s News.

There were even those who reached international stardom, like the legendary Lea Salonga, who was an original That’s Entertainment cast member; and Donita Rose, who ruled the airwaves of Southeast Asia in the late ‘90s and early 2000s as an MTV VJ.

While watching her at the time, my buddy Ivan noticed that Donita occasionally calls her audience “televiewers.” It’s a Kuya Germs-ism we didn’t notice was off because we had grown up listening to him saying it; most others in the English-speaking world would just say “viewers.”

We would laugh thinking about how years after That’s Entertainment had ended, there would be kids watching Donita and picking up the term “televiewers” in Singapore and Indonesia and Thailand, and Malaysia. Kuya Germs’ influence still lived on.

Opening new doors

Donita was quick to correct me during our Zoom chat. It wasn’t just Southeast Asia that heard her saying “televiewers.”

“We’re also talking about China. That channel CCTV — that was the channel in China — had a hundred million households. So that plus the rest of Southeast Asia, and I would go live and people would text their messages and you could answer them, and I would be shaking so bad,” she says.

The MTV studios in Singapore were thousands of miles from the Broadway Centrum stage, but Donita says her That’s Entertainment experience helped her.

She describes herself as “a very American girl” from Clark who barely spoke Tagalog when she started on That’s Entertainment. She still remembers singing Radio Romance by Tiffany for her audition — “And I was really terrible!” — but Kuya Germs seemed bent on taking in the girl with the angelic face8 onto the show.

“Kuya Germs asked me, ‘Do you have any talent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you speak Tagalog?’ ‘No.’ ‘So what can you do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘OK, you’re in.’”

She became part of the Friday group, allowing her to commute from Pampanga to Manila on the weekend. “I mean, some were a lot nicer than others. Like, I would say, Manilyn Reynes was the sweetest thing from back then until now. I wouldn’t say much about the others,” she said with a laugh, before admitting there were some who had star complex. But away from the cameras, most people got along, and Kuya Germs treated them fairly equally.

Eventually, she found a niche in dancing, and record labels hired her to perform with dance groups like Hot Legs on variety shows like Eat Bulaga and GMA Supershow to promote their latest dance singles. But her claim to fame, Donita remembers, were the acting challenges on That’s Entertainment.

“Since I couldn’t speak Tagalog, I’d have to beg someone next to me and say, ‘Help me with this.’ They were trying to teach me what the lines mean in, like, five minutes,” she says. “I would try so hard, I’d say my lines, and people would have no idea what I’m saying. But to them, it’s like really funny.”

That paved the way for an accidental comedy career, first in movies, then eventually as Barbie Doll Dinero9 in the classic sitcom Ober Da Bakod.

She continued to go with the flow of her career, and the nerves never really went away. But when a spot opened up for a new MTV VJ, Donita knew that the gig was right for her. She remembers walking at a mall in Makati with her friend Mo Twister when she saw a poster for the audition. “I literally wanted to rip it and pull it down so that nobody else would see it. Because this was mine. That's what I wanted to do.”

But for all her confidence, she still found herself nervous each time the cameras rolled, with her show beaming across large swaths of Asia. But then the That’s Entertainment training would kick in.

“Kuya Germs prepared me for this, I can do this. He made me do many different things. And all of those little things made me the person that I am today, whatever it is that they can make me do on the spot I can do because I've done it for five years with That’s Entertainment,” she said.

The future of Philippine basketball 

The potential of Philippine basketball remains tremendous, with foreign coaches often raving about our local basketball players. Charles Tiu, the Benilde basketball coach, recently brought in a consultant from Slovenia who once coached players like future NBA star Goran Dragic. “He was looking at our Filipino players from what he sees and they’re way more athletic on the average than European players,” Tiu said.

Another thing going for Pinoy basketball players is the innate basketball sense. “Our basketball sense is great, versus in Japan, they were saying, they were so calculated. It was like, you set a screen, you have to explain exactly what do I do when a guy is this far away when he’s one step, two steps away,” Tiu added. Those are the little things that Filipino players tend to figure out instinctively.

It would help if we could find a Kuya Germs figure for Philippine basketball: a true honest broker beloved and trusted by all parties and stakeholders, whose only mission is to develop young talent. But that’s much easier said than done.

Eric Altamirano, the longtime coach, and director of the National Basketball Training Program, also sees the amount of talent from across the country as a good problem to have. The challenge, both coaches see, is bringing together the skills and the discipline at an early enough age to last their careers.

It’s easier said than done because of the politics involving Philippine basketball. We always talk about love when talking about Filipinos and basketball, but that tends to cut both ways. I must say, there’s something very familiar — an overbearing quality that is very Pinoy — about how toxic it is to love basketball so much that you want to win all the games that you end up hurting the sport in the long run.

It would help if we could find a Kuya Germs figure for Philippine basketball: a true honest broker beloved and trusted by all parties and stakeholders, whose only mission is to develop young talent. But that’s much easier said than done.

By the time That’s Entertainment closed its doors, its position as the top avenue for churning out young talent had been usurped by another entity: Star Magic. ABS-CBN had wanted exclusive access to young talent it could build up, and soon enough GMA and the film studios would follow suit. Everything had become exclusive. In the end, even Kuya Germs could not be Kuya Germs anymore.

1 Fajardo was so “protected” that even in college, he was not allowed to play for the national team. Eventually, he signed on to play in ASEAN Basketball League as a member of the San Miguel Beermen. Interestingly, he joined the 2012 PBA draft just as the same San Miguel franchise acquired the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. All those machinations seem worth it, as Fajardo has led the franchise to nine championships in the PBA.

2 My favorite piece of viral Pinoy basketball content is Beki Irving, who was even featured on Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho for her basketball talent. Her prize? A surprise one-on-one with her biggest celebrity crush, a pre-Maria Clara At Ibarra David Licauco. The highlight of their game was her almost elbowing David’s head off while doing a Eurostep. She wiped the floor with him.

3 Old Hollywood, meanwhile, had its Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO. Some sources would say that Lebran was supposedly the fourth big Philippine studio, but as the longtime showbiz writer and movie critic Butch Francisco notes, it was much smaller compared to the three major outfits.

4 Bodabil was live entertainment derived from American vaudeville acts, featuring variety shows that included singing, dancing, comedy, and even magic at Manila’s beautiful art deco theaters. The shows gained particular prominence during the Japanese occupation when the screening of Western movies was banned.

5 No matter their stature, at the end of their segment, Kuya Germs would give them a gift pack containing products from the show’s sponsors, most memorably cans of Birch Tree Powdered Milk and packs of Besuto’s ready-to-cook prawn crackers.

6 Aside from Chuckie Dreyfus, Parokya Ni Edgar also namechecked its “biggest crush” from the show: Caselyn Francisco. In the song, it’s played as sort of a punchline, but she went on to have a storied career in international theater, including stints as Kim in Miss Saigon productions in Germany and Netherlands.

7 He currently stars in Abot Kamay Na Pangarap, which has been a phenomenon for GMA Network both online and off. The Jillian Ward-starrer is so popular that it would sometimes beat the ratings of the network’s primetime shows, despite airing in the afternoon. Chuckie says it’s the first time in decades that people would see him and not think about That’s Entertainment. Fans have taken to calling him Dr. Rey Meneses, his character on the show.

8 She played the nun that inspired the Divine Mercy devotion in a movie early in her career.

9 I asked Donita if her family remembered that she was the original Barbie Doll, with the Barbie movie coming out and all. “My family is very American,” she says. “They never really watched my stuff.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of PhilSTAR L!fe’s editors and staff.