Tomorrow, the National Geographic Channel will air the last installment of “Pinoy Hoops,” a documentary on Philippine basketball. The show is hosted by Rafe Bartholomew, an American scholar who wrote a book on the phenomenon, titled “Pacific Rims.”
The book resulted from Bartholomew’s curiosity about the Philippines and the stories, gleaned from friends, that Filipinos play a unique, dynamic brand of basketball and love the game with a passion unprecedented in the world.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Pacific Rims,” and when I first encountered the promo ads about “Pinoy Hoops,” I could hardly contain my excitement. I was a basketball fanatic as a child, snookered into fandom by brothers who devoted entire evenings to watching televised games, inviting their friends over for loud, rambunctious sessions, complete with informal betting and good-natured ribbing.
Quickly, I developed devotions to certain teams and players: Crispa and its star forward Bogs Adornado (that dates me, I know), the Ateneo Blue Eagles, and the Boston Celtics.
Unlike many Filipinos, I never developed a devotion to the Big J, finding Robert Jaworski too rough and aggressive for my taste. And by the time “Barangay Ginebra” had metamorphosed into a national obsession, by some twist of fate I had lost all contact with the world of basketball. This is thanks to marrying a man who couldn’t indulge in team sports because of a childhood ailment and so couldn’t understand most team sports, much less how people could stare at a TV set for hours on end, watching men in shorts chase a ball across a court.
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So reading “Pacific Rims” was, for me, a reintroduction to basketball, to the way the game is played and appreciated here, and to how deeply it has permeated the culture and the ethos.
“Pinoy Hoops” has much the same content—and Bartholomew’s take on Filipino culture—as the book, but it is enriched by interviews with players, coaches, and fans. He visits a rooftop basketball court in an urban poor tenement and plays pickup games with some pretty rough-looking characters. He then travels north to check out claims that in some remote barangay, soldiers play with communist guerillas, even if, when he asks residents about the games, everyone denies the story.
In “Pacific Rims,” Bartholomew embedded himself in the Alaska team, spending days with the players and management, developing a deep understanding of the way the Philippine Basketball Association is run, how players are trained, how management chooses players, whether locals or “imports.”
In “Pinoy Hoops,” he comes in time for the PBA championship round between Talk ‘n Text and Ginebra San Miguel. Amusing are the vignettes that Bartholomew captures on video, many of them at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
One of these drew a guffaw from me. There’s a life-size wooden crucifix in the backstage hallway, which everyone who passes it touches, whether as an act of faith and devotion or to seek favors and blessings for upcoming games.
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In the show last Monday, Bartholomew devoted a lot of time to examining the Ginebra mystique, particularly the lingering stature of Jaworski. There’s even a clip from an old Ginebra game in which Jaworski is shown getting elbowed in the lip, being rushed to the hospital, and then gamely showing up during the last few minutes to lead his team to victory.
About 95 percent of the audience at the Talk ‘n Text vs. Ginebra championship round belongs to Barangay Ginebra, so it’s a wonder Talk ‘n Text managed to play its way around the general hostility to emerge as champion.
It’s a wonder that no riot erupts upon Talk ‘n Text’s victory, with Ginebra fans displaying the legendary “never say die” spirit which serves to comfort them that “their” team will always live to play another day, another game.
Bartholomew also spends time with Talk ‘n Text’s American import, who blunts his disappointment at not making it to a top-tier NBA team by playing for a Philippine team where he gets paid a premium salary and enjoys unprecedented perks. Touching indeed are the two men’s appreciation of Filipinos, at how their love for the game translates to love, too, for all those involved in it.
Says a “Nat Geo” promo: “Although an American, Bartholomew provides great insight into basketball in the Philippines, knowing more about the Filipino’s relationship with the sport than most locals.”
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I was greatly amused by Bartholomew’s observation that, on average, Filipinos are among the shortest people in the world. Which makes their love for basketball, with its basic demand for height to ever make it good in the game, quite puzzling.
But maybe that’s what makes Pinoy love for the game of hoops extra special. It has nothing to do with individual skill, or the dream of ever winning a world title or gaining international recognition. Filipinos interviewed by Bartholomew say they just love the speed, the razzle-dazzle, the sheer joy of basketball.
Bartholomew writes of coming upon a rough basketball ring in a dirt-patch court, cobbled together from scrap lumber, twigs and twine, and realizing that the structure is an apt symbol for the sheer love that Pinoys hold for basketball.
“Bartholomew’s sociable research methods and obvious love for the sport helped him delve deeper into the psyche of basketball-loving Filipinos despite his default setback as an outsider,” says Nat Geo, and one cannot but agree. Perhaps it’s his love for the game that allows him special insight into how Pinoys love basketball and the reasons for such mad love.
We may never reach the higher echelons of the sport of basketball, but we have certainly made a mark in the annals of fandom and devotion.
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