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The Flilipino stance on World Cup: if it doesn't involve a hoop, forget it Add to ...

To fans, sports are about a lot of things. They are about that nebulous, magical mixture of physicality, skill, creativity and instinct that in its finest moments becomes art. They are about raw, unbridled emotion. They are about having an excuse to deep-fry the wings of poultry and wear orange-afro wigs in public. (They can of course be about even more unhealthy things, but writing about chauvinism and violence is illegal until the G20 is over.)

Perhaps above all, sports are about community: They bring strangers together to paint one another's faces and chant "go" imperatives until they pass out. And so, from Jakarta to Djibouti, as occurs every four years, the World Cup has once again stormed its way into our hearts and fostered a vuvuzela-tooting/hating global village that unites fans who love the sport, everywhere on the planet.

Everywhere, that is, except the Republic of the Philippines. While a cumulative 30-billion TV viewers will go square-eyed watching soccer's greatest tournament, over the next month residents of the Philippines will be much more likely to tune into a local professional basketball game between, say, the Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters and the Barako Energy Coffee Masters.

Despite the Philippines' location in a region as soccer-mad as anywhere on Earth, the game of hoops is not only the RP's most popular pastime, it is rooted so deeply in Pinoy identity that there isn't much room in the national imagination for another sport.

In a country that didn't even bother trying out a team for this World Cup, this week's Group of Death showdown between Portugal and the Ivory Coast, for example, resulted only in what the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer called "a dearth of interest."

Filipino indifference to the Beautiful Game might be unique - even India, where cricket dominates and whose embarrassingly dreadful national team has qualified just once in 70 years of World Cup competition (and then only by default, for lack of opponents), has embraced soccer so widely that leagues exist for street youth and games are broadcast in remote villages on public big screens.

Instead, the RP has basketball, and basketball - from the portraits of NBA legends that decorate the sides of jeepneys (former U.S. military vehicles repurposed as public transportation), to the politicians who manipulate their electorates by building blacktop courts (cheaper than hospitals, and more popular, too) - is everywhere.

In Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, Rafe Bartholomew explores this phenomenon, unearthing a society singularly, resolutely and communally obsessed with hoops.

"People in the Philippines will find ways to play basketball anywhere," the author tells me, back in New York after three years in Manila. "I've seen baskets built on the slopes of volcanoes, on almost deserted beaches and on the decks of container ships."

Under American rule, basketball was introduced in 1910 to Filipino girls' gym classes, but what began as a gendered colonial project quickly spiralled into a national fixation. In 1913 the Philippines captured its first international men's title at the Far Eastern Games, heralding a legacy of regional dominance that culminated in 1975 with the advent of the PBA, the first professional basketball league in Asia.

Featuring corporate-owned squads like the Texters, Coffee Masters, and the B-Meg Derby Ace Llamados (formerly the Purefoods Tender Juicy Giants), games routinely attract upwards of 20,000 spectators at the association's premier venue, Quezon City's Araneta Coliseum (in worrying disregard for its official 14,711-seat capacity).

The Philippines is no longer the international hoops powerhouse it once was - Pinoy peoples' height-challenged genetics have become a hindrance as, in Mr. Bartho- lomew's words, "taller countries have learned the game." But it hasn't tempered local fans' feverish loyalty to the domestic product.

"Because the most obvious way to measure success is through the Olympics or World Championships, there's a lot of hand-wringing over the country's hopeless devotion to basketball," says Mr. Bartholomew. "[But]the culture of basketball in the Philippines is vibrant enough that they don't need gold medals to prove its worth."

Especially in contrast to soccer nations' single-minded, often desperate pursuit of World Cup glory, there's something refreshing about the Pinoy passion, regardless of achievement.

Of course, the PBA would love to compete with American pro ball, rather than merely accept its cast-off players as coveted, one-per-team "imports," but perhaps it's partly because of a lack of international competitiveness that the game has been freed to adopt its own local style and mythology.

Many distinctly Pinoy echoes exist between the sport and broader cultural values, from a local lexicon (umupo sa ere: to sit in the air), to the respect-your-elders ethic of magulang, which reveres seasoned, on-court craftiness. "With a slight difference in pronunciation," Mr. Bartholomew explains, "it can also mean parents; and if you drop the ma, it just means age."

While Pacific Rims paints a picture of a nation absolutely bonkers for basketball, the more intimate story here is of a fan living his boyhood hoop dreams: There's something vaguely fabulistic about Mr. Bartholomew discovering an entire country as infatuated with the game as he is.

"I understood their passion as well and as deeply as anything I've ever known," he concludes in Pacific Rims, "because the love for basketball that so many Filipinos felt was no different form my own."

And for anyone, being fully immersed in something you love, sports or otherwise, is a tantalizing thought. It's the same feeling that, at its best, entices diehard soccer fans every four years - three games a day, total TV football, and a whole world of screaming, joyous lunatics joining in.

The World Cup, Philippine basketball, Indian cricket, the athletic majesty of Segway polo - sports provide a common language between strangers, and can foster a sense of home in faraway places where little, such as the PBA mascot, a seven-foot tall walking waffle (read the book!), seems to make much sense.

Pasha Malla is the author of the award-winning story collection, The Withdrawal Method.

 

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