The Filipinos loves watching NBA

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

Top 10 Muslim NBA players of all time

10  MEMO OKUR

This Turkish inside/outside workforce missed a bunch of games in the last few years because of his injuries but his stock started to grow when he played a wonderful backup role to Ben and Rasheed Wallace in the Detroit Pistons’ championship run in 2004. And then he signed with the Utah Jazz where he averaged 18.0 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game in the 2005-06 NBA season.

9  HEDO TURKOGLU

Here’s another Turkish basketball juggernaut whose game resembles that of Toni Kukoc. Admittedly, I was a fan of Hedo when he played for the Sacramento Kings (his parents were born in Serbia) but it’s with the Orlando Magic that he became scoring threat – averaging 19.5 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game for the Magic in the 2007-08 NBA season.

8  WALT HAZZARD

This two-time NBA All-Star also represented the United States in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (Filipinos know this as the Olympics where Anthony Villanueva won a silver medal in boxing). Hazzard had his best year while playing for the Seattle Supersonics (24.0 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game, and 6.2 assist per game) in the inaugural season in 1967. His number was retired by UCLA in 1996 but gave permission to let a standout newcomer use it. Perhaps he thought Kevin Love would become a successful player eventually. He would later change his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman and it stayed that way until his death on November 18, 2011.

7  SHAREEF ABDUL-RAHIM

When he joined the Sacramento Kings in the 2005-06 season and the Kings scored a playoff spot, Reef ended a dubious record of playing the most number of NBA games without a playoff appearance. Originally drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1996 NBA Draft, Reef averaged 18.1 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game in a 12-year injury-plagued run. He also represented USA in the 2000 Sydney Olympics where he won a gold medal.

6 RASHEED WALLACE

One of the most popular and hated players of his time, Sheed was the fourth overall pick by the Washington Bullets in the 1995 NBA Draft. He was the leader of the terrorizing Portland Trail Blazers of the late 90’s but it is with the Detroit Pistons where he won a NBA title. The four-time NBA All-Star also had a dubious record of all-time technical fouls with 304. He never backs down when the going gets tough and can drain the rainmakers in awesome accuracy.

5  LARRY JOHNSON

If you’re not a New York Knicks fan back then, you’ll probably be annoyed the “L” gesture he does whenever he hits a trey. “Grandma” was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1991 and had an Alvin Patrimonio-type of career where he started out a ferocious power forward but ended his career as a deadshot outside shooter. He is a one-time All-NBA Second Team, a two-time NBA-All Star, a former Rookie of the Year, and played alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Reggie Miller on Dream Team 2. He also the only player to have his talent get crapped at by the Looney Tunes.

4  JAMAAL ABDUL-LATEEF WILKES

Alongside Bill Walton and Coach John Wooden, “Smooth as Silk” would stir UCLA to a lot of championships. In the NBA, his winning streak continued where he won a title with the Golden State Warriors and three plums with the Los Angeles Lakers. He averaged 17.7 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game in a 12-year career. A three-time All-Star and the 1975 Rookie of the Year, he received his highest citation by being inducted in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2012. He is a valuable teammate to many and even if he got dethroned by James Worthy at his spot in his later years, he managed to do his best despite limited minutes.

3 SHAQUILLE O’NEAL

In some ways, I find it hard to believe that I’m writing this. This is the same jolly guy who cracks jokes, does a lot of wacky endorsements, and says things without thinking. I am a fan of Shaq but I was thinking on whether or not inserting Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and taking him off the list is a good idea. Fact is, Shaq’s dad is a Muslim. In an interview he told everyone that Hakeem Olajuwon is his brother and he’d like the idea of him and Hakeem going to Mecca together. And oh yeah – Shaq is a one-time MVP, multiple time All-NBA First, Second, and Third Team member, a 15-time All-Star, an Olympic Gold Medalist, a Rookie of the Year winner, and a future Hall of Famer.

2   KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR

Shocked? Oh do tell. The former Lew Alcindor was undoubtedly the best college player in time of the 1968 Mexico Olympics but he didn’t want to do anything with the United States as objection for the country’s participation to the Vietnam War. And then, he changed his name because he wanted to latch on his heritage and that he wants to educate the black people that they came from a positive culture. But then he also sued Miami Dolphins’ running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar after the former UCLA standout (same school as Kareem) twisted his name and used the number 33 (same number as Kareem) as sort of milking off his popularity. Nonetheless, Kareem is the most decorated NBA player ever with six MVPs, 10 First Teams, five Second Teams, two Finals MVPs, 19 All-Star citations, and a Hall of Fame ring.

1  HAKEEM OLAJUWON

Yes, I said it. This Hall of Famer is my top choice for my best. Kareem should have been here but then I thought that I wanted my Best Player to combine his skills with his devotion to his religion. I am not saying that most in the list aren’t devout Muslims but the climb to the NBA must be different for Olajuwon. As a kid growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, he was raised to follow the teachings of Islam ardently. That would have been trying especially when he made the trip to US where the sins of success are at its height. Because he didn’t understand the American ideals, he would go into fights with his teammates and this all changed with him becoming an even more devout Muslim. Even with the frustrating NBA schedule, The Dream remains unfazed in practicing the ideals of his religion. In 1995, he was named NBA Player of the Month even though Ramadan began on February 1 of that year. Olajuwon won a gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and finished his career as a 1-time MVP, a multiple-time All-NBA Team member, the only player to win the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP in one season, and the all time leader in blocks.