Ex-NBAer Orton cut from Philippines team after insulting Pacquiao

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Every culture has its untouchable sports heroes, those athletes who occupy such a revered place in the national consciousness that they may as well be folk heroes. In the United States, simply invoking the names of Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali requires genuflection and various other displays of respect.

Yet none of these figures can compare to world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao's status in his home country of the Philippines, where he has reached this level in the midst of his career. Pacquiao isn't just known for his exploits in the ring — he's a movie star, a singer (until a month ago), a member of the House of Representatives, and now a professional basketball player with the Kia Carnival in the Philippine Basketball Association, a league that has employed plenty of former NBA players in its rich history. Whether Pacquiao is qualified for any of these roles is irrelevant — the point is that he can do all of them without much pushback. It's as if a seven-year-old was able to realize all his wishes of becoming the president, a basketball star, and an astronaut all at once.

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Former NBA big man Daniel Orton found this out the hard way. The 24-year-old Orton, who played for three franchises from 2010 to 2014 before heading overseas, joined the Purefoods Star Hotshots of the PBA in early February as the team's single allowed foreign import player. After the Star Hotshots faced Pacquiao and the Carnival last week, Orton suggested that Pacquiao's roster spot might not have been earned. Now he's out of a job. From AFP:

"Professional boxer, yeah, okay... professional basketball player, no. It's a joke," said Orton, 24, who signed with the Purefoods Hotshots team just this month.

Orton appeared to simply be adding his voice to widespread criticism in the Philippines that Pacquiao is a relatively talentless basketballer who gained his coaching-playing role with the Kia Carnival team because of his boxing fame. [...]

His team sacked Orton late last week, and he posted a farewell to his fans in the Philippines on Twitter on Monday. But the team's top administrator, Rene Pardo, was quoted in local media as saying Orton had been let go for insulting Pacquiao.

"Everyone is angry at him... it is like he went to the United States and insulted the name of Martin Luther King," the ABS-CBN news website quoted Pardo as saying.

The Philippine Basketball Association also fined Orton 250,000 pesos ($5,650) for his comments.

"This office disapproves of and frowns upon the cavalier manner in which Mr Orton issued his comments and the unwarranted antics and liberties he has taken with the league and a fellow player," PBA commissioner Chito Salud said in a statement. "This insulting behaviour will never be condoned by this league."

That fine may seem minor by the standards of the NBA, but it's possible that it constitutes a decent portion of the salary Orton earned in roughly three weeks with Purefoods. It's a meaningful penalty that is surely not warranted by the comments regarding Pacquiao, whose involvement in the PBA seems thoroughly unearned on the basis of basketball skill.

At the same time, the AFP story requires some context, because Orton's reference to Pacquiao as a joke came during a much longer tirade against the Purefoods-Kia game as a whole. Here's how Richard Dy of SPIN.ph reported the story on February 18:

“Before the game, I was looking forward to it (matchup with Ramos), because I’m a guy who likes to battle it at the post,” said the NBA veteran. “They (referees) really took the game that I know and love and made it into a mockery tonight.” [...]

“But this game seriously has become a joke on the way the game was going, and the refs made it into a mockery." [...]

Orton, who had stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Philadelphis 76ers and the Magic in the NBA, also said that Pacquiao’s brief appearance on the floor was part of the ‘joke.’ “That’s (Pacquiao playing) a joke, part of the joke I’m talking about. Professional boxer? Yeah. Congressman? Alright. But professional basketball player? Seriously? It’s a joke,” he said.

After reading the quote in full, it's possible to view the decisions to release and fine Orton as part of a larger issue of his fit in the PBA. As Rafe Bartholomew writes in his excellent book "Pacific Rims," the life of a PBA import is very difficult due to the level of expectations, the adjustment to a new country and style of play, and many other issues that cannot be discovered until they are experienced by the player in question. The league could have cut ties with Orton simply because he wasn't a good fit for its culture and style. Pacquiao could have been just a small part of the overall picture.

If anything, though, the additional information makes the Salud and Pardo's decisions to mention Pacquiao a little baffling. While the boxer is astronomically popular as a public figure, his basketball career has not been universally accepted by the Philippines' committed and serious fans of the sport — the country has what seems like the highest per-capita basketball fandom in the world and is not kidding about it. By treating Pacquiao's spot on the Carnival as if it were without controversy, the PBA inadvertently appears to confirm Orton's worst impressions about the league. It actually does appear to be something of a joke, even if those with even a passing familiarity with its quality know that's not the case. The PBA does not exist to fulfill the wildest wishes of famous Filipinos — it's a real basketball league offering a viable version of the sport. It's too bad that this incident suggests the opposite.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!