What do I know about the Philippines?
– Imelda Marcos had a lot of shoes
– That’s where they invented Manila Envelopes.
(Ed. Note: I made that second thing up. I suppose it’s possible, though highly unlikely. I didn’t want to only know one thing about the Philippines.)
Luckily, Rafe Bartholemew is here to fill the massive gaps in my knowledge. Turns out, Filipinos love Imelda Marcos AND basketball. He’s written about it in the new book “Pacific Rims.”
SCP: Like baseball in Japan and Korea, I would imagine basketball first came to the Phillipines thanks to US service people. Can you give us a little history?
RB: That’s part of the story, although not the whole thing. American educators and colonial officials deserve at least as much credit as the U.S. military for bringing basketball to the Philippines. The American colonial government introduced basketball to the public school curriculum in 1910. One of the sport’s earliest boosters was Elwood S. Brown, director of the Manila YMCA back then, who organized interscholastic tournaments and lobbied the American governors to build playgrounds. At first, hoops was intended to be an alternative sport for girls, who were considered unfit for baseball and track and field. It sometimes seems like basketball took hold in the Philippines against the odds, since the American government devoted more resources to promoting baseball. Over time, however, the Philippines’ success in early international basketball competitions and the accessibility of the sport (compared to baseball, which required more players, more space and more equipment) helped basketball emerge as the true national pastime and sporting passion of the Philippines.
SCP: How is basketball in the Phillipines, where the average adult male is just 5’5″, different from the game we know and love in the US?
RB: The height difference means that most Philippine ballers play below the rim, but that doesn’t make the game any less exciting. In fact, the most dynamic Philippine slashers can pull off dazzling mid-air acrobatics and shoot layups and runners using spins and soft touches that you almost never see in the NBA. Because most Philippine players can’t execute a spectacular dunk in traffic, the ultimate expression of basketball artistry in Philippine hoops has become the magical, twisting, no-look layup. You’ll see a guy make such a difficult looking shot that it seems lucky, but then he’ll make the same kind of shot three times in a row, and then you realize it’s not luck, it’s skill.
SCP: Can we expect a wave of Filipino NBA stars anytime in the near future?
RB: I consider myself one of the Philippine game’s biggest cheerleaders, and probably its number one non-Filipino supporter. That said, there’s no pro player currently in the Philippines who seems likely to make the jump to the NBA. More than anything else, size is the reason. Filipinos have the quickness, the agility and the creativity that come to mind when you think of world-class basketball players. But in the NBA they’d be going up against guys who are just as quick, just as agile, just as creative, and six to eight inches taller. So when a Filipino does make it to the NBA, he will have to be a once-in-a-generation talent. I should also mention that Raymond Townsend, a Filipino American who was a member of John Wooden’s UCLA teams in the 1970s, did play a few years in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers.
SCP: You traveled to the Philippines to study this subject thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship. Do you think that’s the type of thing the Fulbright people had in mind when they began handing out their grants?
RB: When the Fulbright people began handing out grants in 1946, I think they wanted to send bright young Americans across the globe to burnish America’s reputation and strengthen the country’s influence at the beginning of the Cold War. That goal — at least the Cold War portion of it — wasn’t so relevant when I received my grant in 2005, but the program is still about using cultural exchange to improve America’s image around the world. To that extent, I think I fit the bill. On the academic side, it was a challenge to convince a board of professors that my idea to study a country’s enfatuation with basketball was worthy of a yearlong research grant, just because it sounded so crazy. But once they saw how basketball had become embedded in so many levels of Philippine society — from politics and entertainment to coming of age rituals — it was hard to deny the academic value of the work.
SCP: Midgets vs Transvestites. Please explain.
RB: There’s a very popular basketball exhibition game based in Cebu City called the Unano-Bading Showdown, which translates to something more or less like the “Midget-Homo Showdown.” I never considered myself a stickler for political correctness, but these games were more than I could handle. The event is a blend of the perya, town fairs that featured freak shows and comedy/dance performances by gay entertainers, and the local basketball tournaments that tended to hold their championship games during the same fiesta week that the perya came to town. The games are staged in the Harlem Globetrotters style, with the midget team always coming from behind to defeat the squad of catty drag queens. Even though it was hard for me to stomach, the Unano-Bading Showdown does make a somewhat positive social contribution. The performers, especially the midgets, have very limited employment opportunities and no social safety net to support them. In most cases, they rely on their families, and these games provide an opportunity for them to make a little money and give something back to their relatives who give so much to them. People can decide for themselves if that outweighs the exploitative nature of the event.
SCP: Can you explain the popularity of Manny Pacquiao in his native land?Â Has any other athlete ever approached his level of fame? Will his entrance into politics help or hurt that?
RB: Manny Pacquiao is not only one of the world’s greatest living athletes and one of the best boxers in history, but he’s also extremely charismatic. He’s sometimes shy, sometimes arrogant; he’s always smiling but he’s an absolute killer in the ring; he’s fun-loving and generous, almost to a fault; and to top it all off he sings monster ballads on late night television. I think he would be idolized in any country, no matter where he came from. Prior to Pacquiao, a basketball player named Robert Jaworski achieved a similar level of fame. Jaworski’s career, from college to the pros, began in the late Sixties and ran until 1998, when he retired as a player-coach to become a Senator. Jaworski had his own kind of charisma. He was one of the meanest, dirtiest basketball players to suit up in the Philippine game, but as soon as the game ended he was a sweetheart to fans. He was known for spending hours chatting with fans after games and practices and never turning down an autograph request. Jaworski did lose some of his luster after entering politics. People tend to have low expectations of Philippine politicians; they embezzle, they swindle, it’s all part of the job. But Jaworski had been a beacon of honor. His never-say-die sports motto was an inspiration to millions of fans, and when people saw him acting like a regular old politician, they lost some faith in their hero. Pacquiao will have to work very hard to avoid a similar fate, because Philippine politics is a very dirty business.