The current situation impacting worldwide has preempted sporting events, among others, much to the chagrin of sports fans everywhere. It is March, and in March, there is supposed to be March Madness – the US NCAA basketball tournament to cap off the collegiate season, where teams play do-or-die games to shrink the brackets from 68 teams to just one team standing at the end. This year, fans will miss the elimination rounds that stretch from 64, to 32, to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and finally, the championship game, played within the first few days of April, where the National Champions are crowned.
In Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) history, there have been quite a number of foreign reinforcements, imports, who not only participated in the US NCAA tournament while at university, but were on teams that went all the way to the podium as part of the last team standing. Let’s scour the list.
Jerry Lee Eaves, Louisville 1980. Eaves was a starting guard on the Cardinals squad that defeated UCLA in 1980, 59-54. His backcourt mate was Darrell Griffith. Eaves scored eight points in the clincher. Darrell Allums, who was a PBA import in 1981 for U/Tex, was on the losing team. Eaves played in the PBA in 1986 as one of the first imports ever for the Alaska franchise, first teaming up with PBA veteran Donnie Ray Koonce, who was later replaced by Keith Morrison.
Dwayne McClain, Villanova 1985. In what is considered one of the biggest upsets in US NCAA tournament finals history, Villanova defeated much-favored Georgetown, 66-64. McClain topscored for the Wildcats with 17 points, outscoring future NBA players Ed Pinckney and Harold Pressley. He played for Presto in 1991.
Billy Thompson, Louisville 1986. Thompson scored 13 points in an upset win over Duke in the title game, second to eventual NBA number one pick, Pervis Ellison. Thompson would go on to the NBA the next season and win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. He played for San Miguel Beer in 1994 after his NBA career had ended.
Keith Smart, Indiana 1987. Smart is considered a US NCAA legend because, as a freshman, he won the title game for the Hoosiers, 74-73, hitting the winning jumper with about five seconds left. He had 21 points in the game, trailing Steve Alford’s 23. He went on to a successful coaching career in the NBA, but not before playing five games for San Miguel Beer in 1989.
Antonio Lang, Duke 1991 and 1992. Lang has the honor of being the only PBA import to have won two US NCAA titles, doing so with the back-to-back champion Blue Devils. Duke defeated Kansas in 1991, then Michigan in 1992. He played only one minute against Kansas, but started against Michigan, scoring five points on two of three field goals. He played for Red Bull in 2001 and won a title and the Best Import award.
Donald Williams, North Carolina 1993. Williams was a hot-shooting guard on the Tar Heels squad that dealt Michigan’s Fab Five its second straight championship game loss, 77-71. He topscored for Dean Smith’s team with 25 points, including important free throws after Michigan’s Chris Webber’s infamous timeout call that resulted in a technical foul near the endgame. Williams played for Formula Shell in 1998 and won a title with the franchise.
JR Henderson (JR Sakuragi), UCLA 1995. Henderson is a naturalized player for Japan, where he adopted the surname Sakuragi. He came off the bench in the 1995 title game in support of future NBA role players Ed O’Bannon, George Zidek, and Toby Bailey. They knocked out 1994 champion Arkansas, which was seeking a back-to-back. Henderson played for Mobiline in 2000.
Kevin Freeman, Connecticut 1999. The Huskies narrowly defeated Duke, which had several eventual NBA players, including Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Shane Battier, 77-74. Freeman started for UConn, finishing with six points, as Rip Hamilton led the way with 27. Freeman played for Tanduay Gold in 2001 and San Miguel in 2006.
Nate James, Duke 2001. James was on the Duke squad that lost to Freeman’s UConn in 1999, but in 2001, he got his title. The Blue Devils defeated Arizona to win it all. James scored six points off the bench in Coach K’s seven-man Finals rotation. Mike Dunleavy topscored with 21, and three other future NBA players, Battier, Jay Williams, and Carlos Boozer also scored in double digits. James suited up for Sta. Lucia in 2003.
Josh Boone, Connecticut 2004. Boone scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds in the title game against Georgia Tech. Future NBA players Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon led the Huskies in scoring with 24 and 21 points, respectively. Boone then went on to a lackluster NBA career with the New Jersey Nets before playing in several different countries, including a few games in the Philippines with the San Miguel Beermen in 2014.
Rashad McCants, North Carolina 2005. McCants was a starter on the Tar Heels squad that defeated Illinois, 75-70, in the final game of the tournament. He scored 14 points, third-best after Scott May’s 26 and Raymond Felton’s 17, as they withstood the three-guard (Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head) attack of the Fighting Illini. He had an aborted two-game stint with the Powerade Tigers in 2012.
David Noel, North Carolina 2005. Noel was on the same Tar Heel championship team as McCants. He played 20 minutes, but did not attempt a single field goal. He finished with one point on a split from the line and hauled down three rebounds. He donned the Ginebra jersey in 2009.
Darnell Jackson, Kansas 2008. The Jayhawks defeated Memphis, led by future NBA MVP Derrick Rose, 75-68, for the title. A starter, Jackson had eight points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush, and Mario Chalmers were the top three scorers for Bill Self’s team. Three players from the losing Memphis squad became PBA imports – Robert Dozier (Alaska), Shawn Taggart (Rain or Shine and Global Port), and Pierre Henderson-Niles (Rain or Shine). Jackson played for the Meralco Bolts in 2014.
Justin Watts, North Carolina 2009. Another title for the Tar Heels came at the expense of Michigan St. UNC was led by Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Hansbrough, all with double digit outputs. Danny Green scored six. Watts was a bench player who saw a minute of action, managing to hit one of two field goals, to finish with two points. He recently had impressive numbers (31 points, 13 rebounds per game) in two games for the Alaska Aces in the 2019 Governors’ Cup, before a calf injury forced his replacement.
Terrence Jones, Kentucky 2012. An immense talent with a volatile personality, Jones was a legitimate NBA player with the Rockets, Pelicans, and Bucks after being drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft in 2012 (18th overall). Prior to that, he started and scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds against Kansas in the 67-59 Kentucky victory, alongside Anthony Davis, Micheal Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague. He led the TNT Ka-Tropa all the way to the 2019 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals, where they fell to the San Miguel Beermen and Chris McCullough, four games to two.