Fiba president Bob Elphinston, Asean Basketball League chair Tony Fernandes, Seaba secretary general Dato Yeoh Choo Hock, Fiba secretary general Patrick Baumann and Seaba president Erick Thohir join hands during the launching of the Asean basketball league]

KUALA  LUMPUR, JANUARY 20, 2009 (STAR) By Abac Cordero - The Asean Basketball League, a home-and-away tournament that would feature professional teams owned by private corporations, was formally launched here yesterday.

And the early buzz is that the Philippines, considered as the basketball capital of Asia, should be the team to beat whoever gets to represent the country.

The tournament has always been a dream for the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) under Erick Thohir and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) under Bob Elphinston.

But only after top officials of these basketball bodies came to meet Tony Fernandes, a successful businessman from Malaysia, did the project get the much-needed shot in the arm.

“I’ve never played basketball in my life and never imagined being a chairman of a basketball league,” said Fernandes, owner of Air Asia and a string of hotels under the Tune Group.

“There is skepticism but we need to try. It’s all about dreaming. My life has always been full of dreams,” said Fernandes, whose airline company has grown from only two planes to 75 in only seven years.

He’d like to see the ABL grow as fast as his business empire, and by September this year, when the league officially takes off, Fernandes wants to see more than a handful teams for its inaugurals.

There will be teams from the Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Each country can field more than one team, and each one reinforced by two non-Asian players and two Asian players.

“There can even be Filipinos playing for the other teams,” said Fernandes, who always mentioned the Philippines ahead of the rest each time he talked about the participating countries.

The teams will visit the different countries during the eliminations and the crucial phases, and by February 2010 the first ABL champion would be crowned. To ensure balance, a strict salary cap will be enforced.

Fernandes said he’s looking at a prize money of at least $30,000 for the champion. Just a small pie, he said, and what’s important is to get the tournament going first.

Thohir said franchise forms are now being distributed, and franchise fees being pegged at a very reasonable rate. The SEABA president said there’s been no representation yet from the Philippines or the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas.

Curiously, however, Graham Lim, the controversial official of the Basketball Association of the Philippines, was at the coffee shop of the Park Royal Hotel here with FIBA secretary-general Patrick Baumann.

Also in the press conference attended by journalists from different Asean countries was SEABA secretary-general Dato Yeoh Choo Hock who first met Fernandes at the Beijing airport during the 2008 Olympics.

What the SEABA and FIBA have been discussing for almost two years now took Hock and Fernandes only 15 minutes to tackle. And after only three meetings afterwards came the ABL.

“There will be many roadblocks, many bumps along the way. But if the spirit is right, no mountain is impassable,” said Fernandes.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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