Young Star

Above and beyond the rim

DEFINITELY MAYBE - Carl Francis M. Ramirez -

You cannot separate the Filipino from basketball, and you cannot separate basketball from the Filipino. The game that is predominantly associated with sky-scraping African-Americans is as much part of our ethos as dirty ice cream and the Sto. Niño. We often take this idiosyncrasy for granted because, as often as we see pickup games being played all over our country, basketball seems as ordinary as jeepneys with images of children plastered all over the side. So it is ironic and even kind of funny that it took a foreigner to unearth the vast well of Filipino cultural insight that’s deep inside every basketball bounce that reverberates throughout this country.  

That’s exactly what Rafe Bartholomew did in his book, Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. The now-famous Red Horse-drinking, isaw-eating, jeepney-riding, Tagalog-speaking six-foot-three American spent three years in the Philippines, chronicling everything from the Alaska Aces’ unlikely championship run, to barrio pickup games played on makeshift wooden courts, to Cebu’s Unano-Bading Showdown. Bartholomew exhibits a sharp and curious eye as he figures out the mystery of why we Filipinos, with average heights of 5’4” and with average household incomes that prevent most from buying a decent pair of rubber shoes, are so obsessed with basketball. 

Bartholomew first came to this country via a Fulbright scholarship, a prestigious grant given to only select individuals for a selected number of academic endeavors. While most of his batchmates were off doing papers on micro-financing and agriculture, Rafe shared during his book-signing session in National Bookstore Cubao a few weeks ago, here he was asking a panel of scholars and respected members of the academe to let him live in Manila to watch basketball games. Bartholomew is a self-confessed basketball junkie, and he felt a connection to the Philippines that he felt needed to be fleshed out.  

At the forefront of his basketball pilgrimage was the season Bartholomew spent with the Alaska Aces. During this period, he shows a side of PBA players that we, as fans, rarely bear witness to. In Pacific Rims, Rafe talks about former MVP Willie Miller’s antics as the Aces’ resident class clown, Poch Juinio’s penchant for releasing gas and Alaska import Rosell Ellis’s struggle as an international basketball journeyman. One of the best facets of this book is the accessibility it gives fans and outsiders to the PBA locker room. We often look at our local cagers as heroes on a pedestal, and Bartholomew does a masterful job of depicting them as everyday people, as relatable characters in a real-life comic strip.

Another part that was very insightful in Pacific Rims, was the seeming omnipresence of basketball courts in our country, even in the most depressed and most remote places. The book explains how politicians use basketball as a tool for pacification or appeasement, often opting to put up courts instead of new roads or schools because it brings more bang for the buck. People in depressed areas are often satisfied enough with having a nice covered basketball court that they will be quiet and good constituents come re-election time. Even where there isn’t enough room or funding for big public courts, this book also describes some of the makeshift courts made from wire and discarded wood planks, and how they can be found everywhere from street corners to under bridges to the back of trailer trucks. This just shows the grassroots obsession Filipinos have with the sport. In times of dire straits and desperation, enough ingenuity and creativity will pour through — just set up a hoop that a basketball can swish through.    

For the basketball enthusiast though, the most interesting part of this book is probably Rafe’s exposition on how the Filipino plays the game. Lacking in height, pure athleticism, proper footwear, but never in heart, Bartholomew explains how Pinoy ballers have developed all sorts of crazy trick shots, reverse layups from crazy angles and sneaky little tugs and shoves that compensate for our lack of size and exhibits our great diskarte. This is something one would notice in any average game on any average day, since it’s been the way we’ve played all our lives. But having a foreigner describe the Pinoy way of playing basketball is just fascinating and eye-opening. It speaks volumes for our creativity and rough-and-tumble sports psyche.  

I asked Rafe whether having played three years’ worth of Philippine basketball — with everyone from PBA legends like Atoy Co and Ronnie Magsanoc, to hungry semi-pro players from the PBL to the tricycle drivers of Loyola Heights — has changed the way he plays the game. “I have become more magulang,” Rafe admits. “Partly because I’m getting older.” Rafe says that he’s resorting more and more to “old-man” tricks and diskarte, something seasoned Filipinos, pro or otherwise, are known and lauded for.  

Pacific Rims is equal parts sports journalism, cultural study and history lesson, and one of the the book’s best traits is how seamlessly these intertwine with Philippine basketball. It is as much enriching and eye-opening as it is entertaining. It’s about time somebody wrote such a ground-up chronicle of local hoops (and it’s actually quite sad that it took a foreigner to do it) that spares no effort in research and interviews, in immersion and exposure to the many levels of Philippine society and in detailing the nuances of such an unusual romance that is basketball and the Filipino.

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Pacific Rims is available for P899 in all National Bookstore outlets nationwide. 

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You may e-mail me at carlfrancisramirez@gmail.com.

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