MANILA — Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) commissioner Kenneth Duremdes has finally broken his silence about the brewing drama between the league and the Basilan Steel which was handed a forfeiture loss in the South Division Finals rubber match against eventual national champions Davao Occidental Tigers.

In a statement on Tuesday, Duremdes said the MPBL has to be very strict about the Inter Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease’ guidelines set on the league's bubble in Subic considering a crucial clause that a positive coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) test would merit the total cancellation of the bubble.

That is why he was disappointed Basilan has kept on calling him out for not allowing them to play.

"Itong pinag-uusapan natin ngayon, ano ba mas importante (Regarding this topic we are talking right now, which is more important)? You have to be considering the health risks and factors of each individual," Duremdes said.

He then bared that they were not keen on allowing the Steel to play in the first place after the release of the first RT-PCR test results showing two Basilan players positive for Covid-19.

"Actually, nung may dalawang nag-positive na sa kanila, pinapauwi na dapat sila (when two of them were tested positive, we asked them to return home),” Duremdes continued, adding that he made the plea since the entire delegation arrived in Olongapo through a single bus, making them close contacts.

"Sabi namin, 'Wala kami magagawa kasi Department of Health and Subic Bay Management Authority na nagsabi.' So nag-appeal sila (We told them, 'There is nothing we can do because the Department of Health and the Subic Bay Management Authority already said it.' So they appealed) for re-swabbing. After consulting with our medical team headed by Dr. Aris Cabigao, we agreed. So re-swabbing was seven days," he said.

Duremdes said he told Basilan coach Jerson Cabiltes and team manager Jax Chua the implications of the retesting and that they agreed to it with Cabigao and MPBL operations head Emmer Oreta as witnesses.

"They cannot deny that. Ako, itataya ko credibility ko diyan at yung lahat ng accomplishment ko sa basketball (I will stake my credibility and all my accomplishments in basketball for this)," the 1998 Philippine Basketball Association Most Valuable Player said.

Duremdes said they could have given the Steel another chance after the second test netted four more suspected Covid-19 cases, but said that he has footages of the players breaking quarantine protocols, which seemed like the last straw.

"We have CCTV video kaya hindi nila puwede sabihin na nag-quarantine sila sa isang room: 'Nag-isolate kami based on sa sinasabi ninyo' (so they cannot claim that they underwent quarantine and isolation in a single room). We have video. This is during the additional days of their quarantine. Alam ba ng team owner nila [Hegem Furigay] yan (Do their team owner know all about this)?" Duremdes said.

He said Basilan is not being singled out here and that they would do the same if someone from Davao Occidental, San Juan, or Makati would be tested positive for Covid-19 as well.

Financial rift?

Duremdes also addressed the financial issues hounding the Steel.

The team's participation in the MPBL bubble was in peril even before it started due to monetary constraints.

The commissioner hinted that there was some tension within the Basilan side when he said that Chua and Cabiltes told him and some other league officials that they and the players allegedly never received their salaries since the league postponed its season last March due to the pandemic.

Duremdes issued a memorandum that all the semifinalists must pay their players at least 20 percent of their supposed salaries during the lockdown, but he said that a few days before the start of the bubble on March 10—when the restrictions were slowly being eased—the Steel players had yet to get their wages, even only a one-month salary just for them to participate.

"The management was saying they will pay 50 percent bago pumasok (before entering) and the other 50 pag nakapasok na (once they enter). Ayaw pa rin pumasok ng players. Galit na galit sila. So sabi ko, 'Tulungan natin (The players still do not want to enter. They were mad. So I said, 'Let's help them).' I tried to call Matt and Hegem pero hindi pa rin namin makausap. Nung sumagot na yung Matt, he said na, 'What will we gain? One game lang naman lalaruin namin.' Sabi ko, 'Sige, kausapin ko na si Senator (Manny Pacquiao) (but we cannot reach them out. When Matt finally responded, he said, 'What will we gain? We'll only play one game.' I said, 'I will talk to Senator),'" Duremdes quipped.

He clarified that he did not threaten a franchise forfeiture on Basilan since the ruling is in the MPBL by-laws and that he had to ask the team to join because Pacquiao thinks the bubble will be ruined if they beg off.

"Next day, nag-respond na si Hegem at si Matt na papasok na raw sila sa bubble. Kasi sabi ko, 'Pag hindi niyo binigay yung hinihingi ng players, sasagutin ng MPBL yan para lang matuloy ito (Hegem and Matt responded that they will enter the bubble. I told them prior, 'If you don't give what the players want, the MPBL will shoulder it just for the bubble to push through).' To our surprise, the following day, nag-connect na si Hegem at Matt kay Jax at Jerson (Hegem and Matt reached out anew to Jax and Jerson)," Duremdes continued.

It was surprising in the sense that the four officials were said to be still in conflict regarding the salaries, which according to Duremdes factored on why the team did not immediately adhere to pre-departure Covid-19 protocols like self-quarantine and Covid-19 tests right before they leave, all the more that their participation was just confirmed on March 5.

"Dito kitang-kita na hindi sila sumusunod sa protocol. Paano pa kaya sa labas (It was shown here that they did not follow the protocol. How much more outside)?" he added.

Duremdes thanked Chooks-to-Go president Ronald Mascariñas for stepping in to help the Steel's finances.

"Ayaw nga niya ma-credit dito pero (He does not even want to be given credit, but) we had to thank him," said Duremdes.

But he turned his attention anew to Basilan after they "politely declined" Mascariñas' help.

"May mali ba sa pagtulong? Tinulungan natin sila (Is there something wrong in helping? We have been helping them) ever since," Duremdes continued.

Duremdes said they cannot heed Furigay's call for a full refund of his team's expenditures during the bubble, but the commissioner aid that they were ready to help them.

"Ang sabi sa akin ng ating legal [department], tulungan sila pero not in full. Si Basilan kasi, ang salaries kasi manggagaling kay Hegem at yung operational expenses galing sa Jumbo Plastic, as per Jax yan (The legal department told me to help them but not in full. According to Jax, Basilan's salaries would come from Hegem and the operational expenses would come from Jumbo Plastic)," Duremdes said.

He said the Steel's recent statements were "uncalled for."

"Meron tayong commissioner's office na lahat ng complaints niyo nung araw, nung nangangailangan kayo ng tulong ko, dinadala niyo dun at hindi sa social media (We have a commissioner's office where you could have sent your complaints before especially when you asked me for help then and not in social media),” said Duremdes. "Sa commissioner's office kayo nagpadala ng letter nung may problema kayo sa salaries ninyo. Yun yung tamang proseso (You should have sent a letter to the commissioner's office concerning your salary problems. That is the proper process.)”

A happy ending

On the other hand, despite the situation within Basilan and even Makati, whose own row led to a drastically undermanned lineup showing up in Olongapo, Duremdes is glad that the MPBL bubble ended without hitches.

He first said that no one was tested positive for Covid-19 among those who were allowed entry for the entirety of the event.

"I thank God dahil walang nag-positive sa loob ng (because no one was tested positive inside the) bubble,” said Duremdes. "That's the main reason why we are very strict in implementing the DOH guideline. Based on the guideline, if one person tests positive inside the bubble, they will cancel the event. So, nagpapasalamat tayo kasi health concerns na ito (we are thanking everyone because this is all about health concerns)."

He thanked the Tigers and the Knights for providing the MPBL fans a championship series to remember.

"Nagpapasalamat din ako na binigyan tayo ng magandang series ng Davao Occidental at San Juan (I am also thankful that Davao Occidental and San Juan gave us a beautiful series),” said Duremdes. "I'm happy overall and hopefully na inspire natin ang mga front-liners at fans natin (we inspired the front-liners and our fans).”

The Tigers dethroned the Knights as MPBL champs after winning the best-of-five finals in four games. (PNA)