When I was growing up in the Philippines, every guy in my neighborhood played basketball. As a writer one is trained not to use absolute terms like “every” or “all,” but this is surely a statement of empirical fact. Maybe those guys were too busy now, or their knees, like mine, had given way in middle age, but at some point in their lives, they had picked up a ball and chucked it through a hoop. And in every neighborhood, there was one. Even I can still remember the makeshift basketball court near my house: planks salvaged from some construction site and nailed to a tree, a frayed net clinging to a rusted hoop bent funny from all the dunk attempts, skinny street dogs weaving between the players’ skinnier legs, worn-out tsinelas and fake Reeboks raising little puffs of brown dust, overshadowed by the clouds of diesel smoke as a jeep rumbles down the street, and the game is temporarily interrupted to make way for the vehicle.
To tell you the truth, I saw that court probably only two or three times. Everyone played except for me. My neighbors apparently thought I was some sort of invalid because I never went outside; this was because I chose to stay inside and read. (A true story, but a really long one, and this is not the time or place.)
This all means that I’m probably hugely unqualified to write a blog entry about Rafe Bartholomew’s fantastic book Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, because in the great scheme of things basketball occupies hardly any space in my waking life. Alley-oops, hip-checking, floaters, flip shots, crossover dribbles, triangle offense – they may be botanical terms for all I know. I wouldn’t know a power forward from a point guard – men’s deodorant brand names, maybe? I mean, I actually had to Google the name Phil Jackson.
But I did have a few years’ experience cheering on the basketball team Ginebra (then renamed Anejo, or maybe it was the other way around, I forget) – a bunch of thugs, but lovable thugs nonetheless – via a small black-and-white TV outside my house, with a friend who slightly resembled Rudy Distrito, while mosquitoes nipped at my shins. I remember Crispa’s Grand Slam, and the fallen Billy Ray Bates saying arrogantly on TV, “I’m Superman, I’m Superman, I’m Superman.” See, I have a little background.
But back to the book, which I love, and maybe not for the right reasons: Pacific Rims is very well researched, for starters. The history of basketball and the American educational system in the Philippines, long-standing rivalries between teams, local politics in Boracay, the elaborate import system (where a player from America gets to play for a Philippine team during a so-called “reinforced conference”, Robert Jaworski as a phenomenon, the meaning of diskarte and gulang, corporate sponsorship, the relationship between players and their loyal fans, the tragic tale of Billy Ray Bates – they’re all here. And I write this with barely disguised professional envy because the social-history aspect of Pacific Rims is all so breezily and skillfully done.
No, it’s not the sort of book that would satisfy a history or political science requirement; there just aren’t enough numbers in it. (And yes, the former academic in me would cite that as a bit of a problem: I wanted citations; I wanted statistics.) But it’s such an enjoyably written chronicle of lived experience, stuffed with observational detail, that it’s hard not to want students to read it in order to understand the Philippines a little more. It’s something academic writers could learn from, really. The humor (and Pacific Rims is frequently hilarious, so funny I would laugh out loud on the train) – well, that’s a little more difficult to learn.
I guess I should probably talk about the sports writing itself; for reasons already discussed above, it’s not exactly my cup of tea – though I’ve long been envious of sportswriters, who can get away with murder in newsprint – and as such (to me) constitute the weaker parts of the book. Pacific Rims more or less follows the arc of a playoff series, and in the closing innings – sorry, minutes – of the book Bartholomew focuses closely on locker-room dynamics and the intricacies of specific games themselves, quarter by quarter. Again, not my forte – I can barely visualize what’s going on sometimes – but Bartholomew manages to make his cast of characters (Willie Miller, Tim Cone, the rest of the Alaska team) come alive.
When Bartholomew discusses the Senate hearings, in the early 2000s, on “Fil-shams” – Philippine Basketball Association “import” players that are ostensibly Filipino American but don’t have a drop of Filipino blood in them – it’s less some typical anecdote about bureaucratic corruption, and more of an illuminating discourse about mixed race, citizenship and nationalism in the Philippines. It’s a fascinating section, which has a lot to do with the richness of the subject matter, of course, but it’s also because Bartholomew chooses to further explore the public perception of Filipino Americans in the Philippines (a subject close to me) in the chapter. (Scholars of the Philippines will also be pleased to note that Pacific Rims is far from being Manila-centered, as Bartholomew plays as an import in provincial tournaments as well.)
My point is that Bartholomew has an inquisitive streak that goes far beyond sports or the obvious political angle. What he accomplishes in Pacific Rims is something generously holistic; aware that cultural phenomena can’t be understood in isolation, he chooses to cast a wider net. There’s a wide-eyed openness to the contradictions and foibles of Filipino culture and the new world around him that suffuses the book. That’s something academic writers can learn from as well.
I think Western journalists of the last few decades tend to lapse into certain cliches when they write about the Philippines: their double take at an Asian country so Westernized in its outlook, their ease in latching onto a single image or phenomenon – Smoky Mountain, karaoke, Manny Pacquiao – to generalize about the country as a whole, with a lingering sense of First World condescension throughout. Bartholomew is well aware of these pitfalls – in fact, he acknowledges some – but he elegantly steers clear of them. When he expresses his occasional ethical discomfort (especially in a cringingly funny section on a midget-versus-transvestite basketball tournament), he takes pains to contextualize why this flagrantly politically incorrect competition is simply seen as good-natured humor in the country.
I’ll pick a random example of how sharp his eye (and writing) is. (Seriously, it’s random – I didn’t even dog-ear this section in my copy, and I have many dog-eared pages.) In the course of following a new import player for the Alaska Aces, Bartholomew writes about how, during the Alaska players’ practices, the penalty was lusutan – “where the loser would have to crawl through the spread legs of his conqueror.” As he writes, “It was a nostalgic ritual from pickup games… that reminded these pros of the days when they played for nothing but bragging rights and love of the game. Short of speaking fluent Tagalog and downing… balut…, there was no better way for [the new import] to say ‘I’m one of you guys’ than to make lusutan…”
And then Bartholomew continues:
Togetherness is one of the most rigid social norms in Philippine culture, and it played a major role in the chemistry of PBA teams. There’s a powerful urge in Philippine society to be part of the group, whether it’s a family, a bunch of classmates, or a basketball team. Being alone is a minor tragedy to many Filipinos. …when I’d show up at Alaska practice and greet the players, we’d make small talk and they’d ask what I did the previous night. My typical response included eating dinner and writing a bit. ‘You were alone?’ they’d ask, and either raise their eyebrows in bewilderment or say that it must be said to eat by myself. It wasn’t that bad for me, but to them it sounded intolerable. Likewise, many of the players were surprised to learn that I didn’t have any family in the Philippines…. For many Filipinos, being separated from family was a trauma you only chose to inflict upon yourself when economic hardship forced you abroad to support your loved ones, as in the case of the country’s roughly 10 million overseas migrant workers.
And so on. It’s this observational acuity that anchors Bartholomew’s writing throughout. To put it another way: he has it down so right.
All in all, Pacific Rims isn’t a great book about basketball in the Philippines; it’s a great book about the Philippines, period. The fact that it’s an enjoyable summer read, written with a terrific eye for detail and a deadpan wit (but god, the puns are pretty bad) – that’s the equivalent of a three-pointer right there. The book is partly subtitled “the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball,” but the real love affair here is Bartholomew’s clear affection for the Philippines.
[This is also crossposted on Goodreads.]