'Pacific Rims' Delves Into Basketball Madness in the Philippines
New York may be the mecca, and Springfield, Mass., the birthplace. But the game knows no borders. It touches kids not just in Queensbridge or Ames, but Sao Paulo, Vilnius and Manila. What you'll find on blacktops and in high school gyms across America might look different than basketball in Brazil, Lithuania or in the Philippines. But at its core, it's the same game with the same deities (His Airness, of course) and the same social value.
Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, a new book by Harper's Magazine editor and Fulbright scholar Rafe Bartholomew, goes deep into how basketball looks and feels in the Philippines. The archipelago adopted basketball in part because of the early infiltration of the sport via YMCAs built by missionaries on the islands. American colonial rule and a kinship to American culture also played a part.
Through his painstaking research, Bartholomew traces Filipino's love affair with basketball nearly to basketball's creation.
In fact, the Philippines registered as one of the world's earliest basketball powers. The Philippines' men's national team lost only one game in the premiere Olympic basketball tournament in Berlin in 1936. (Unfortunately, due to a bracket quirk that loss dropped the team to fifth.) The team dominated Asian tournaments for decades, and won bronze at the 1954 World Championships. Since the early '80s, the national team hasn't been competitive on the world stage, and has fallen behind numerous Asian countries (including China and Iran).
But that hasn't stemmed the grassroots obsession with the game, especially on the city streets of Manila. Bartholomew, who spent three years in the Philippines on a Fulbright grant meant to cover one year, is greeted with basketball almost immediately upon arriving.
In the poorer neighborhoods, teenagers play in flip-flops, shooting at rims nailed to scrap wood and attached to a random pole or storefront. These courts pop up everywhere, and Bartholomew (himself a tall white man with actual sneakers) gets invited to play. It's less formal than even hoops in cornfields or on American elementary school grounds. But it serves the same social purpose.
Not all basketball courts in Manila are this underdeveloped, however. The rich neighborhoods have beautiful courts. And then there are the arenas of the Philippine Basketball Association, the archipelago's version of the NBA, only not quite as iconic worldwide. But at home in the Philippines, the PBA is more popular than the NBA is in the United States. Political and social leaders pack the front rows of games between the Alaska Aces (sponsored by a milk company) and the Barangay Ginebra Kings (brought to you by a Filipino distillery). Kids pile in to watch their national heroes play alongside American and European cast-offs. Characters like Rosell Ellis litter the rosters.
Ellis was a McDonald's All-American in 1993. Academics kept him from a big program, and two years dominating at McNeese State left Ellis hustling in the minor leagues with the hopes of drawing the attention of an NBA club. But in an International Basketball Association game in Des Moines, Ellis went berserk and choked a referee on the court -- in plain view of NBA scouts in the stands. Needless to say, Ellis' NBA aspirations were over. But he remained a professional basketball player, eventually becoming a popular import with the Alaska Aces, a team coached by American Tim Cone, a proponent of Tex Winter's Triangle offense. (See? The deities are the same everywhere.)
The cast-offs pop up in every pro league -- remember Bonzi Wells in the Chinese Basketball Association, or Antoine Walker in Puerto Rico? What makes the PBA different is the passion of the fans. Billy Ray Bates, a name forgotten by all but the most dedicated basketball savants stateside, is a hero in the Philippines because of his electric dominance. Players like Ellis and Willie Miller earn nicknames and adoration. Referees hide from mobs of angry fans in the arena parking lots. Players like Ellis consider the nation's devotion to basketball a gift and a curse: It allows salaries to be competitive and makes the games a lot more fun, but also adds extraordinary pressure to perform.
Like Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds or Less, Bartholomew spends time embedded with Cone's Aces, seeing firsthand the challenge of meeting big league expectations with minor league talent. So much of the idiosyncratic image of Filipino basketball madness stems from the physical limitations of both the Filipino people (whose men, on average, stand shorter than Earl Boykins) and the challenges posed by the archipelago's sweltering climate. There's also the dedication to the art of the sport, which disconnects with our American vision of the game's aesthetic value stemming from the dunk, a task made more difficult in the Philippines due to the aforementioned height issue. Filipino players have instead translated the dunk into their language, creating the trick lay-up. And this type of cultural touchstone -- not the lay-up itself, but its creation myth -- gets at just what makes basketball in the Philippines so special: the kids in flip-flops in the barrios and the McDonald's All-Americans in the arena are all connected through this unique basketball mythology created here.
Pacific Rims is a new entry in the basketball canon, a veritable sequel to David Halberstam's Breaks of the Game. Where Halberstam cut through spectacle to show us the real NBA, Bartholomew cuts through cultural barriers to show us real basketball. In a setting as gritty as Rick Telander's Bed-Stuy in Heaven Is a Playground, Bartholomew presents not just a history of the Filipino love affair with basketball. Pacific Rims is a thesis digging into the very core of the sport and of Filipino culture, which, Bartholomew finds, are inextricably intertwined.