It has been a long-standing and somewhat inexplicable love affair, Filipinos and basketball. Statistically, Filipinos are, per capita, probably the most passionate NBA fans in the world, whether it’s online, on television, on cable or in the sports pages. The most active SMS users in the world (second only in volume to China whose population is more than eleven times that of our little archipelago) also patronize the league actively in terms of mobile content.
For over three years, Rafe Bartholomew (now one of the most gifted talents of Grantland.com) studied the phenomenon on the ground. His being American and a skilled player helped open a lot of doors for him, and his humorous, voluminous study “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-flops” actually became the third-best selling book in the Philippines in 2010. His tome was topped only by the “Twilight” series and “A Purpose Driven Life”. Consider the fact that the former was a multi-part series supported by movie tie-ins, and the latter a self-help set that had been around much longer, and you’ll realize how powerful that book on basketball was.
Still, a truly concrete explanation has yet to be found for this incongruous passion between a race whose males average about 5’8″ in height and a game which evolved into the playground of giants. Why is it that vertically challenged people like us are so doggedly determined to master a game played by behemoths?
First, even before the NBA was born, the United States used the educational system to ferry basketball into our bloodstream from the late 1800s onward. The young sport was originally snubbed as not being masculine enough – believe it or not – and was first played by girls here. In addition, many parents didn’t want their boys playing it, like the father of 1936 Berlin Olympian Jacinto Ciria Cruz, who hid all his son’s pants so he wouldn’t be playing hoops out in the street. Also, in the early days there were only two regulation courts in the entirety of what is now known as Metro Manila. One of them was at the old Manila YMCA, where SM Manila now stands.
Until the early 1990’s, US military facilities (particularly Clark Airbase in Pampanga), were the primary source of live NBA action. The faint, hazy early-morning signal emanating from the 800-foot elevation of their tower was water for thirsty roundball fans 90 kilometers away. Many of us lost a lot of sleep trying to keep track of Magic, Bird and Jordan just to get our fix. Some bought bootleg videotapes of NBA games just to have a tangible piece of the league.
The infiltration into schools gave the sport a good start, but other sports were introduced, too. So why did basketball become the passion of this nation? Aside from the fact that we naturally gravitate towards many things American, basketball appeals to the innate artistry of the Filipino, and the NBA is its highest art form. Older Filipinos used the words abilidad (natural talent) and diskarte (creativity) a lot. Even without much formal training, Filipinos latch onto the finer points of the game, particularly in terms of freelancing. We are probably the most inventive players of the game below the net, and dream of doing that above the rim, as well. That’s probably one reason why there is a very strong Boston Celtics Philippines club following.
Basketball may be a team sport, but it also allows for a “star” player to shine. Even in the Philippine music industry, bands reach a certain height of fame, but solo performers (many who come from those selfsame bands) skyrocket when they’ve left their bands. Basketball is like having a five-man band playing jazz, making things up as the go along, or it seems. Locally, we had pros who couldn’t dribble with their left hand, but survived because fans could relate to them.
And speaking of relatability, NBA players took advantage of their basketball gifts to get through school (well, most of them) and earn a very good livelihood. It is a dream of many of the impoverished in the Philippines as well. It’s like hitting the genetic lottery if you were born above six feet tall or able to drain three-pointers. Some call it the aspirational value. To the NBA’s credit, despite the supposed weaker buying power of the Philippines, the league has been very active in promoting itself and its stars in the country, from its NBA Madness to the NBA Asia Challenge and even player visits sponsored by athletic shoe brands Nike, adidas and Reebok. And Filipinos are very loyal fans.
But perhaps one little-known fact that almost all Americans are unaware of ties us into basketball and the NBA even more closely. The game was originally inspired by a children’s game very close to one of our own.
“Tumbang preso” is a street game that has been played by tens of millions of Filipinos for over a century. Basically, a bent tin can is placed in a target zone, and the goal is for one team to get past the defenses of another and knock the can down by flinging their rubber thing slippers at it. When James Naismith was looking for inspiration for the new winter sport he was asked to invent, he harked back to a Canadian cousin of tumbang preso he had grown up playing. It was called “duck on a rock”. The rules were similar. The difference was that the can was placed on an elevated place (a rock) and they used stones to knock it down. Naismith purposely wanted an elevated goal to avoid contact. Of course, he had no control over how the game would evolve now, did he?
So think about it. The shared history of millions of children in the Far East and North America, fused into a flowing, creative game originally invented as a winter escape. Maybe subconsciously, we know this, and that’s why we love basketball. And that’s why we love the NBA