The Philippines' incredible shrinking basketball players.

The Philippines' incredible shrinking basketball players.

The Philippines' incredible shrinking basketball players.

The stadium scene.
May 21 2007 11:54 AM

The Incredible Shrinking Basketball Players

How to make it as a hoops star in the Philippines. Step one: Get shorter.

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A basketball player getting measured in the Philippines. Click image to expand.
A player gets measured for the Philippine basketball league

Everywhere you look in the Philippines, there's a jerry-built basketball game. In farming towns without paved courts, kids dribble on dirt and bank shots off of two-by-fours lashed to coconut trees. On Manila street corners, players who can't afford sneakers run the court in flip-flops or bare feet. The country's professional players, however, play on state-of-the-art courts and wear top-notch apparel. Still, the Philippine Basketball Association is missing something just as fundamental to the game: height.

Basketball is a tall man's game. But in the Philippines, where men are short and hoops is an obsession, something's got to give. Several native "big men" are barely taller than 6 feet 3 inches, the standard height for NBA guards. Dunks are so rare in the PBA that the league has toyed with the idea of making slams worth three points. The league adds a dash of high-wire athleticism by allowing each team to hire one foreign-born star. But permitting American 7-footers to play would wreak havoc among the Lilliputian locals. As a result, the PBA bans imports taller than 6 feet 6 inches.

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The rule works. The PBA's foreigners are a versatile bunch: pure shooters, workhorses who do a little of everything, burly inside operators. But while the imports typically dominate games, they still leave room for the best Filipino players—guards who whirl through defenses and score on twisting layups—to do what they do best.

The height limit may be good for the PBA, but it forces tall players into a Catch-22. After a lifetime spent exaggerating their height to look more appealing to scouts, players must try to become shorter to play in the Philippines. The teams, too, have an incentive to sneak in over-height imports—every inch gives you a competitive advantage. As a result, foreigners in the PBA, and the franchises who bring them over, have come up with several shrinking techniques. Some of the methods are tricky, some are pseudoscientific, and others are just plain batty.

The league's original height-altering technique was a trip to the barber. Weeks before he died of a heart attack in March, former PBA Commissioner Jun Bernardino told me that in the 1970s and 1980s, teams tried to shave inches by shaving players' heads. This practice has lapsed somewhat as large hairstyles—Afros, shags, flat tops—have gone out of fashion. The technique isn't foolproof, either. As teams sometimes discovered, it's not big hair but pointy skulls that disqualified their imports.

Need a quick fix, and a shaved head won't cut it? Coaches swear that intense exercise in the hours before a measurement will knock as much as an inch off a player's everyday height. Conventional wisdom in the PBA holds that shoulder presses and squats compress a player's bone structure, while running in the tropical heat will shrink you via dehydration.

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The science behind this notion is, well, nonexistent. A quick survey of orthopedic surgeons at New York University Medical Center revealed a mix of outright contempt and polite skepticism. "We know of no method to shrink people," replied Dr. Joseph Bosco. The kinder, gentler Dr. Donald J. Rose offered this explanation: Weightlifting could compress the soft, fluid-filled disks between the vertebrae, and aerobic exercise could cause dehydration-related shrinkage in the disks. The resulting loss in height would be in millimeters, not inches, though.

The easiest way to shrink a basketball player has proven the most effective. Before the league allows a player to suit up, he must pass an official measurement. To appear shorter, players simply hunch over and bend their knees. Other temporary shrinking techniques include tucking your head into your chest and wearing billowing shorts that conceal bowed knees. Since as early as 1990, the PBA tried to counteract this technique by hiring men to push on players' knees and attempt to straighten their joints. Despite the straighteners' best efforts, the hunching player would hold the position and claim it was his natural posture.

Players and coaches get overcome with giddiness when discussing these finer points of height manipulation. Nic Belasco, a 10-year PBA veteran, gleefully re-enacted the bent-knees, tucked-chin stance for me after practice one afternoon. Tim Cone, head coach of the Alaska Aces, demonstrated how an import could lose an inch or two by leaning against a wall.

Alaska's current import, Rosell Ellis, has displayed a miraculous ability to shrink and grow over his five PBA seasons. In 2001, the league capped height at 6 feet 4 inches, and Ellis measured a shade over 6 feet 2 and a half. This season, with a 6-foot-6-inches height limit, he came in at almost 6 feet 5 inches. It's safe to say that Ellis, 32, didn't have a growth spurt. He told me that before his measurement in 2001, a coach advised him to make himself as short as possible so he could play in tournaments with even lower height limits. Ellis recalled the PBA's knee-pushing henchmen doing their darnedest to straighten him out, but he locked his joints and pushed his head down toward the base of his neck. Behold, the amazing, adjustable-height basketball player!

The PBA is well beyond the stage of questioning the logic behind its habitual athlete shrinking. The important thing is that it's always worked: If a team wanted to sneak in a tall import, it could always finagle a way to do it. That's starting to change now. Just before the current season got underway in March, former Seton Hall standout Kelly Whitney got the boot for being too tall. Whitney was done in by a new measuring technique. In 2005, the PBA began measuring imports lying down. Players are forced to lie flat on the ground with their feet against a board, while league employees pin down their knees, shoulders and heads. As of yet, nobody's figured out how to cheat this new system.

When you think about it, it's a wonder that the PBA permitted height fraud throughout most of its 32-year history when such a simple solution was available. Bernardino told me that when he was commissioner in the 1990s and early 2000s, every team was allowed to witness the measurements and thus couldn't complain about the results. Coaches who watched players droop and bend their way into the league acquired a bemused fatalism similar to the outlook many Filipinos have toward their famously corrupt politicians—they couldn't stop the cheating, so they laughed at it. The recent change to lying-down measurements seems to have been motivated by nothing more than a changing of the guard. Perry Martinez, head of PBA officials, told me that when his office took over measurement duties in 2005, they chose the new method because it yielded the most accurate heights.

There have been no official complaints about the stricter rules, but there have been unintended consequences. Last season, Alaska signed Victor Thomas, a two-time veteran of the PBA's 6-foot-6-inches-and-under tournaments. His coaches assumed that Thomas would make height and didn't bother attending his measurement. Shockingly, Thomas had sprouted and now stood taller than the limit. Alaska brought in a less-experienced player and was eventually swept in the playoffs. Thomas, for his part, found that being too tall for Philippine basketball was no career kiss of death. An Argentine team scooped him up shortly after his dismissal from the PBA, and he's since gotten another gig in Brazil. Victor Thomas may be too small for the NBA and too big for Southeast Asia, but in South America, he's just right.