This is my 40th Pearl since I joined the Asia Pacific Management Forum going on three years ago. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to readers around the world for their encouragement, feedback, and occasional corrections, as well as to Rod Davies, the APMF mastermind, for doing such a fine job promoting the column and building APMF into a premiere online resource.
Speaking of strange and random, and given the need for a celebration on such an auspicious occasion, what about one of those increasingly rare atmospheric and offbeat Pearls, the topic in this case being roundball Filipino style?
Filipinos are also heavy duty NBA fans, being particularly enamored of the Lakers. (That bothers me a bit, as I am an old time Celtic fan despite my years in La La Land. Oh well.) But the bottom line is that the Filipino love of the game of my youth is enough to warm an old Hoosier hoop junkie's heart.
The game of basketball - aka hoop, roundball, or b-ball, depending on your 'druthers - was developed by James Naismith at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Constrained by the cold weather outside and the small size of the gym, his objective was to develop a recreational game to supplement the calisthenics and drills that the students traditionally engaged in. Quite logically, he concluded that running would have to be minimized and that tackling wouldn't be such a good thing given the hard wooden floor. But he couldn't quite figure out what to use as the goal for the new game. Drawing on his knowledge of lacrosse, rugby, soccer, and a childhood game called "duck on the rock," he decided that the goal would be to toss a ball through an elevated horizontal goal, something with a hole in it, a goal at a level high enough so players would have to use skill rather than brawn to score points.
When it was time for a pilot test, Naismith asked the janitor to help him find a couple of boxes of about the right size. Alas, none could be found. Fortunately, the janitor came to the rescue: "I got a couple of old peach baskets laying around, mebbe you could use those..." Yankee ingenuity writ large! Naismith nailed the baskets to the lower rail of the old gym's balcony, leading to the first impromptu hoop game in history.
I grew up in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana, an hour's drive through forests along a curvy road from French Lick. French Lick, the site of healing "miracle waters" and a historically famous spa, also happens to be the home of Larry Bird, aka "Larry Legend" or "the hick from French Lick." Like Larry, I grew up with hoop pretty much as my main religion. Early memories include learning to assiduously dribble around the manure in a barnyard while trying to score on a wretched hoop tacked to the side of a rickety old ready-to-collapse barn, spending hour after hour practicing free throws and calculating my percentages for each and every set of a hundred tosses, and shoveling ice and snow off the court in the coldest days of Midwestern winter, the Spalding ball freezing and my fingers getting jammed while sweat froze on my back.
I spent most afternoons after school on the local playground, which featured rickety wooden backboards and chain nets, developing a decent jump shot and almost making the junior high school team. But the coach was a prototypical Type A dictator whose screaming and yelling were very much in the Bobby Knight mold, so I was kind of glad I didn't make the cut. Later, those long playground evenings paid dividends and I became a minor local legend as the hippie with long curly hair who could compete in pick-up games with the varsity boys. I was even invited to join the team, but a conflict between getting a haircut and bowing to Hoosier tradition was resolved in favor of the counterculture.
Those, as they say, were the days.
My first exposure to hoop in the Orient occurred while doing time in the military-industrial complex, involuntarily aiding and abetting Uncle Sam's bombing campaigns into Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of the recreational activities for enlisted men at the wretched air base/radar site where I was located involved drugs and sex. But there was another available option - hoop.
However, not many of the military guys took advantage of the local gym when I arrived. The old facility was run down and non-air conditioned in the middle of a hot and humid jungle. But I took it upon myself to shoot around after work, flashing back to my old Indiana roots, seeking temporary respite from a reality I didn't much care for. The stifling heat always left me sweating like a pig, although I inevitably found a way to beat whatever imaginary opponent my mind manufactured, usually with a dazzling last-second shot.
One day my solo hoop activities were interrupted by the appearance of a soul brother who started shooting at the other end of the court. I recognized him as one of the marines who guarded our radar site from unwelcome intrusions from Victor Charlie; we grunted in recognition of one other, then proceeded to studiously ignore each other. However, I took great care to be sure and hit difficult shots whenever I thought he might be looking down towards my end of the court.
Didn't take long for him to challenge me to a little one-on-one, figuring that some honky with ugly black rubber goggles had to be a chump. Although I wasn't quite ready for the abrupt transition from phantom opponents to a physical black guy shoving me all over the court, I pulled out a few of my Hoosier playground moves and more or less held my own.
Shortly thereafter a few other black marines starting turning out for pick-up games, games featuring a take-no-prisoners attitude that generally left me with scratches, aches, pains, and a bruised ego. The games were also frequented by a couple of really good guards, short guys with quick, herky jerky moves and fakes that would leave you in the popcorn machines. They were Filipinos who worked at the base. I was quite surprised by their court savvy, even though they couldn't play defense to save their lives. Although I figured they must have grown up playing hoop, at the time I had no idea how important roundball was to the Filipino psyche.
During my first trip to Manila in 1982, one of my Filipino hosts, not knowing of my hoop-oriented background, decided it was in my best interests to expose me to authentic Filipino culture. Specifically, he took me to Araneta Coliseum, the site of the Thrilla from Manila, to watch a PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) playoff game featuring the Toyota Corollas versus the Crispa Redmen (as best I remember). I particularly remember being impressed by the intensity of the game, the strange nature of the food at the snack bar, and the enthusiasm of the 10,000 or so screaming Filipinos in attendance.
The PBA, founded around 1975, was the first pro league outside the states; it is still thriving, and now competes with two rival circuits (the PBL and MBA). The quality of play is patchy; on the international scale, most hoop experts would probably rank the PBA below the Israeli league, the Argentinian league, and the European leagues. But the competitive level is extremely high and entertainment value unquestionable.
Each PBA team is allowed two imports, generally big men (there's relatively little demand for flashy guard imports, as the locals have that part of the game covered). The imports are drawn from the American wannabe pro crowd, guys few except hardcore hoop junkies and scouts have heard of. Since we've been back in Manila, I haven't followed the game closely, although I do make note of the imports who come and go - folks like Silas Mills, Artemus McClary, Lamont Strothers, Larry Robinson, names that would just roll off Chick Hearn's tongue. I watch PBA games from time to time, partly because I enjoy trying to follow the rapid fire Taglish commentary, which reminds me more than a bit of Chickie's incomparable play-by-play for the Lakers.
The games are pretty much run and gun, defense is of the matador variety, and many contests develop into a strange game of two-on-two within five-on-five, as the big African Americans play their own game, hot dogging it up and down the court, posting one another up, interspersed with occasional three-point barrages from feisty Filipino guards. It's not unusual for the two imports account for 80% of points scored.
During the intervening years (1983-1998) I was based in LA, and continued to play hoop far beyond my prime. I played in UCLA pick-up games for years, then in a regular biweekly ultracompetitive Type A runs with a gang of hardcore football and rugby types who doubled as entertainment attorneys and screenwriters when not beating one another half to death. However, the predictable and probably inevitable injuries began to pile up and I eventually hung up my sneakers. (Sigh).
When we came back to Manila in '98, I was intrigued by the regular games on the village's "covered court". I observed a few times, noting that the games were played at a seemingly leisurely pace and that little defense was in evidence. It wasn't long before the fever settled in; a long-awaited comeback was called for.
The first night I showed up with my teenage son, a gang of Filipinos, ranging in age from 18-24 or so, were running full court at a high rate of speed. I immediately sensed the opportunity to assert cultural priority, my origins in Hoosierland and loose affiliation with Larry Legend in the back of my mind.
After carefully surveying the environment (and with half a lifetime's experience dealing with playground manners from New York to Indianapolis to Los Angeles to Thailand), I called 'next' with lots of hand and body language and careful inquiries about court etiquette. The Pinoys, who clearly thought they were the world's greatest and coolest cagers, proceeded to play a game to 30 buckets, with a long, exaggerated halftime break. After finishing, they waved and walked nonchalantly off the court, clearly not wanting to waste their time playing some fat old white guy in goggles with some Fil-Am teenage son. My son was mortified.
Me? Suffice to say I was doing a slow burn. Those fellows didn't know that they had just insulted the entire history of Indiana basketball. I knew at a gut level that they had to be made to pay for their sins, otherwise the basketball gods would never forgive me.
I dragged my son back three nights in a row, but the bums refused to show. Finally, on a hot and humid Makati evening, with the high rises and smog providing a most appropriate cinematic background, they turned up. Eureka! We had the court occupied and I had every intention of regaining the lost honor of the Hoosier state.
As I expected, when the chumps showed up they tried to start a game without us. However, I asserted myself appropriately; they had no choice but to play us - us being myself, my teenage son, and the three scrawniest kids they could find to put on our team. They were obviously trying to stack the deck and run us off.
But I hadn't spent half my life destroying my knees on concrete for nothing. Somehow I reached into my long-forgotten Twilight Zone repertoire of Midwestern hoop tricks to dominate the game, somehow being lucky enough to hit an incredible percentage of forced shots despite two years since the last time I'd touch a roundball. By all rights I should've sprained an ankle or lost some teeth while desperately trying to recreate no-longer-there moves from my youth. Fortunately, the basketball God intervened and order was restored in the universe. We won going away.
After that we were regulars in the game, although I had to suppress my killer instincts substantially. No frothing at mouth or clothesline fouls in this setting. I have come to enjoy the pace of Filipino playground games and have even learned the appropriate Tagalog curses, although bodily pain is again suggesting it might be time to retire yet again. Heck, His Airness did it several times too, and maybe there'll be a slot available in the PBA next year. If my number is called, I am ready.