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Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Pacific Rims’ by Rafe Bartholomew

BY BRYAN MENIADO

It’s the month of love, and we hear kilig stories here and there, so I thought I’d talk about something that many of us Filipinos can relate to: our love affair with basketball. We play it on the computer and on the streets. We cheer from our living rooms and from the sidelines. We talk about games and players and teams and coaches. We go all out, local or international. Even NBA stars that visit the country are in awe of how crazy we are about basketball. Now, that’s something we can tag as #MayNanaloNa, huh?

But why? Why are we so engrossed with basketball? Why are there courts in almost every corner of the barangay? Why do we see faces of basketball stars painted on jeepneys? Why are Tatay and Kuya so emotionally invested in this Finals, arguing every play and scolding anyone who dares change the channel?

Here is one book that offers a look into Philippine basketball culture: Pacific Rims: Beer Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball by Rafe Bartholomew. Published in 2010, it provides research and experience-based insights about our deep affection for the game. The author, who is a journalist and a New York hoops fanatic, spent hours in libraries, pick-up games from the concrete jungle of Manila to dirt courts of far-flung provinces and in the professional league itself, through his sideline stint with the Alaska Aces of the Philippine Basketball Association, or PBA.

But whether you’re basketball-crazed or not, Pacific Rims is a book worth reading. It is a love letter to us Filipinos, showing the interplay between basketball, Philippine history and Filipino culture. Here are quite sentimental facts:

1. It tells us more about our colonial imprint

When Spaniards first arrived on our shores, they brought Catholicism and taught us faith. After 300 years, the Americans brought in basketball to the people who sought leisure amid their struggle for independence.

A century later, Rafe Bartholomew from New York came over to revisit what has become of basketball in the Philippines.

After scouring libraries for historical references and interviewing resource persons, Bartholomew learned that the history of basketball in the Philippines can be traced back to the early 1900s. The U.S. colonial government, through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), brought in the sport as part of the physical education program for the then newly-established public school system.

The interesting bit is that basketball was first introduced as a physical activity for women as it is an indoor sport. Soccer was the one intended for men. But not so long after, men started to encroach on basketball and since then have kind of “owned” the sports, even dominating the international basketball scene in early to mid-1900s (Yes, we used to be good at this). Today, basketball remains to be viewed as a masculine sports opposite to what it was intended for.

2. Basketball and Filipino culture

Since its colonial roots, basketball has become deeply ingrained not only in our school life as part of P.E. classes, but in our everyday lives, too. We see manifestations of these around us, from the jeepneys painted with star players and team logos and makeshift hoops in every nooks and crannies of our communities down to the jersey uniforms we wear as “pambahay” and our anticipation for the Manila Clasico clash (a rivalry between two popular PBA teams).

Basketball courts have also become staple community projects of politicians under the slogan, “Yes to sports, no to drugs,” which can be considered as both leisure infrastructure and public health campaign. (On the flip side, it can also be viewed as a big political campaign benefiting a politician whose name is printed on the backboard looking for a reelection in the upcoming elections.)

But one may wonder: what’s special about basketball? Why not soccer or perhaps, volleyball? Why care more about PBA Finals while the rest of the world goes crazy over the World Cup? What makes basketball enticing for Filipinos?

Anthropologist Michael Tan theorizes that Filipinos, despite our short stature, prefer basketball because of its fast-paced and action-packed style of play where there’s instant gratification. Unlike in soccer where patience is key to achieve a goal, basketball gives far more scoring chances that excite Filipinos. Furthermore, a soccer match can end in a draw, which can be unsatisfying for many.

3. The court is where it all happens

During the Spanish colonial time, the plaza used to be the center of the community but in some densely populated areas today, the basketball court can be the only open public space available. Hence, it has become the new center, an event venue for fiestas, concerts, pageants, election campaign and, in times of disaster, evacuation.

If you roam around any barangay in the Philippines, more often than not, there is a basketball court because the court has become a public resource. In fact, to an extent, it is also where young Filipino men are “made.” And with that…

4. Basketball as a rite of passage

After playing some pick-up games with young Filipinos, Bartholomew dug deeper into the role of basketball regarding their social lives: What really is basketball for us, especially to those young boys we see playing on the streets? Bartholomew asked anthropologist Michael Tan, who also researches on gender and sexuality, and here was what he said:

“The sport had become not just a pastime for young Filipino men, but a rite of passage. When boys reach adolescence, they receive privileges. Their mothers begin to allow them to roam their neighborhoods freely, getting into trouble but also learning how to carry themselves as men. Inevitably, these boys end up playing basketball, first in their own neighborhood, but then branching out to compete against kids in other areas. These early trials teach them masculine virtues like teamwork, aggression, and machismo… So basketball is there to make friends, build alliances. It even crosses class barriers.”

With that, we can certainly claim that…

5. “It is more than just a game.”

During his stay, Bartholomew also had the opportunity to attend and travel with the Alaska Aces of the PBA for one conference. He had access to practice sessions, games, and other behind-the-scenes within the team, as well as the league, that showed him what it’s like to be a pro in the Philippines.

But unlike in the NBA where teams are city-based, those that play locally are corporate-owned. This is why some team names can be a little silly and borderline ridiculous. For example, the Alaska Aces, owned by the Alaska Milk Corporation, was once called the Alaska Milkmen.

Other team names include the fan-favorite San Miguel Beermen, Brgy. Ginebra San Miguel Kings and Star Hotshots, all under the ownership of the mighty San Miguel Corporation. Each of the aforementioned team promotes a particular San Miguel product.

The reason? The PBA, the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world behind the NBA, has solidified its role as an effective marketing tool for corporate branding, utilizing the popularity of basketball in the country. Some of its pro athletes have developed a sort of cult of personality among their fans.

And with the ever-growing fandom of the so-called diehards, the players, coaches and other league personalities’ scope of popularity usually spills over basketball that, in turn, make them somehow eligible for local show business and, not surprisingly, politics. And these transitions from basketball to outside of basketball are often fruitful.

This is how basketball in the Philippines is more that just a game. It can be used (and has been used) for other agenda ranging from corporate branding and brand recall to fulfilling other aspirations aside from being athletes.

6. Basketball and our quest for nationhood

For some, cheering for a national squad is the “shallower” form of nationalism but one cannot deny the influence it has in our national lives. For example, Team Gilas Pilipinas brought out the raving fans in all of us. Through cheering for our team, we found a common ground of wanting to achieve our much-desired and much-deserved national glory. To see us united about something we love and believe in brings kilig. Here’s to hoping we elevate it to nation-building. ☁

Why Filipinos Should Read is published every last Friday of the month. Read more here.
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