Basketball and nationhood
“Why do you Filipinos insist on playing basketball?” a Mexican friend, Alejandro, asked me as we were watching the World Cup semifinals in Mexico City’s Polanco district. “We Mexicans are not tall but we made it to the knockout stage,” he said, adding: “Maybe you’re better off playing football.”
His question is one that has frequently been raised by Filipinos and non-Filipinos, scholars and spectators alike. “Basketball, the ‘tall man’s game,’ is ironically the Philippines’ most popular sport,” writes the sociologist Lou Antolihao. Why, indeed, should we insist on playing a sport that privileges the tall? And why not football?
To answer their questions, one must look at our nation’s history and culture — as well the nature of the sport itself. In the first place, basketball is easy to play: Unlike football which requires a large open space, basketball can be played even in the most ad hoc of courts. In a nation rife with social inequity, perhaps it also matters that it’s a sport that anyone can play.
The long history of basketball in our country further makes it entrenched in our nation: from schools where being part of the varsity team carries social capital and barangays where the liga is a regular part of the calendar, to the PBA and even NBA games which for many Filipinos are mass-mediated spectacles.
The sports historian Gerald Gems writes that sports was a vehicle for American colonialism, but as Rafe Bartholomew documents in “Pacific Rims” (2010), we Filipinos have also made basketball our own by giving it a distinctly local flavor, both in the playing style and the culture that has developed around it.
Finally, we may be handicapped when it comes to basketball, but as Antolihao argues in “Playing with the Big Boys” (2015), the very underdogness of Filipinos in basketball lends further resonance to the sport, because it closely parallels the story of our nation and our lives. Both economically and athletically, we have been left behind by our neighbors, and we see the odds stacked against us. In every game, thus, lies not just the chance of victory, but what Antolihao calls “possibilities of emancipation.”
I am reminded of these discussions by the UP Fighting Maroons’ fairy-tale run to the UAAP finals: UP’s defeats in the past may have been bitter, but, ultimately, they only added to the sweetness of this moment. Ateneo’s well-deserved victory notwithstanding, there is already much for the UP community to celebrate — from Paul Desiderio’s heroics to the entire team’s promising future.
Just as UP can no longer be viewed as minnows, we also need not consider ourselves as “underdogs” forever. To begin with, who says Filipinos are naturally short? That may be true now, but as the examples of the Dutch and the Chinese show, better nutrition and quality of life can significantly increase our average height — genetics notwithstanding.
Surely, we can replicate or even excel our third place finish in the 1954 Fiba World Cup.
Even so, my Mexican friend also has a point about embracing sports other than basketball, and Phil Younghusband’s lament of low fan turnout — just like weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz’s plea for additional support — should not fall on deaf ears.
If we put our act together (and crucially, if our sporting officials are finally able to provide strategic thinking and visionary leadership), perhaps we can finally dream of winning an Olympic gold medal—or a World Cup berth.
Much has been said about how sports can perpetuate inequalities and gender ideologies, and how athletes have been increasingly commodified. Much has also been said about how sports can elicit the worst of our attitudes—as the Gilas-Australia brawl and the recent disgraceful remarks of UP regent Spocky Farolan show.
But, at the same time, sports can build solidarity by reminding us that ultimately, we belong to the same team. I was in Palma Hall when UP beat Adamson to reach its first finals in 32 years, and the sight of our good dean, professor Bernadette Abrera, cheering along with the throng of students was very heartening.
Can we muster the same feelings of unity, pride, faith and hope as a nation? Regardless of the outcome of the game, if we can learn to cheer as one, then we have already won.
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