Comparing PBA Import greats Justin Brownlee and Billy Ray Bates

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Billy Ray Bates must have touched kryptonite during the 1988 PBA Reinforced Conference. After playing just four games alongside fellow Añejo Rum 65ers import Kevin Gamble, it was evident that the Black Superman was just a shell of the explosive import that burst into the scene five years earlier.

Thirty years later, another import has cemented his place in Ginebra lore. After losing his first two games which brought the Gin Kings’ record to 1-5, Justin Brownlee will the PBA’s most popular franchise to five straight victories to squeeze into the 2018 PBA Commissioner’s Cup playoffs. After dismissing Meralco in two quarterfinals matches, the former St. John’s university standout led Barangay Ginebra over the top-seed Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in four semifinal games.

Brownlee’s star shone brighter during the Finals against sister team San Miguel and fellow Alab Pilipinas import Renaldo Balkman. After becoming the shortest import (6’ 4 5/8”) to win the Commissioner’s Cup Best Import award, he came up big to defeat the heavily-favored Beermen in six games.

That championship gave Brownlee three PBA titles in as many attempts. Furthermore, he has carved his name among an elite group of league reinforcements that have won at least three titles. One of the members of this rarified company: Billy Ray Bates who, like Brownlee, never lost in a PBA finals series.

Only time will tell if Brownlee can match the accolades that Bates has achieved. But along the journey, the similarities between him and the only player to win two Best Import awards in one season are impossible to miss.

No debate about the Bates’ greatness

The younger generation can only rely about the recollections of those who were fortunate enough to either see Bates play or compete against him. But if his name always comes up in the Best PBA Import of All Time conversation even if he last played three decades ago, his impact cannot be overlooked.

In a phone interview with FOX Sports Philippines, former PBA import and current Meralco Bolts head coach Norman Black mentioned that Bates is a “super-athlete who can beat you in a number of ways.” He added, “He can shoot the ball with high efficiency. He can post you up inside and he is creative in scoring with the basketball. He also shows the same effort on defense with his physicality. That’s what makes him a tough match-up and that’s why I consider him the best import in the PBA ever. Yes, even better than me.”

Black had a first-hand experience of Bates’ basketball prowess when the Crispa import dropped 64 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists in his first-ever PBA game. While Black had 59 markers himself for Great Taste in the one-point loss, Bates caught the imagination of Filipino basketball fans.

The 6’ 4” Bates tore the opposition when he averaged 44.1 points per game and led the Redmanizers to the 1983 PBA Reinforced Conference title. He would complete the grand slam for Crispa by averaging 39.2 points per contest en route to the Open Conference crown in a repeat victory over the Coffee Makers. In the finals of the third conference alone, he averaged 50 points per match in three games played.

The legend of the Black Superman grew when he led Ginebra to its first-ever PBA title during the 1986 Open Conference. Partnered with fellow legendary import Michael Hackett, they stormed through the eliminations and semifinals to set a date against Manila Beer and Best Import awardee Michael Young in the finals. Bates had the Brewmasters’ number by torching them with 252 points in five games to claim the championship.

But while most people remember Bates as an explosive offensive talent, his muscular upper body enabled him to bang bodies and intimidate opposing imports on defense. His exceptional play on both ends of the floor and his outgoing personality made him such a fan favorite that he even scored an endorsement with a local shoe manufacturer. But his impact can be felt the PBA imports who played after him but were molded after his game.

Similarities between Bates and Brownlee

While Brownlee might not be able to match Bates’ astronomical numbers, his style of play can draw comparisons to the four-time Best Import awardee. PBA historian Jay P. Mercado cites their ability to perform in the biggest of games. “They’re two of the greatest clutch imports in PBA history. They’re both take charge guys who can score when needed,” he added.

Black also said that “they’re both difficult match-ups because they are both efficient and they rarely made mistakes”. Brownlee best exemplified this in two important games during their 2018 Commissioner’s Cup campaign.

Game three of their semifinals series against the Elasto Painters would have been a snooze if not for his 44-point explosion on 73 percent field goal shooting. He scored more points than the total output of the Rain or Shine starters in a 75-72 squeaker that brought them in the cusp of a finals berth. Then in their Game One victory against San Miguel, he missed only two shots while collecting 42 points to go with seven rebounds and nine assists.

However, Black sees Bates and Brownlee as two different players. “Bates is flamboyant and outlandish by the way he beats you and by showing that he beat you. Meanwhile, Brownlee is a more composed player who is better in involving his teammates.” When asked about imports who played like the former NBA D-League mainstay, Black mentioned three names: “He plays like David Thirdkill. A shifty player who is explosive to the hoop and is equally deadly from the perimeter. Another import is Donnie Ray Koonce who is a slightly smaller import than Brownlee. Another would be Michael Young but he was not as efficient as Brownlee.”

In terms of defense, Mercado added that “both players are also known to steer clear from foul trouble despite being asked to defend against the import of the opposing team.”

But while Bates is the more talented, Mercado pointed out that current Ginebra import has an edge in terms of discipline. Brownlee’s savvy approach to the game is more adept for team play as compared to Bates’ forceful approach. Off-the-court discipline is a no-brainer due to the Black Superman’s brush with the law. He even blew his stint as skills coach for the Philippine Patriots in the Asean Basketball League due to “repeated misconduct and acts detrimental to the team and to the league.”

If there’s any weakness to their game, Black pointed out that “they’re not good rebounders”. He mentioned, “I averaged 18 or 19 rebounds a game but Billy would only have 12 or 13 a night. Same goes for Brownlee but he is more confined operating outside the paint.” As reference, Black is 6’ 5” while both Bates and Brownlee are barely an inch shorter.

Brownlee’s place in PBA history

Mercado is convinced that Brownlee’s latest feats merits him a strong consideration as best PBA import ever. He added, “He’s tied with several players with the second most titles – alongside Andy Fields, Cyrus Mann, Bates and Bruce “Sky” King with 3 titles apiece. But he stands out because he was the lone import in giving Ginebra these 3 titles.”

Also, his dominance in the last Commissioner’s Cup despite his height is worth a strong look. “Winning the Commissioner’s Cup best import and title despite being the shortest makes his accomplishment greater than Kenny Redfield, generally considered the greatest Commissioner’s Cup import of all time.”

The scary truth for the PBA is that Brownlee is at the peak of his career. He will suit up for the Gin Kings once again as they defend their Governor’s Cup title. He is just 30 years old which gives him a lot of playing years left. Just like Bates, he is revolutionizing the game as well as the prototypical pace-and-space player who can dominate taller imports. By the time he’s done, the Georgia native may surpass Sean Chambers as the winningest import in PBA history with six titles.

But beyond his on-court exploits, the resident Ginebra import has also endeared himself to the Philippines, much like what Bates did in his heyday. However, Brownlee remains to be a model of humility and courtesy despite his achievements. In that regard, he is a superhero in his own right to present and future Filipino basketball fans. He may not be the Black Superman but he is on his way to be a better version of him.

(Image from Facebook/Billy Ray Bates)
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