Short basketballers in Philippines fly high

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In a brightly lit Manila gym, basketball players make daring lay-ups, desperate rebounds and even the occasional dunk - all amazing sights considering the tallest man on the court is the referee.

It's all part a fledgling league in the hoops-crazy but sometimes vertically challenged Philippines aimed at levelling the playing field by setting height limits and removing the natural advantage of taller players.

The Below Six-Feet Basketball League (B6BL), an amateur league operating in Manila, has attracted an enthusiastic following from the many Filipinos too short to compete in the bigger competitions.

"It represents the kind of basketball for Filipinos where they can show their talents in speed and shooting," rather than relying on height, said B6BL founder Nilo Fernandez.

At the B6BL games, the players - who have to be shorter than six feet (1.83 metres) - have the enthusiasm and competitiveness to make up for their short stature.

One example is point guard Noel Binalla, the most active player on his team, "the Whammies" - despite being the smallest player in the league at a mere 1.57 meters tall.

"This is really my specialty. I can weave in and out," said Binalla, 20.

Binalla likes the competition and thinks it improves his skills as a physical education teacher and a basketball coach.

But he also admitted he enjoyed being somewhat of a star in a way that would be impossible against the tall timber that normally dominate basketball games.

"I think I can get noticed here. If I joined a league without a height limit, I would not be noticed," he said.

The B6BL is tailor-made for Filipinos who have an average height of about 1.63 meters, according to Fernandez.

"We even have people who can dunk," he said excitedly as he showed a video of a collection of B6BL players defying gravity and slamming the ball into the net.

The league first began when Fernandez was organising corporate basketball tournaments in 2005. With too many teams, he set up a separate division for those less than six feet tall.

But this division ended up becoming even more popular.

"We realised we had to separate the below-six-foot league from the corporate league," he said.

The B6BL now has 48 teams, grouped in six divisions with games almost every day.

A legacy of the Philippines' period as a US colony in the 20th Century, basketball is a national obsession with makeshift rings visible at town plazas, parking lots, sidestreets and even in forest clearings.

The professional and top collegiate leagues are enormously popular and some of the country's top basketball stars have parlayed their hardcourt fame into careers in show business and even politics.

The Philippines even came third in the 1954 FIBA world championships and fifth in the 1936 Olympics - an unprecedented performance for an Asian country.

"We were very superior to other Asian countries as far as basketball was concerned at the time. So its popularity was very widespread locally," said Lito Tacujan, sports editor of Philippine Star newspaper.

But while other countries improved their hardcourt skills and recruited taller cagers, Philippine basketball deteriorated amid bickering among the country's sports leaders.

In the 2009 FIBA Asian men's championships, the Philippines embarrassingly placed ninth.

Fernandez hopes his new league could spark a resurgence in Filipino basketball by encouraging more people to get into the sport where they can develop their skills instead of relying on their height.

His model is NBA star Nate Robinson who has won three slam dunk championships despite being less than six feet tall.

Fernandez is also dreaming of expanding his league regionally and globally.

He is hoping to one day convince FIBA, the international basketball federation, to sanction similar basketball tournaments with height limits, just like the weight limits imposed in boxing.

Height limits in basketball are not new. The US-based World Basketball League, which lasted from 1987 to 1992, had a limit of 1.95 metres while China's Dream Basketball League still has a limit of 1.88 metres.

Even FIBA had an experimental tournament in Spain in the late-1960s with a 1.8-metre height limit.

In April, a local cable TV basketball channel will show highlights of B6BL games and Fernandez hopes that this will attract sponsors and eventually FIBA's attention.

"They could create an international league- countries like Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia - they would like it too because they don't have seven-footers," he said.

"It can go global. Even America has a lot of players who are below six feet in height," he said.

mm/kma/jah

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