By Lea McLellan
When hoops fan and Fulbright scholar Rafe Bartholomew first arrived in the Philippines, he had hoped that basketball mania really was as pervasive in the country as he had been told. Filipino basketball players and fans far exceeded his expectations. As a result, his year-long research grant turned into a three-year journey through Filipino basketball culture, and his book, Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball is Bartholomew's self-described "love letter to the Philippines."
Though the book centers on the sport within the culture of the Philippines, Bartholomew finds that the two subjects are inextricably intertwined. His personal experiences—traveling with a popular Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) team, being mobbed by fans in remote rest stops, and debuting as a Filipino soap opera star—give the reader a unique perspective on a culture that is as vibrant and captivating as a PBA championship game.
Bartholomew, who says that "his heart remains in the Philippines," recently shared his insights into Filipino basketball culture with Asia Society Online.
ASIA SOCIETY ONLINE: You knew you wanted to write about basketball in the Philippines before you left for your fellowship. Where did the motivation for this project come from?
RAFE BARTHOLOMEW: I almost stumbled into it. I had played basketball in high school and at a club level in college so obviously I was already interested in the sport, but I was reading this book called Big Game, Small World by Sports Illustrator writer Alexander Wolff. He traveled all around the world sort of like a basketball travel log and wrote about the sport in probably 15-20 countries. There was one chapter in there about the Philippines and that may have been the first thing I had read about the Philippines longer than a couple of pages long. But the stuff he wrote about really inspired me. It was stuff like kids playing basketball in their flip-flops, or in their bare feet, and people building their own basketball courts out of whatever materials they could get their hands on. It was this sort of passion—that they would play the sport by any means necessary—that made me want to go out there and see it for myself.
ASIA SOCIETY ONLINE: It sounds like when you set out to do this project you were predominately interested in basketball within the context of the Philippines. However, the book is clearly just as interested in Filipino culture on a larger scale. How is it that basketball and Filipino culture have come to be so closely intertwined?
RB: Once you get out there and once you start following the basketball culture it's too much a part of everything else that is going on with the country to just focus on basketball. I think the reason why it is so embedded in people's lives there is it was the first team sport that was widely accessible and popular. It caught on because early in Filipino basketball history, and also in everyone's basketball history, they were very good at it. Basketball was introduced there by the US colonial government in 1910. They made it part of the physical education curriculum in the public school system. They built playgrounds, they built the YMCA in Manila and so in that way, the game was promoted.
One of the interesting things is that they [the US government] tried harder to promote baseball because if you think about what period it was, in the 1920s and '30s, baseball was really thought of as the national pastime. Basketball didn't really come into its own until probably the '60s or '70s, but in the Philippines, it was already huge. In the first Olympics to have basketball as a medal event in 1936, the Philippines only lost one game and it was to the United States. They beat everybody else and it was only because of a scheduling quirk that they didn't get a medal.
Those early successes coincided with the time when idea of the Philippines as a nation was sort of coming into its own also. The Philippine-run part of the Philippine government was starting to try and convince people that they were part of this larger nation. Not "I'm Cebuano" or "I'm Ilocano" or "I'm Ilonggo"—not just part of their regional identity. They were trying to convince people that they were Filipino, and basketball was one of the things that people had in common across different geographical regions and linguistic regions. There are more than 100 distinct languages spoken in the country, so it is still a challenge to get people to break out of the sort of regional mindset. Basketball, and probably Catholicism, are two of the things that are most successful at crossing all of those boundaries.
It was also because they were so good at it first. People really took pride in it. And over the years, over the generations, parents would teach their kids basketball and they would teach their kids basketball, and it just sort of multiplied over time.