words by Bobbito Garcia / @koolboblove
photos by Kevin Couliau / kevincouliau.com
On July 6, 2013, our film DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK: PICK-UP BASKETBALL, NYC premiered in Manila, the Philippines, with the support of Nike. Co-director Kevin Couliau and I were flown in for a Q+A. In two days, we experienced, in my humble estimation, the world’s most dedicated and passionate bball community! I would go so far to claim that no country, not even the US, or city, including New York, can claim they love the sport as much as proud Filipinos do. Don’t believe me? Read on…
Basketball arrived in the Philippines as a result of United States colonization after the 1898 Spanish-American War. In 1910, the sport became part of public school education programming. Puerto Rico, another US colony at the time, didn’t formalize roundball until 1913 (at a local YMCA). Europe, I would surmise, wasn’t introduced to the game until American soldiers threw up two-hand set shots during World War I a couple of years later. Many countries in other continents didn’t touch the rock until the 1920s when Chuck Taylor (yes, that same dude who the Converse shoe is named after) went globetrotting to evangelize Dr. Naismith’s invention and teach clinics.
Suffice to say, the Philippines has been down with bball longer than any other nation aside from the US, and they’ve had an incredible fever for the game decades before the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics (which ignited a lot of foreign countries’ interest).
In 1954, the country scooped a Bronze in the World Championships, which to this day is their highest international finish. The national team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1972. You think that’s affected the disproportionate spending on the sport by committees, schools, organizations and politicians? No way! In the US, way more NCAA funds are used on football budgets than bball ones. Soccer reigns supreme for most countries’ priority spending. In Manila, a mayor running for office can make or break his election by renovating a court and tagging his name on the glass, while gifted young boxers and volleyball players will switch to bball because at least they’ll have their own pair of shorts.
Of any country in the world, the Philippines spends the greatest percentage of available funds for sports on basketball while no international rewards justify the investment. They love the game more than anyone! Not convinced yet? There’s more…
I first learned about the Philippines’ marriage to basketball in Alex Wolff’s book Big Game, Small World. His account of homemade outdoor baskets being hung everywhere and kids literally playing all day, every day intrigued me. When Kevin Couliau and I made the rounds to take photos and promote our film, I saw the incomparable passion with my own eyes!
We first hit Private Road. I’ve never liked the term “streetball” since it wasn’t a label our own community created but rather a term that media and corporate brands pushed, but in this case, it would be the truest way to describe the scene. There were pre-teens playing a half-court game that was literally in the middle of the street! Every 30 seconds, the action paused to let a car or moped drive by. Sound dangerous? This is everyday life in the Philippines, and widespread, too.
Kevin and I visited court after court. Every single one was packed, no exaggeration. And not just with players who had next. Common folk watched intently, too. At the Dr. J court, which was smack in the middle of an intersection, the teenagers had bet 50 cents each on the match. I counted 20 people who were waiting to see who won (not including the drivers who’d watch as their cars passed by).
Mind you it was 12 noon and 90 degrees outside with 90 percent humidity. You read that correctly. As much as I love my New York ballplayers, I’ve definitely heard too many times, “Yo, it’s too hot outside to play ball!” Excuses don’t apply here. Filipinos have to get their run in.
Here’s another excuse I’ve heard my fellow New Yorkers offer: “I want to play but I don’t have no sneakers!” In Manila, I noticed that the majority of ballplayers either play barefoot or in flip-flops. This is not a choice, but an economic reality. Banj “Billions” Albano, a local basketball activist, told me he organized a footwear donation for a youth league. Each kid was given a pair, but the following week, they still showed up skin on concrete. Albano explained that the parents either sold the kicks for food money, or the valued items were stolen.
After spending hours watching kids play, Kevin and I were amped to put up some jumpers ourselves. Banj, who organizes the SLAM Magazine Philippines open run, made a couple of calls, and 20 minutes later “poof” we had 10 players! It was like whoever he called dropped everything they were doing just for the chance to play. There were a couple of pros from the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA), some of whom had played DI in the states. Dudes could flat out go, and everyone was a shooter.
Later that evening, Nike presented our film premiere in grand fashion at the Ronac Arts Center with our photos in rotation on an LCD 10-foot wall screen and a giant DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK logo at the entrance, a theater quality screen, 5.1 sound system, and more. This was by far the most well thought out and executed event our film has ever been featured at!
The excitable, standing-room-only audience of ballplayers, tastemakers and media ate our film up. The response was equal to the ones we’ve received at our NYC screenings, with laughs, “Oohs,” and “Ahs!” Our Q+A was hardly a question and answer session but rather an open discussion, as viewers shared moving stories about pick-up in the Philippines and how it has affected their lives. The talk went over 45 minutes, easily the longest of any we’ve ever done. Filipinos love the game more than anyone! Still not convinced? There’s more…
The next morning, Kevin and I were interviewed on Balls TV, a 24-hour network. How many countries outside the US can say they have bball on the tube all day, every day? The feature aired during the live broadcast of the fierce college rivalry between Ateneo and LaSalle. Nike arranged front row seats for us, and the cameraman put us on the Jumbotron during their “celebrities in the crowd” feature. Crazy! I’ve sat in a number of NBA arenas and have never received that type of respect. Apparently, they really were moved by our film, and treated us like royalty. That’s love.
Ateneo versus LaSalle was literally, I mean this in every way, the very loudest game I have ever attended! The crowd went ballistic from the opening tip, and would cheer even when the ball would be deflected out of bounds with no change of possession, just to approve of defensive effort. UNC versus Duke, Kentucky battling Louisville, not even Lakers dueling with the Celtics in the ‘80s could compare. Those match-ups might shut down the local towns, but not the entire country. Bang Albano explained to me that when Ateneo and LaSalle take court, the crime rate goes down drastically, bad traffic in the streets disappears, and every household is watching—nationwide. The Philippines has a population of 92 million. Do the math.
In the middle of the game, the SLAM Magazine Philippines editor-in-chief, who sat next to us, quoted Kevin in a tweet. Later on, I looked at his twitter page. He had 68,000 followers! That’s more than some NBA players who play on very good teams, and definitely more than the majority of EICs from similar publications I know!
The next morning, Kevin and I headed to the airport at 5:30 a.m. I spotted a court from the road, and wasn’t surprised to see two kids playing one-on-one, in flip-flops, at the crack of dawn.
When Kevin and I went through security check, one of the officers looked at me and said, “I saw you yesterday on TV! You made the basketball film.”
Walking toward our gate, a police officer was joking around with an airline staff member, saying she “must be a point guard” because of her height.
En route to our departure, I noticed every gate throughout the terminal had an NBA Summer League game on between the Heat and Jazz in the waiting area. There were no stars on the court, yet the screens had everyone’s attention. A Nike employee shared with me the results of a random survey conducted in Asian countries to see which population recognized the NBA logo the best. Most countries came in around 70 percent. Taiwan had 90 percent. The Philippines registered 98 percent.
The people of the Philippines love basketball more than anyone in the world!
Check out Rafe Bartholomew’s book Pacific Rims, which I used as a reference for this piece, for the most in-depth exploration of Filipino bball history and culture that exists, but truthfully, I encourage each of you to just go and experience it for yourself. If you’re a true ballplayer and not from New York, add it to your wishlist of pilgrimages right after Rucker and West 4th!
Play ball outdoors. Work hard. Have fun.
The DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK: PICK-UP BASKETBALL, NYC digital download/stream is available worldwide and on sale now at doinitinthepark.com.