From the moment he first saw action in the PBA, former NBA veteran Billy Ray Bates immediately made a splash.
His debut game was spectacular. He finished with 64 points, made 5-of-6 attempts from behind the arc, hit 9-of-10 free throws, and drilled in 20-of-25 attempts from the 2-point area, including an array of dazzling slam dunks never before seen by PBA fans.
From that moment on, Crispa felt it got a special player.
Norman Black, who faced Billy Ray Bates a lot of times both in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and the PBA, considered his old rival the best foreigner who ever played in Asia’s first professional basketball league.
“There’s really, really good imports who’ve played in the PBA. But I’ve always said it’s Billy Ray Bates and it’s Billy Ray Bates,” Black told ABS-CBN News.
“Bobby Parks is a great import. He won my first championship for me. After me, I think Bobby has scored the most points, rebounds grabbed in the history of the league. But Billy Ray was different.
“You have to remember, I played Billy in the States I didn’t stop playing when Billy was playing there, so I knew how good he was when he was in the United States. But I also knew what Billy is doing off the court which amazed me even more. The fact that he would stay up awake the whole night and he would still score 50 points on you during the game, easily, and talk thrash to you while doing it.”
Black was referring to Bates’ off-court, extracurricular activities.
Bates was notoriously known for enjoying night life as he would party and drink to death. One of his former Crispa teammates who requested anonymity said that the mercurial import would bring a squeeze bottle only to find out that its content was gin tonic.
“He could hit the trey, he could drive to the basket and dunk on you. He’s a decent rebounder, who could get 13, 14 boards per game and he was a very good defender and he could pass the basketball. He’s an all-around player, but more importantly, he was spectacular,” added Black.
“No other import in this league who has gone up to the warm up line and have a Superman’s cape worn. He’ll have it tied around his neck, would go up and say, ‘Superman’ and then he’ll be able to back it up.”
“That’s the most important thing. You can talk a good game, you can act a good game, otherwise, the PBA fans would jeer you or gave you a ‘Boo’, get out of here! You can’t back it up.’
“But Billy backed it up with his Crispa team and also with Ginebra. In my mind, there’s a lot of great imports. Justin Brownlee should be up there. Allen Durham, who’s a very, very good import and won best import several times while playing for me. But nobody can equal the skill set of Billy Ray Bates.”
On this day, August 23, 38 years ago, Bates led the Crispa Redmanizers to their second title of the season with a 139-120 victory over Black’s Great Taste Coffee Makers in Game 5 of the Reinforced Filipino Conference.
Bates dropped 50 points in the finale and cemented his greatness by winning the Best Import of the Conference.
His former teammates, Atoy Co and Bernie Fabiosa, can attest to the greatness of Bates on the court and the player’s off-court incidents.
“Hindi ko makakalimutan, ’yung kotse ni Itoy Esguerra na Toyota Liftback binuhat ’yung likod,” Co recalled. “Inangat niya. Nagkakatuwaan kami at nag-iinom dun sa quarters, gusto niyang patunayang malakas siya.”
“Tapos, ’yung balot, hindi niya pa kilala, pero game eh, sinubo ng buo. Pero for me, si Billy Ray Bates ang pinakamagaling na import. Kasi all-around. Si Norman Black, magaling rin, pero bihira mo makita tumira sa 3-point shot si Norman. Makikita mo siya, perimeter tsaka sa ilalim. Si Billy ilalim at labas. Kahit malalaki ang bantay, dadakdakan niya. Malakas. Kinuha nga ng Ginebra, hindi ba? Champion rin sila,” Co added.
For Fabiosa, Bates was a joy to watch on and off the court.
“Nakita ko talaga kung gaano kalakas si Bates, binuhat ’yung kotse ni Itoy. Ang lakas. Sabi nga namin, ‘Huh, malakas lang ’yan. Tingnan natin sa ensayo bukas’,” Fabiosa said.
But Bates proved to be stronger and better inside the court and quickly impressed his teammates.
Fabiosa recalled: “Nu’ng nag-ensayo kami, doon ko talaga nakita. Parang naka 20 3-point shots yata siya doon. Tapos ang lakas tumalon. Magaling s’yang pakisamahan kasi may ugali siyang parang bata. Bobola-bolahin mo lang. Kaya nga binansagan naming ‘Black Superman.’ Tuwang-tuwa siya, mayroon pa siyang cape. Pero OK naman.”
“In fact, nu’ng kinuha ni coach Tommy Manotoc ’yan, parang naiilang si Norman Black. Kasi nu’ng nalaman ni Norman parang nagulat siya eh. Malakas talaga.”
Bates made his mark in PBA history as one of the all-time greatest imports, if not the greatest. In fact, he was one of only a few imports inducted into the PBA hall of fame. He won 3 championships in the PBA, the last one in the 1986 Third Conference when he teamed up with Michael Hackett to give Ginebra San Miguel its first championship in franchise history.
With Crispa, he had 2 titles, including the third conference where he was paired with Larry Demic and gave the Redmanizers their second grand slam in franchise history.
Rey Joble is a sports journalist who has been covering the PBA since 1998, and followed the league as a fan way before that.
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