Basketball in the Philippines

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Basketball in the Philippines

James Calder

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I’m sure that if you’re a sports fan, who generally spends their time browsing the vast land of the internet for the hottest new sports news, you have definitely come across some “change of pace” article that covers the “other side” of sports and the emotion it conveys. I mean, stop me if you’ve heard headlines like: “5-year Old with *insert illness here* Signed to One Day Contract by *insert sports team here*” or “How the Death of my Close Friend Strengthened My Love for *insert sport here*” etc. etc. Sure, that’s great. Heartwarming even. But honestly now, you’re most certainly skipping over that article to read about which brand of hair regrowth product LeBron James plans on using after he retires or how many hot dogs that Chestnut guy downed last 4th of July or whatever “hard hitting” journalism inundates the front pages of ESPN that day. However, I want to speak on exactly what I just maligned a few sentences ago; how basketball shapes the daily lives of over 90 million people in a chain of islands in the Pacific known as the Philippines.

For the average person, their knowledge of the Philippines is basically next to nothing. Sure, you might know about the country from World War II but beyond that, most people can’t even tell you what language they speak (uh…Filipanese?) And certainly no one has any idea how popular basketball is in this island nation. In fact, even the NBA barely knows this because if they did, you could bet your life savings that they would be taking advantage of this gigantic and lucrative market instead of wasting their time trying to force the game to disinterested fans over in Europe. However, if you’ve ever seen the majority of the Filipino population or even heard about the Philippines in sports media, you will most definitely think that I’m lying to you right now. I get the doubt, how could a country where the average male height is 5’4 and whose most popular athlete is a boxer, love basketball more than anything? Especially in a region where soccer, baseball, and even auto racing usually prove to be the most watched sports? I mean, over 75% of the population can’t even touch the net, let alone dunk the ball. Yet, basketball hoops are just as prevalent there as soccer nets in Brazil and NBA team logos, jerseys, and billboards of popular NBA players are absolutely everywhere. This is an obsession that, wrongfully so, flies under the radar of even the most enthusiastic sports fans. But it goes beyond just crazed fandom. The culture of basketball is so deeply rooted in the identity of the Philippines that it would be a crime to not discuss how this largely American sport can have such a large impact on a nation so far away.

In October of 2013, Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines. The category 5 typhoon killed many thousands of people and left so many without homes, food, running water, and access to acceptable medical care. To put it bluntly, the country was in shambles. However, the first coping mechanism that most of the Filipinos affected by this storm used was pick-up basketball. Yes, amidst the rubble and destruction, pickup basketball games emerged on makeshift hoops. When pictures of these people hit the internet, the reactions of the rest of the world ranged from amused to disgusted. How could a country that was just hit by one of the world’s largest natural disasters be focusing on basketball instead of trying to rebuild? Yet, for Filipinos and Filipino-Americans like myself, we weren’t the least bit surprised that this was going on. In fact, I would have been shocked if this didn’t happen.  Even in the poorest of barangays you will ALWAYS find a basketball court, or at the very least a basketball hoop nailed to a tree. In fact, introducing a new basketball court, a new gym, or even a new hoop with a chain net to a small town is one of the most popular things a mayor can do. Often times, it may even get him or her reelected down the line. The idea of people healing through sport is a difficult one to grasp here in the States. Athletics have become so commercial in America that most people forget that it is just a game. However, one might say that the Philippines is one of the only places in the world where “basketball idealism” is still present. To them, basketball does not mean concerning themselves with the commercial side of the sport or who “looks the best” on the court. Shooting sleeves, Nike elite socks, and $300+ shoes are close to non existent in the country and one would be lucky to find them in even the most high quality gyms. In contrast, the game of basketball is a cathartic experience for these people; a releasing of all of the emotions that come from living in a third world country and an escape from all of the poverty and terrible living conditions that surround them. It provides healing in through sport in its most primal and raw fashion.

 

This hit me personally when I made my visit back home in early 2014. One of the highlights of my trip was seeing the kids of San Fernando (one of the smaller, poorer, towns on the island of Cebu) come to sit and cheer on a pickup basketball game played amongst my family members. The game was possibly the most low-tech basketball contest I’ve ever taken part in. The “court” was really just an extension of a “driveway”, lit by the headlights of an old Volkswagon that was jumped solely for the purpose of providing light for our game. The hoop was an old park style double rim with no net and a steel backboard, making it tough to grab rebounds or even see if your jump shot went in. In spite of the poor playing conditions, these children treated it like they were watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals from sideline seats. They coaxed me, the kano (basically, “white guy”) to shoot the three constantly, because they figured all Americans had the three point prowess of Kyle Korver or Matt Bonner. When a shot would go in, they would yell, cheer, and imitate our jumpshots. To be honest, it was probably the closest I will ever feel to being like an actual basketball player. Yet, what struck me the most was seeing that most of these kids were outfitted in ripped and dirty PBA (the domestic league of the country) jerseys and tattered sandals; obviously poor and most likely malnourished. Nevertheless, my family and I were making them absolutely ecstatic, simply by giving them the opportunity to view a sub-par game of pick up basketball. This is truly how much the sport has shaped the lives of even the poorest communities. The amount of joy someone could get from watching a bunch of American kids play basketball on a uneven pavement with a rooster constantly interrupting their game was unfathomable.

 

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the country’s crippling addiction to basketball. I could go on and on about the basketball wackiness that is the PBA, the unity and pride that Smart Gilas, the country’s national team, brings, the strange devotion to 7 am NBA telecasts, or talk about Filipinos like Jordan Clarkson of the Lakers finally breaking into the NBA. But, if you consider yourself an enthusiast, do yourself a favor and check out the unreal basketball culture that pervades the Philippines. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new appreciation for the world’s most underrated, and truly global, games.

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