MANILA,  September 24, 2004  (STAR) By Joaquin Henson - Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) commissioner Noli Eala promises a bigger and better season when Asia’s first play-for-pay league inaugurates its 30th campaign at the Big Dome on Oct. 3.

There are several firsts that will mark the opening.

The mid-year start, for instance, is unusual as the PBA is embarking on a new fiscal year to rationalize a two-conference format and schedule a three-month break for the opportunity to play overseas.

The inaugural conference will be called One Philippines Cup. It will take a holiday break from Dec. 24-Jan. 4 and the last game could stretch up to Feb. 13. Each team will play 18 games in the double-round eliminations after which the top two finishers automatically advance to the best-of-5 semifinals. The remaining eight teams slug it out in a "wild-card" phase, pairing No. 3 vs No. 10, No. 4 vs No. 9, No. 5 vs No. 8 and No. 6 vs No. 7. Teams 3 and 4 will enjoy a twice-to-beat edge while the No. 5 vs No. 8 and No. 6 vs No. 7 faceoffs will be best-of-3 affairs. Winners move to the best-of-3 quarterfinals.

The quarterfinal survivors will meet the two automatic qualifiers in the semifinals with the winners disputing the championship in a best-of-7 series.

Key differences in the previous conference format are the automatic seeding of the top two elimination finishers to the semifinals and a pair of best-of-3 series in the "wild-card" phase to avoid an immediate knockout situation.

The schedule allows for 20 out-of-town games, including possible foreign trips. The tentative out-of-town hosts are Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, Butuan, Bohol, Dumaguete, Bacolod, Iloilo, Gen. Santos City, Ormoc, Tacloban, Ceby, Palawan, Lucena, Sta. Cruz, Batangas, Cavite, Subic, San Fernando (Pampanga), Laoag and Dagupan. Guam, Jakarta and Hong Kong are options for overseas games.

The official ball is another innovation. The PBA will be the first Asian league to use the revolutionary, 12-seam, two-tone Molten leather B7L basketball. Last June, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) approved the Molten creation as the official ball of the World Championships and Olympics at a meeting in Paris. The ball made its tournament debut at the FIBA European women qualifiers that began last Sept. 8.

The Molten ball is exclusively distributed here by KB Impex International, a subsidiary of Sonia Trading. KB Impex’ Anil Buxani said the 12-seam design is patented and will be a feature of a new Molten line of leather, synthetic leather and rubber balls.

The Philippines is only the 14th country in the world to be provided samples of the Molten ball. KB Impex brought in 120 balls for the PBA to test last week. The balls will show an embossed imprint of the PBA logo in black.

Molten international manager Norihiko Kamia visited Manila early this month to show the ball to Eala and Basketball Association of the Philippines secretary-general Graham Lim who both gave their thumbs-up. Additionally, Buxani got positive comments from former PBA stars Allan Caidic, Hector Calma, Chito Loyzaga and Ed Cordero.

Buxani said the ball’s 12 seams or panels allow for better grip and shooting control. "You can also see the spin of the ball clearly because of the two colors," he noted. "Fans will be able to anticipate if a ball is going in or not by observing the spin. This is a revolutionary design, something called the dual comfort technology, and it will take the market by storm."

Buxani said the balls will be out in the market by February next year and he expects a heavy demand. The leather version will retail for about P3,000, the synthetic from P700 to 900 and the rubber, P300.

To accompany the introduction of the new ball is the use of a thinner net.

Player shifts are another focus of interest in the coming season. Vergel Meneses has moved to Red Bull. Celino Cruz, Ervin Sotto and Marlon Legaspi are playing for Shell. Mike Hrabak, Zaldy Realubit and Warren Ybanez are in the Purefoods lineup. Bong Hawkins has rejoined Alaska which is testing Chris Cantonjos. Homer Se and Rainier Sison will try to deliver for FedEx. San Miguel Beer has enlisted 6-9 Erick Canlas. Marlon Basco and Jason Misolas are in the Ginebra camp.

In terms of rules, technical manager Perry Martinez says a lot of fine-tuning was done in the offseason to refine interpretations with coaches. Among the tweaks are consulting the instant replay to determine whether a shot is counted or not at the end of each period, calling the advantage foul on a clear path to the basket with no defender (disregarding the principle of numerical superiority) and allowing a timeout on a simultaneous whistle even if the other call is for a violation or foul.

Martinez says the league will keep its roster of 19 referees and a new system of assignments will be used. The referees will be split into groups of nine and 10. Assignments will be announced two to four weeks ahead of schedule per group. The actual six referees to work a two-game schedule will be chosen on the playing day.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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