How crazy is people in Philippines about basketball? Well, Manila, the capital of the country – 7,000 miles removed from the closest NBA action – is the sixth city in the world where this site draws the most traffic. That puts it ahead of Houston, Washington, Atlanta or Boston, all of them hosting NBA teams.
The game, taken to Philippines by Americans in 1900, has long been popular in the country. It's by far the most practiced sport by Filipinos and TV ratings are consistently strong. The passion for the game has not equalled success on the international level, though, with lack of height very much to blame. While the National Team has medaled 15 times in Asian tournaments, Philippines has failed to make a big impact on a worldwide level. The country has not qualified for the Olympics since 1972 and has never produced an NBA player.
Although it's a long shot, at least there's one young man trying to change the latter. Japeth Aguilar, an athletic 6-foot-9 forward, has spent the last month working out in the U.S. with hopes of joining a pro team stateside. The 25-year-old Aguilar has already practiced in front of scouts from the Spurs and Hornets and tried out for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBADL.
The son of a former basketball player now working in a factory in Chicago, Aguilar calls Jeremy Lin an inspiration to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA one day.
"The story about Jeremy Lin is really inspiring," Aguilar told HoopsHype. "How he worked to get into the NBA… It's really inspiring. I actually had the chance to play with him in Las Vegas at Impact (Basketball). He really worked hard. You can tell that he's really something special. When we were playing with him, you could see he was all over the court. I don't really know if he remembers, but we went and say 'Hi" to him."
As expected, Aguilar's American adventure is being closely followed back home with daily reports about the experience.
"I think the Philippines is the most basketball-crazy country in the world not to have any local-born player yet making it to the NBA," Filipino reporter Fidel Mangonon said. "So we're hoping Japeth makes it."
"People there always want to know what's happening (with me)," Aguilar said. "There's a little pressure from the media. It's the media and the fans, both. I try not to think about it."
With the NBA an unrealistic goal at this time, Aguilar's best shot at a career in the United States right now would be in the D-League. Brian Levy, assistant general manager for the Bakersfield Jam, saw some positives in Aguilar's game during his workout with the club.
"Japeth has great length and athleticism, especially at his size," Levy said. "He's an explosive leaper that runs the floor well and has good instincts when crashing the offensive glass. He can shoot just well enough from three that he must be respected.
"He has the tools to contribute to a team this year if he finds the right situation."
While Aguilar's potential remains intriguing, his lack of production in his home country should raise some red flags. At 6-foot-9, he averaged just 5.9 ppg and 4.1 rpg last season at the Governor's Cup in Philippines, where 6-foot-5 centers are not rare and Aguilar should be dominating on physical skills alone.
"I think he found a hard time fitting into his coach's system at Talk N Text [Aguilar's club], so he found himself coming off the bench most of the time, aside from the fact that he was also playing on a talented and experience-laden team," Mangonon said. "Aguilar had flashes of brilliance in some games when some of his teammates were injured but they were rare occasions. Even with his size and agility, he wasn't that dominant – except probably in defense – although many believe he has the potential to be one."
Aguilar has been accused of passive play, but Levy thinks that's not the big issue with his game.
"I think it's more of an inability to impact the game in certain situations," Levy said. "He struggles to post effectively or take someone off the dribble so there are only a limited amount of ways he can be aggressive and effective."
Levy also believes Aguilar has to finally choose a position, either adding weight and transitioning to the power forward spot or working on his ballhandling skills to be a small forward.
For better or worse, Aguilar thinks the timing was right to give it a try in the United States one more time. He already spent two seasons at Western Kentucky, where he didn't get much burn, due in part to injury.
"I like the competition, you get really challenged here," Aguilar said. "It's a different challenge to what you get in the Philippines. (The Americans) are athletic, they can jump and run the floor, so I really had to play like them. I need to make good decisions every time."
Key for Aguilar now is to get invited to training camp by a D-League club. If that happens, the NBA dream can live on another day.
"It's a hard road to get to the NBA," Aguilar said. "It's a long shot. But if I work, I think it's possible."