This time last year, ASEAN Basketball League Chief Operations Officer Jericho Ilagan was busy closing out Season Nine of the regional league while starting to lay out the groundwork for their 10th season.
A year later, he and his team are left paralyzed due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Just like the rest of the sporting world.
As a league that has turned continental, Ilagan has resigned himself to the fact that the ABL will be one of the last to resume its games compared to the rest of the world.
“Feeling ko kami ‘yung last to play because we have to travel longer.
“Even if example the Philippines, Malaysia, or Singapore lifts its restrictions but Macao, Taiwan, and China don’t, we can’t continue,” Ilagan, who is in Australia, told Tiebreaker Times.
The ABL was one of the first leagues in the world to suspend its games due to the virus.
As early as January 21, the league started calling off home games for its two Macau-based squads Wolf Warriors and Black Bears. Games of Hong Kong Eastern were the next to be suspended.
Then the spread of the virus would hit home.
On his way to Singapore, as the Slingers were taking on Alab Pilipinas, Jameel McKay was put on quarantine after boarding the same flight with someone who was COVID-19-positive.
“Naisip namin na, ‘Uy, wait lang!’ Pa-grabe na ng pa-grabe. We told Singapore to check with their health authorities. They said na we can’t play games there anymore. That was the Saturday before the Alab game. Ready to go na sila eh,” recalled Ilagan.
“When Alab flew back, we had a conference call with everybody.”
During that conference call, all Ilagan wanted to hear from the owners was whether they want to continue with the season or not.
At that time, they still wanted to push through.
One of the ideas that were floated was to finish all the games either in Malaysia or Cambodia. Everything would be provided for all the league’s players and staff, including lodging, food, testing centers, and the likes.
Malaysia would then enter lockdown on March 18. Weeks later, Cambodia would put restrictions on entry.
The intricately plotted plan all ended up into nothing. Ilagan would ask himself, was the stress worth it?
“Cambodia had everything, but suddenly the players got scared. ‘Yung uncertainty ‘yung factor na hindi namin ma-control eh. Kahit kumpleto na lahat, there will be fear na inside the heads of the players. They were scared for their loved ones.
“We had to really think hard. We can’t just think na kelangan natin ng champion. Then the teams started saying na they won’t play. We needed that, even if they are in the minority to say that,” said Ilagan as Alab, Hong Kong, Formosa, and the Black Bears all wanted the league to suspend the games for the safety of everyone.
“Nakakapagod na we are planning all night, then the next day they will be restrictions that will scrap almost eighty-percent of the plans. We had to re-evaluate and maybe throw in the towel. That is what is going on now,” he continued.
Last March 13, Ilagan decided to pull the plug and suspended the season.
Though some owners brought about the idea of playing behind closed doors, Ilagan quickly shut down the idea, saying that the Asian sports culture is about the fan experience.
Despite the uncertainty, Ilagan stressed that Season 10 is still “just suspended”.
“We are thinking of having a season-ending tournament by October before we start the next season on November. But we can’t make a decision until all the restrictions have been lifted. Some teams even said that they won’t sign their players until there’s a vaccine. With those things in front of us, we can’t say na we are going to start again in November.”
For now, all Ilagan hopes for is that the entire ABL family remains safe as the pandemic rages on.
“The best we can do right now is to make sure that the players and the staff of the ABL are safe. Tsaka na ‘yung kondisyon or sponsors ng teams. The hope now is we can go through with this together and that all are well.”
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