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Pinoy Kasi
Thump, thump

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:25:00 08/05/2010

Filed Under: Basketball, Politics, Entertainment (general)

I DOUBT if I caught the sound but think hard: What?s that thump-thump that?s so ubiquitous in the Philippines, whether in a swank subdivision or a remote mountain barangay?

The guys probably guessed faster: that is supposed to describe the thud of a basketball. The sound does vary because the court can be one with expensive hardwood, or it can just be gravel or concrete. And ?thump, thump? isn?t a dull thud, it?s always accompanied by shouting and cheering, more a staccato of Philippine life.

No wonder American writer (and self-described ?basketball freak?) Rafe Bartholomew was able to come up with a whole book on basketball in the Philippines, with a rather staid title, ?Pacific Rims,? but with a more colorful subtitle, ?Beermen Ballin? in Flip-Flops and the Philippines? Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.? The subtitle doubles as a caption for a great cover photo showing young Filipinos playing basketball in a makeshift basketball court in what looks like some rural area. Yes, they were playing in flip-flops.

To write his book, Bartholomew interviewed dozens of people, including famous and not so famous basketball players. He also chased after an assortment of Filipinos to get a fuller picture of basketball in the country, to produce what?s perhaps the most comprehensive book yet on basketball in the country, rolling history, sociology, anthropology, even a bit of political science, into one book.

Don?t fret now: it?s not an academic book. Bartholomew is a journalist, so his writing style makes for good reading?entertaining but not sensational. Much like basketball, it?s fast-paced, but its most exhilarating moments are the silent intervals in basketball, when the ball is flying through space and no one isn?t sure where it?s going to land. With the book, these are the times where Filipino readers will pause and think hard, ?Hey, I never thought about that.?

He takes us on a historical tour, of basketball being introduced by the Americans, together with baseball. He wonders, as I do, why baseball (and soccer, which the Spaniards probably played) never took off in the country. Basketball?s popularity in the country works against all odds, as we are reminded in a blurb for the book:

?Welcome to the Philippines, where the men are five foot five, the everyman?s Air Jordans are a pair of flip-flops, and the rhythm of life is punctuated by the bouncing of a basketball.?


But instead of poking fun at our height, Bartholomew shows how, for Filipinos, basketball is no longer just a game or sport. It?s entertainment, of course, but it?s also political spectacle, a ritual of passage, an arena of masculinities (and, as I will shortly describe, counter-masculinities). Basketball is diskarte?play and display?for the individual, the team, the community, even a nation.

For example, Bartholomew reminds us that we did excel in the sport at one time, doing very well in international competitions. After our humiliation by the Japanese during World War II, we found in basketball a time for healing as our national team won in numerous international competitions. There?s a touching passage where a celebrity player from the 1960s, Kurt Bachmann, describes how he had idolized an uncle, who had played basketball for Letran. The Japanese killed that uncle, and besides that loss, Bachmann describes the impact of seeing the carnage and corpses in the aftermath of the war. Basketball, for Bachmann, became a way ?to reassert the Philippines? worthiness as a nation.?

We have lost our international standing but local competitions are so much a part of our lives, whether the inter-school competitions like the UAAP or the games between company teams. Bartholomew does describe the commercialization of basketball, and has a whole chapter called ?Fil-Ams or Fil-Shams? to describe the controversies around fake Filipinos hired for the teams.

In his book, Bartholomew describes his futile search for articles on Philippine basketball in the library and academic journals like Philippine Studies. For all its pervasiveness in Philippine life, basketball just wasn?t considered to be serious enough for academics.


After he read a column I did on basketball, Bartholomew tracked me down at UP, and we had more than one long discussion about basketball. What he eventually picked out from our discussions was basketball as a gender issue, marking the passage from boyhood to manhood. As boys enter adolescence, parents allow them to go off and play basketball, first close to home, then farther out in other places. Playing the game is a time to pick up on teamwork, as well as aggression, and to build ties and linkages.

I?m not sure if I had told Rafe about how circumcision fits into all this. About the time young boys begin to play basketball in the Philippines, they also get ?cut.? The folklore around circumcision includes beliefs about male potency: you need to be cut to be able to marry and to have children?and to play basketball. Bad performance in a game?missing an easy shot, for example?brings jeers of ?Supot! Supot!? (Literally, paper bag, referring to the conformation of the uncircumcised.)

Bartholomew has one hilarious chapter titled, ?Skirts versus squirts,? describing how in Cebu, money was being made by an entrepreneur who organized basketball games between transvestites (?skirts?) and unanos (dwarfs or ?squirits?). Totally politically incorrect, of course, but another instance of how basketball reflects a larger Philippine culture. Bartholomew interviewed gay activist Danton Remoto who had mixed feelings, one-half of him ?laughing and laughing? but the other half resenting the way the badings (and unanos) were turned into a carnival.

My take here is that even when the game is played by the most macho players, it?s still spectacle and carnival, our macho hunk players there to be ogled by women and by gay men. Mind you, even on the court, if you look hard enough, you might find some hints of ?homosocial? bonding among players. (Homosocial means, simply, intense male bonding.)

I told Bartholomew that gay men have been known to learn to play basketball as well, seeing it as an opportunity for another kind of bonding. I told him about ?chancing? and he writes about this in the book, including his own realization that he had indeed been ?chanced upon? as well.

See now how basketball is both masculine and counter-masculine?

Bartholomew?s book is available now in local bookstores and hey, watch out, another basetball-in-the-Philippines book is in the making?this time by Bill Fink, who was in the Philippines for some time as an AIESEC (an international student organization) fellow. I learned about this accidentally while reading the San Francisco Chronicle last July 31, where Fink describes how he tried to learn to play basketball in flip-flops, and ended up in the hospital! Visit his site dunkedinmanila.com for details!

* * *

Email: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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