The State of Philippine Basketball
A country celebrates 100 years of hoops worship.
by Rafe Bartholomew
If you believe the sports pages of Manila’s daily newspapers, then you’ll know that Philippine basketball has been in a state of emergency for the past half century. As far back as 1949, FV Tutay opened his column in the Philippines Free Press with the question, “What is wrong with amateur sports in the Philippines today?” His answer: basketball. The hoops-obsessed nation, Tutay complained, was ignoring other athletic pursuits like baseball, swimming and track and field.
The same columns, in more or less the same words, still appear on what seems like a quarterly schedule in Philippine broadsheets, only now the tone is more alarmist. In Tutay’s day, the Philippines’ greatest hoops achievement – a bronze medal in the 1954 World Championships – still lay in the future; now, basketball glory, at least on the international stage, is firmly situated in the past. Roughly half of the country’s 92 million people weren’t alive in 1972, the last time the national team competed in the Olympics. When the Philippines failed to medal in the 2002 Asian Games, pundits adopted an End-of-Days tone more suited to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo than a 2-point loss to Kazakhstan. In recent years, the Philippine Daily Inquirer‘s Manolo Iñigo has become the poet laureate of basketball naysayers, with columns like “Basketball is not for Filipinos,” where he urges “sports officials to encourage the development of non-basketball sports where height is not an advantage.”
While he’s at it, Manolo might as well ask his countrymen to stop eating rice. For millions of Filipinos, basketball is as much a part of their daily routine as the white mound of grains that accompanies breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every morning, not long after backyard roosters herald the sun’s appearance on the horizon, you can hear the steady thud of dribbling balls as players head to neighborhood courts. The sound returns just before nightfall, dawn and dusk being the times of day when the tropical humidity is least stifling. The evidence that the state of Philippine hoops is indeed strong is this daily communion with the sport. Whether they’re sweating through pickup games, watching the NBA or local professional league on television, or just gazing at the progression of jerry-built hoops dotting the countryside on a provincial bus ride, people can’t avoid the sport.
The problems Iñigo and his cohort decry are sins of basketball excess. The sport hogs the spotlight like Ol’ Dirty Bastard bum-rushing the stage at the Grammy Awards. Stories abound of promising youth soccer and volleyball players switching gears to play basketball because their schools invest more in hoops, or of the country’s amateur boxers being forced to share the same few pairs of sweaty shorts at an international tournament because the team couldn’t afford a uniform for each fighter. If national athletics committees and wealthy patrons didn’t blow a disproportionate amount of their sports budgets on basketball, then these problems wouldn’t be so severe. But they do, thanks to the game’s monolithic popularity.
Then there’s the basketball bait-and-switch that Philippine politicians have perfected over the past several decades. What’s the cheapest way to earn some votes? Build a basketball court and paint a mural announcing to your constituents that their new backboards were a “project of Mayor delos Santos.” Never mind costlier, more urgent needs like improved access to clean water and health care. In communities that have come to expect next to nothing from their elected leaders, some breakaway rims and free jerseys are often enough to buy voters’ loyalty at the polls. Maybe Philippine hoops isn’t facing a crisis. Maybe it’s too widespread and too powerful, worshipped too much by too many people.
The solution here is not to knock basketball from its perch atop the Philippine sports hierarchy; to paint over the portraits of Kobe and Magic that adorn local jeepneys; to remove the hoops references from TV sitcoms and movies; or to bulldoze every pork barrel-funded full court. Basketball doesn’t have to be erased to start giving other sports a more equal share of resources and attention, or for politicians to devote more of their largesse to medical clinics and better roads.
To suggest that “basketball is not for Filipinos” robs the country of its unique relationship with the sport. This year, basketball is 100 years old in the Philippines. It was brought to the country in 1910, when the American colonial government made it part of the P.E. curriculum in public schools. At first, the sport was intended to be an alternative activity for girls, who were deemed too fragile for baseball and track and field. That makes basketball in Manila only 19 years younger than basketball in Springfield, MA, where James Naismith invented it in 1891. Other than the United States and the Philippines, it’s hard to think of countries that have been playing the sport seriously for so long.
In parts of the world where hoops didn’t catch on until the ‘60s or ‘70s, people learned a game whose basic moves had already been cemented by American basketball. It’s a different story in the Philippines. Of course, there’s no denying the American influence on hoops in the former U.S. colony. Yankee teachers, coaches and soldiers first spread the game through the archipelago and the American game has always served as a model for aspects of Philippine ball. But American basketball itself was still evolving in the pre-WWII years, and this gave Philippine hoops breathing room to develop on its own.
When a flock of kids took the court at some Manila playground in the 1930s or ‘40s, no coach was there to show them how to follow through on their jump shots. Hell, jump shots hardly even existed back then. The game they learned, to a large extent, is based on the moves and shots they taught themselves. Over the years, that homegrown style has blended with the formal skills taught in clinics the world over to create a Philippine style unto itself.
You know the sidestep Rajon Rondo has been using throughout these Playoffs to hop around defenders on the break? I can’t think of NBA players other than him and Dwyane Wade who use it regularly, but it’s often the first one-on-one move Pinoy players learn. Certain players who are borderline staples of the Philippine game – the Barkley-built power forward whose pet move is a double clutch reverse layup released with more spin than a screwball, the six-nine center who tries to finish all his post moves with scoop shots – would be rare breeds in the NBA or Euroleague. They’re part of the Philippines’ own deep, rich basketball lore.
When you have a hundred years’ worth of hoops history, a style of play other countries couldn’t mimic if they tried, and a population bursting with people willing to wake up before dawn to get some run, you don’t need an Olympic bronze or even an Olympic berth to justify your love of the game. Basketball is for you.