Manu Ginobili had an interesting exchange with Matt Winer last Monday (Sunday night in the United States). The San Antonio Spurs had just thrashed the Miami Heat en route to becoming the NBA champions. Flush with victory and the Argentine flag wrapped around him—the Spurs have the biggest number of international players and have every right to call itself global—Ginobili was whooping it up.
At one point, Winer asked him about the celebrations at home: “How many folks in Argentina are watching?” Ginobili answered, “We are in the middle of the World Cup. Nobody cares. We won today, we beat Bosnia.” Winer teased, “They abandoned you for soccer?” Ginobili answered, “We beat Bosnia and they’re already drinking. They don’t care [about the NBA finals] at all.” Winer asked, “On the papers and the Internet, when they wake up tomorrow?” Ginobili said, “Then they’ll see.”
“When they wake up tomorrow with a hangover,” laughed Chris Webber.
The exchange is a good reality check, not least for America, which has always imagined itself—and everything it does—as the focus of global attention. The conceit is evident in its calling its major-league baseball championship the “World Series,” and the hype surrounding Lebron James as the greatest basketball player, if not the greatest sports figure, on the planet. Indeed, it is evident in its appropriation of “football” to refer to its own game that barely uses the foot, preferring instead to call “soccer” what the rest of the world refers to as football.
Well, the major-league baseball championship is the World Series only in so far as it is pretty much the only major baseball series that takes place in the world, other than in Japan outside of the United States. Elsewhere, particularly in the Asian subcontinent of India and Pakistan and neighboring countries, it is not baseball but cricket that draws a fanatical following. As to the greatest sports figure in the world right now, it is not Lebron James, it is Lionel Messi. He is currently playing for Ginobili’s favorite country.
Needless to say, the planet’s greatest sport is not basketball, it is football. And the planet’s biggest sports event is not the NBA, it is the World Cup.
It is at least needless to say in the rest of the world, but it does need saying here where the fact is not just not appreciated but not seen at all. The reality check isn’t just for Americans, it is also for us—indeed especially for us since we’ve always seen things, and doubly so, through America’s eyes.
I myself went through that reality check again only recently when I spent some weeks in Europe and hardly caught a glimpse of basketball in any of the countries I visited. At the time, the NBA playoffs were well underway, but there was nothing on it on TV, just some passing mention in the sports wrap-up on BBC and CNN. Though I myself am a fan of the NBA, thrilling to the finals over the last week or so, I can’t say I particularly missed it.
In fact, it’s not just in Europe that this has happened to me. I’ve been to various Asian countries in the last couple of decades, particularly the Southeast Asian ones, and I’ve had the same experience again and again. On at least a couple of occasions, the NBA finals were underway but no TV channel carried the games. The next day the newspapers would headline in their sports pages the results of local football matches, or those of major events abroad. The NBA finals would be relegated to the background, as collateral news.
The opposite of course is true here. I’ve been at pains to catch the World Cup since last week. Where I live, we do not have SkyCable, we have only Cignal, and unfortunately Sky has sole distributorship of the greatest sports event on the planet. I am left to watch the games a day later in Studio 23, which is about as sumptuous as eating leftovers. Meanwhile, you could have been anywhere here last Monday and seen Game 5 of the NBA finals.
All this has driven home to me again how very much we are Asia’s odd man out. Not just in sports, though sports alone already show the madness of it. We’ve become obsessed with, and are trying to excel in, a sport whose core principle is “height is might”—an exercise in self-flagellation, as our frustration over the years bears out. When there is football, which is far more popular, which is far more glorious, and which we are far better suited to. At least height is not the decisive factor there, even if it helps.
But more than in sports, in life in general: We are out of this world in quite a literal sense, living as we are vicariously through the sieve of the American experience, through the prism of the American way of life. The not-very-small irony of it is that we think of ourselves as having a global outlook, as being cosmopolitan, as being world-class. Aided in no small way by the OFW phenomenon, and particularly by the fact that many of our OFWs are seamen, allowing them to circumnavigate the world, if from the perspective of the boiler room.
There is in fact nothing global about our outlook. Not about sports, not about culture, not about geopolitics. It is merely an American one. And a secondhand one at that, and a Hollywood B-movie one at that, and a PBA-for-NBA one at that.
I remember again how in the mid-1990s, Cartoon Network did a survey of Asian countries on their sports heroes. Most of the countries listed Pele as the No. 1 choice, with David Beckham as their second. One or two other countries mentioned Michael Jordan as second choice. Our top choice? It was Vince Hizon.
That is not global, that is parochial. That is not catholic, that is pathetic. That is not world-class, that is insular.
The World Cup is taking place in Brazil right now. For most of us, it might as well be on the moon.
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