Book Review: Pacific Rims

by June 30, 2010

by Gregory Dole

Nothing beats a great adventure story. When the young and adventurous Rafe Bartholomew set out for Manila, he was following in the footsteps of the great explorers, albeit in a decidedly different way. Instead of gold and spices, the author was looking for basketball.

Bartholomew was out in search of what one might call the Shangri-La of global hoops. In the Philippines, basketball has a vice-grip on the soul of the people. I remember once speaking with a Filipino Catholic priest, who laughed in resignation as he said his countrymen’s loyalty to basketball may be greater than the country’s considerable devotion to the Catholic Church.

The author was inspired by the seminal basketball book, Big Game Small World by Alexander Wolff. This phenomenal book featured a chapter on basketball in the Philippines. Bartholomew was intrigued by the picture described by Wolff. He then set about finding a way to find out for himself whether or not basketball was indeed the biggest thing going in the country.

Enter the Fulbright Scholarship. Somehow, Bartholomew convinced this organization that it was in the best interests of academia that someone document the Filipino passion for James Naismith’s game.

Honestly. Are you $hitting me? Bartholomew was given a wad of cash to go live near beautiful beaches, play basketball all day long and meet beautiful women at every turn.

Rafe, I salute you. I am impressed by the cunning. Perhaps this review inspires someone out there to pull a similar stunt on the seemingly not so Fulbrights.

I should add a personal note. Much like Bartholomew, Wolff’s book had a profound influence on me as well. Wolff’s chapter on the dominant Brazilian women’s basketball team that made me question why there weren’t any decent Brazilian male basketball players in the world. And one thing led to another.

I elected to not show up at the University of Windsor’s law school in September of 2002 because I had been busy getting Nene Hilario drafted in to the NBA that summer. Basketball can inspire one to do some inexplicable things. I probably should have gone to law school but then Nene wouPacific Rimsld have ended up in some po-dunk town in Spain, tied to some Spanish club for the better part of a decade.

Birds of a feather then, perhaps, Bartholomew and myself. The main difference is that I just tell stories whereas Bartholomew has crafted a marvelous book on both basketball in the Philippines as well as Filipino culture in general.

For those of us who are totally consumed and infected by basketball, Pacific Rims is a must-read.

This book documents life in a culture that lives and breathes bball. As Bartholomew points out, Filipino elections have been moved to accommodate the broadcasts of NBA games. Somehow I don’t think David Stern has this sort of power in the corridors of Washington, DC.

Rafe also manages to hook on with the Philippines Basketball Association’s Alaska Aces franchise. As an embedded reporter, he manages to give us an entertaining look at life in basketball’s bush leagues. In a word, awesome.

Much as New York City spawned the City Game, Bartholomew points out that the Filipino Game, which predates the National Basketball Association, has a distinct style as well. Slam dunks are uncommon but stylistic lay-ups are the fashion. The game features little in the way of defense but plenty of offense in the form of slick passing, Skip-to-my-Lou-esque dribbling and dead-eye shooting.

With franchise names such as the Purefoods Chunkee Giants, the Talk’N’Text Phone Pals and the Barako Energy Coffee Masters, this is not the NBA. Mascots for many companies roam through the stands, promoting all sorts of products. Rafe describes the scene as professional basketball on an acid trip.

One of the book’s most intriguing characters in the book is Willie Miller. A bi-racial kid, the son of an African-American G.I. and a Filipino mother, Willie is the exceptionally talented and psychologically fragile PBA star who played for the Alaska Aces when Bartholomew was with the club. The two-time league MVP is an enigma. His performances alternately lead the Aces to victories and defeats. When he is on, his talent is breathtaking. When his mood swings the other way, he has no business in professional basketball. In between, Willie is the classic team clown who lightens up the atmosphere during the season that Bartholomew spends with the club.

We learn that Willie is known to troll the highways of his country looking for pickup games of basketball during the offseason. No one loved the game more than Willie. One imagines the sight of Kobe pulling up to shoot hoops at some court by the side of the road in some small town outside Los Angeles.

Part of the charm of the PBA is that the players are entirely approachable and entrenched within their communities. They stop and chat with their fans at every opportunity. This is part of their duty as basketball players. It is considered poor form, the height of snobbery, to act in any other way.

If anything, basketball’s cultural significance in the Philippines increases with every interaction between fans and players. It should come as no surprise that the book also delves in to how professional basketball has become a breeding ground for future Filipino politicians. The links between the two are strong. One of the PBA’s top players, James Yap, is the brother-in-law of current President Benigno Aquino.

We also get a window in to the life of a globetrotting American basketball player from Seattle, Rosell Ellis aka Mr. Everything. A former Washington State player of the year and a 1993 McDonald’s All-American, Ellis has traipsed the globe for a basketball paycheck.

Ellis signed on with the Aces at the same time that Rafe started covering the team. Through Ellis, the reader gets to see what life is like for the proverbial American ballplayer who goes overseas. While the experience proves to be a struggle, as the pressure on Americans ballplayers to dominate every game is intense, Ellis shows how it is done. Whereas many Americans are sent home after only a few days or weeks, Ellis is the consummate professional who plays hard every night. For his efforts, Ellis has built a comfortable life for himself back home in Seattle, Washington.

For anyone who was wondering what life is like in professional basketball’s far flung leagues, Ellis’ experiences alone are reason enough to read the book.

I had a chance to sit down with Rafe at a Filipino restaurant in Queens, NY. When I wasn’t struggling through peanut-sauteed cow tongue and a stew of chicken hearts and cow intestines, Rafe gave me the low-down on all things Manila and Filipino.

SLAM: Where is the best place to eat in Manila?
Rafe Bartholomew: My favorite place is called Dampa. It is a quasi-franchise as their are many imitations of it around the city. Basically, you first select some sort of seafood. Anything from fish, shrimp, squid, crab, eel, etc. You then have it cooked in any way you want, whether it be grilled, fried, or whatever along with seasonings. They are amazing feasts. The entire meal costs between $2-3 US dollars per person.

SLAM: Where is the best place to go in Manila?
RB: I loved going to Quiapo. It is a giant outdoor market, located on the street, spanning a stretch of three blocks. The place is madness, teeming with shoppers as well as vendors. Above the noise you hear the vendors screaming “Panties” or “Rubik’s Cubes” or whatever else. You can also buy any number of Filipino folk remedies. It is a total sensory overload.

SLAM: Where is the best nightlife in Manila?
RB: “There is a big club scene in Makati. They are fun. On any given night, you will come across all the big Filipino celebrities. The clubs are similar to the sorts that you would find in any western country. Of course, I didn’t go out much. I preferred doing local stuff, hanging out in open air storefronts where they sold cold beer and a variety of meat on a stick. Everything from chicken ass to pork ears was barbequed and served on a stick. These places would also have karaoke going so I would get in on that as well.

SLAM: What are the karaoke standards in the Philippines?
RB: Frank Sinatra songs are very popular. Journey is really big, especially since the group’s new singer is Filipino. There are also loads of Filipino songs that people like to sing as well.

SLAM: Where is the best place to play ball in Manila?
RB: You can find a game anywhere. The better games are on the covered courts that are built by the city governments. That being said, you can basically look down any street and there will be a game going somewhere. Basketball is everywhere. I played everyday, whether it be in highly organized games with former pros to playing on streets with guys wearing flip-flops.

SLAM: Any tips on pickup ball in Manila?
RB: It is almost impossible to play a pickup game without having a wager going. Everyone bets, even if the money involved is just a matter of a few cents. The games themselves go to 20. It is worth mentioning that for the first 18 points, no one plays any ‘D.’ When the score gets to 18, the locals call it “warning” and then they proceed to foul whenever necessary. When the score gets to 19, the locals call it “last” and then proceed to foul all the time. I have been in games where the last point goes for over 30 minutes. Every shot is contested with a foul and if you get the “and one,” then they invariably argue that the foul happened on the floor and before the shot. On some occasions, I gave up from the frustration of the score being knotted at 19.

Gregory Dole is a weekend warrior journalist, who someday hopes to summon the inspiration to write a book.