What former Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel’s wife was doing in her Searchlight column two weeks ago was expressing the view of Belize’s bigoted amateur lobby on sports, that is, that sports should not, can not be a moneymaking industry. Mrs. Esquivel has opened a can of worms, because it was her husband who finished destroying the semi-pro basketball industry in Belize. This was during the 1993-1998 UDP administration.
The reason Dr. Manuel Esquivel has not been seriously indicted all these years is because the industry had already been seriously wounded by the previous PUP administration, when an unelected Ralph Fonseca was the de facto Finance Minister. So then, similarly to how the UDP and the PUP took turns carving up choice portions of the Barracks for themselves, both the PUP and the UDP attacked what would have been a major Southside industry.
In its inaugural year of 1992, semi-pro basketball was an absolutely sensational success, except where the bottom line was concerned. At the time, the only acceptable basketball facility in the old capital was the Civic Center, which had been constructed in 1981 by a PUP government on the south bank of the Haulover Creek, next to the Belcan Bridge. For basketball games, the attendance capacity of the Civic was 1700 plus, and the facility soon proved too small for the crowds which were excited by semi-pro’s Kremandala Raiders and Crown Stadium, and later by the return of Penta Lakers’ Kirk Smith and Fred Garcia from college in Texas.
Civic was probably Ralph’s last big deal in the 1989-1993 PUP administration. The Commercial Center, the fire station at Atlantic Bank, a Customs house, and a couple other projects had exposed Ralph Fonseca’s modus operandi – bloated contracts. Civic had to be enlarged for semi-pro basketball. That had become obvious by the end of the 1992 season in July. Thus, no one raised a fuss when Ralph gave a bloated contract to his crony, David Courtenay, to “refurbish” the Civic.
Those Belizeans who have attended professional sports events in the United States will tell you that the entertainment facility which hosts the game is often a more important aspect of the entertainment than the game itself. Modern facilities feature air-conditioning, fancy bars and restaurants, luxury boxes, cyber-age electronic scoreboards, and an overall atmosphere which creates a feeling of exhilaration. If it’s only the game you want to see, chances are you would see it better at home watching on television. What you pay for when you go to the game in America is the experience, the entertainment: the facility is an important part of that package.
The refurbishing of the Civic in 1992 was a bogus package. Essentially, David Courtenay turned the Civic into an oven. The attendance capacity was increased to almost 6,000, but that was the only good thing. When players and fans experienced the heat inside the “new” Civic in 1993, Ralph and David began to circulate a story about a cooling system to make things comfortable. They never said air-conditioning: they said “cooling.” Whichever and whatever, the Civic became and remained an oven. The facility, then, had become an enemy of the game.
The first year of the oven, 1993, was the first year the Kremandala Raiders won the championship. This took place in mid-July, just two weeks after Belizean voters voted out Ralph’s PUP and returned Esquivel’s UDP to power on June 30 that year. Flush with cash, Ralph had been elected in Belize Rural Central by almost a thousand vote margin. The problem for semi-pro basketball had become two-fold with the Raiders’ victory. First there was the oven, and now semi-pro, a fledgling industry, had a champion whose owner was locked in a bitter feud with the new Prime Minister.
Dr. Esquivel decided to destroy the Raiders. The evidence is there in black and white in those issues of his UDP newspaper, The People’s Pulse, published throughout 1994 and 1995. Under powerful government pressure, the Raiders decided to withdraw from semi-pro basketball after winning their third consecutive championship in 1995.
Without the Raiders, it looked as if there would be no season in 1996. Remember now, John Saldivar was being touted as Esquivel’s “golden boy” in 1996, and he had taken over the Belmopan semi-pro basketball franchise, which was well-organized and popular. In order to save semi-pro, the Raiders hurriedly re-organized and returned to semi-pro in 1996, even though Esquivel was in charge of things now, and John Saldivar was running basketball in 1996.
The Raiders won a fourth straight championship in the 1996 season, but that was it. The 1997 semi-pro season was held without the Raiders, but then that became the end of the industry as it had been organized in 1992. Ralph and Manuel had destroyed a promising initiative. The UDP and the PUP blamed Evan X Hyde. The true story was never told, because the other owners had to do business with these PUDP politicians. In fact, one of those owners had been a UDP standard bearer in the 1993 general elections.
Having destroyed semi-pro, Prime Minister Esquivel then called on John Saldivar to prepare a Belize national basketball selection for a CARICOM basketball tournament to be held in Belize in 1998, a general election year. It seemed that Saldivar’s budget, blessed by Dr. Esquivel, was unlimited. Saldivar bought a brand new imported basketball court for the Civic, hired a UCLA/Chicago Bull coach, David Greenwood for $50,000, and brought in Belizean-American players on big contracts, mainly from California. Audited accounts of that extravaganza have never been presented. This is what the Prime Minister wanted, and this is what the Prime Minister got – national fame and victory in the same sport whose highest Belizean level he had just finished destroying.
Unimpressed, the voters of Belize voted out Esquivel’s UDP in a landslide a few months later. But what he and Saldivar had done with the CARICOM production was throw the basketball salary scale in Belize out of whack. When the PUP resurrected semi-pro basketball in 1999, the industry had been “globalized.” The payrolls of teams in the second coming of semi-pro basketball were so large that the industry was unsustainable.
In its 1992 incarnation, semi-pro basketball had worked very well. The first attack was on the facility itself; the second attack was on the championship franchise, which happened to be a roots production and not mainstream corporate. Two of the biggest names in the PUP and the UDP, Ralph Fonseca and Manuel Esquivel, were responsible for this. When the two of them, through their party media organs, joined in pointing the finger at Evan X Hyde, roots people ended up the losers again. The whole truth has never been told. That’s the PUDP way. All the way.