The Philippines is a nation crazy about basketball. Sick of always losing to China in the FIBA Asia Championships, which act as qualifiers for the Olympics and World Championships, the country has taken advantage of some lax laws on citizenship to stock their team with talent from around the world. It doesn't matter if you have Filipino bloodlines, only that you're willing to play.
The latest is Wizards center JaVale McGee, who has reported expressed his willingness to join Smart Gilas Pilipinas, a developmental team that plays together year-round and generally makes up the national team's roster for international competitions. A Filipino passport is a requirement for Smart Gilas players, which one might think would be a roadblock for the Michigan-born McGee. But do you remember how we called the country basketball-crazed? We weren't joking: lawmakers are ready to push through an Act of Congress to give McGee citizenship.
It's nothing new. McGee will be teammates with Marcus Douthit, a Providence graduate who was drafted by the Lakers and went on to makes stops in the D-League, Belgium, Russia, Turkey, Korea and China before discovering his Filipino pride. Last year, the Philippines House of Representatives passed Bill No. 2307, which made Douthit a naturalized citizen despite having lived in the country for only three months. The bill was passed to the President's desk, where it sat for 30 days without being signed, and so automatically became law.
American-born Tongan player Asi Taulava didn't need an Act of Congress when he became a Filipino citizen in 2000. According to the National Bureau of Investigation, his mother falsified a birth certificate saying she was born in the Philippines, which would automatically grant her son citizenship. Similar questions surround national team members Marcio Lassiter and Chris Lutz, who have been retroactively declared citizens by a controversial interpretation of the 1987 Constitution.
Because of strict rules and quotas on the numbers of foreign-born and naturalized citizens allowed in the PBA, sneaking foreigners through as Filipinos has long been a game of cat and mouse for FIBA overseers. The ongoing "Fil-Sham Controversy" periodically results in suspensions, like that of Eric Menk—suspended in 2000 for not having proper documentation, reinstated the next year, then suspended again in 2005 for the same issue, even though he had played in the Asian Games and even won a PBA MVP.
McGee doesn't have to worry about finding a long-lost Filipino relative, as he would take one of the slots for naturalized citizens on the Philippines team. It would make him ineligible to play for the US National Team, but we don't think that will be a problem.
Update: Rafe Bartholomew, Grantland editor and author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, writes in to dispute some of the points above:
I have a lot of issues with this story and I don't know where to start.
For what it's worth, McGee's recruitment doesn't really fall under the Fil-Sham rubric. FIBA has allowed teams to suit up one naturalized player per team for years, and Gilas was asking McGee if he'd consider doing it for the Philippines. The Philippines had actually stopped using naturalized guys for several years as a reaction to the Fil-Sham controversy while other Asian teams fielded American players. Currently, Jordan has Rasheim Wright, Korea has Jarod Stevenson/Tae-Jong Moon (who's half-Korean), and Lebanon has Sam Hoskin (in the past, they've used Jackson Vroman and Joe Vogel as naturalized players). Anyway, the point is that the Philippines is not the only country playing this game in international competition, nor does this happen only in Asia. J.R. Holden (from Pittsburgh, played at Bucknell) was the point guard on the Russian team that won the European Championships in 2007 and competed in the 2008 Olympics. He was a mainstay on the Russian national team until his retirement earlier this year.
You can knock the Philippines for pioneering this trend back in the 1980s, when they naturalized Chip Engelland and a few other American players to bolster the national team, but that cat has been out of the bag for a long time now and they're probably not the worst offender anymore (if you can even consider playing by this FIBA rule an offense).
The only mistake in the piece is that McGee would be teammates with Douthit. From what I understand, Gilas wants McGee to replace Douthit, and the two wouldn't be allowed on the same roster in a FIBA-Asia tournament. It's possible that if McGee signed on (unlikely, IMO), Douthit could remain with the team in a training capacity and could fill in at all the smaller tournaments they play in throughout the year, or that McGee and Douthit could play together in invitationals like the Jones Cup in Taiwan. Still, they could never be "teammates" in a FIBA tournament that serves as a qualifier for the Olympics or World Championships.
The rest strikes me as just kind of wrongheaded and mean-spirited analysis. I don't know what it takes to naturalize players in Jordan, Korea, or Lebanon, but it likely requires something like an act of Congress, so the histrionics over that seem unfair. I'm guessing the writer can't read Arabic or Korean (not that I can, either), but if he could I wouldn't be surprised if he found similar headlines to link to in newspapers in Seoul, Amman, or Beirut.
I'm not that familiar with the paperwork of Lutz and Lassiter, but they are by all accounts legit Fil-Ams who are eligible for dual citizenship (and in a country with a diaspora as widespread and large as the Philippines, I believe the dual citizenship laws are appropriate). That doesn't seem like a trick to beef up the basketball team, especially compared to the days when basketball people in Manila really were finding guys with no Philippine heritage and doctoring false birth certificates for their supposed mothers in far-flung provinces. The dispute at the recent FIBA Asia tournament appeared to be bureaucratic gamesmanship to keep them off the court and hurt the Philippine team's chances, and it was resolved pretty quickly.
To call the Fil-Sham issue "ongoing" is kind of nuts. There hasn't been a hearing on it in almost a decade and there likely won't be another suspension related to it. If the piece were on a country American sports fans knew more about, they'd be able to see this pretty obvious fudge. Filipino basketball fans may still feel ambivalent toward foreign-born players for one reason or another, but the guys who've entered the league in recent years all appear to have a right to play there.
Finally, I doubt McGee will actually accept the offer. The newspaper probably wanted a nice headline. Contrary to the last line of the story, I think McGee has a decent shot of making Team USA for the 2014 Worlds. Assuming the Howard/James/Melo/Paul/Wade crew go to the Olympics next summer, they'll probably skip the following World Championships like they did in 2010. Unless USA Basketball decides to go small or McGee is still so unreliable that being one of the only able-bodied big men around won't be enough to make the team, McGee will have a good shot at making our national team. He'll be on a pretty short list and I think that'll keep him from accepting the Gilas offer. If he gets cut in 2014, then maybe he takes whatever money they're offering him and becomes a naturalized Filipino.
If this piece were about NBA, NFL, any other American sport or probably even one of the major European soccer leagues, I bet readers would be complaining that this piece was missing the target. For obvious reasons, I'm a pretty avid defender of the Philippines and Philippine basketball, and I'm sensitive to the fact that it's easy to beat up on the Philippines because most of our audience won't catch the mistakes.