‘This is my life!’ Why the Philippines is a hoops haven

Sopan Deb, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 08 2019 12:31 PM

Fifteen-year-old Stevan Dig, who was born in the Tenement housing complex and plays basketball every day there, in Taguig, Philippines, April 28, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Go to any street corner in the Philippines. Any village. Any beach. Even a church. You’re likely to see a basketball jersey.

“It’s often described as a religion,” Carlo Roy Singson, managing director of NBA Philippines, said in an interview.

Indeed, basketball is ingrained in Filipino culture and has been for more than a century.

The sport’s permeation of a country of about 105 million began in the late 1800s, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. A large facet of the introduction of the fledgling game was Christian missionaries, who were part of the YMCA, or Young Men’s Christian Association. The game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, conceived of the sport at what was then known as the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. To take a round object and throw it into a peach hoop, as Naismith pictured it, could be a character-building endeavor. Soon after he invented the game, missionaries began spreading it around the world, particularly in the Far East and the Philippines, in U.S.-controlled areas — a kind of sports imperialism.

Men play basketball among the apartment tombs at Navotas City Cemetery in Manila, the Philippines, April 30, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Basketball courts with likenesses of Maya Moore and LeBron James in Bonifacio Global City, Philippines, April 28, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The NBA and its players, recognizing the sport’s popularity in the Philippines, have invested time there in recent years. In 2013, the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers played a preseason game there. According to a spokesman for the league, the NBA’s Facebook page has 7.3 million followers from the Philippines, the largest of any country outside of the United States. Stephen Curry has visited the country multiple times. His teammate, Klay Thompson, taped a video message in 2015 specifically for his Filipino fans. Multiple networks, including Fox Sports and Solar, broadcast 30 live games per week during the regular season. Two of the most notable figures of Filipino descent in the NBA are Jordan Clarkson, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard, and Erik Spoelstra, coach of the Miami Heat.

This all began in the early 1900s, when basketball was introduced into schools in the Philippines. In 1913, the first Far Eastern Championship Games — an early version of what is now known as the Asian Games — took place in Manila, featuring several East Asian countries taking part in Olympics-style competitions, including basketball. It was the first of 10 biennial events, before disagreements between the countries disbanded the games. The Philippines won gold in nine of them.

Benjamin Gawa, left, 6, plays basketball as girls practiced during a Junior NBA program at Don Bosco Technical Institute in Makati, the Philippines, April 28, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
The Galigar family watched a first round NBA playoff game between the Nuggets and Spurs at home while getting ready in the morning, in the Tondo, Manila slum, the Philippines, April 26, 2019. Early morning NBA game watching is his nearly daily ritual. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The country’s population took to basketball en masse. In 1936, its national team made the Olympics and placed fifth, finishing 4-1 in the tournament. At the 1954 FIBA world championship, the Philippines won a bronze medal, the best finish for an Asian country. Two decades later, in 1975, the Philippine Basketball Association, Asia’s first basketball league, was created. These games kept the sport at the forefront of Filipino culture and helped grow interest throughout the 20th century.

“This is my life! This is my life!” proclaimed a basketball fan, Teddy Garces, after his team, Rain Or Shine Elasto Painters, won Game 6 to tie the 2019 Philippine Basketball Association Cup semifinal series with Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok on a Friday night in April. Garces, a fan of the game for 30 years, spent most of the evening in motion, sitting in his courtside seat one minute then hopping up on the advertising panels every time a Rain or Shine player scored.

Across the court, Ehla DeJesus, 17, and her sister Rochellyn, 9, moved as if to counterbalance Garces. The sisters jumped up dancing each time the Magnolia Hotshots got a basket. The energy of Garces, the DeJesus sisters and others rocked the Ynares Center in Antipolo City until the last play of the game.

Earlier in the day, basketball devotees in the country had been transfixed by another Game 6, more than 8,000 miles away, when the Denver Nuggets played the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Men play basketball in the Tondo Manila slum in the Philippines, April 27, 2019. Early morning NBA game watching is his nearly daily ritual. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Players in a tournament at the Manila City Jail Complex, which included 12 teams, in the Philippines, April 30, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times


In Tondo, a Manila slum, a fisherman, Joel Galigar, desperately tried to connect his TV antenna so he and his family could watch the game. Early-morning NBA game-watching is his nearly daily ritual. But after trying and failing to get the antenna adjusted, and finally relying on a neighbor who came to the rescue with a borrowed cable box, Galigar and his family of six watched the game in their barely standing tiny hut. Soon after the game began, neighbors started to crowd around the hut, leaning in to catch a glimpse of the game.

All week similar scenes played out in Quezon City and Manila. On the mornings when NBA games were being played, nearly every home visited by Lee was watching the game.

Men play basketball among the apartment tombs at Navotas City Cemetery in Manila, the Philippines, April 30, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times 
A basketball court at Tenement, surrounded by the building’s walkways, in Taguig, Philippines, April 28, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times


Corporations have seen the opportunity. In 2013, Nike took LeBron James to the country for a short visit. Curry visited in September on the first stop of his Under Armour Asian Tour. It was his second visit.

Under heavy clotheslines in a narrow alley on a recent Saturday morning, Randy Fausto wore Curry’s jersey while playing the Filipino version of pool and watching a Golden State Warriors game through a window. Fausto claimed the jersey was his lucky charm. After the Warriors game ended, men migrated to nearby Asamba Covered Court, where Romeo Naguiat was playing. Naguiat is unemployed and plays daily, including in a local league.

Back in the center of Manila, Gil Tandoc, his 7-year-old son, Michael; and 9-year-old daughter, Elgene; worked at the family’s convenience store adjacent to the Manila City Jail Complex. The store sells basketballs.

While Michael and Elgene tirelessly bounced the basketball off the fence surrounding the jail’s entrance, inmates and guards inside the jail were busy getting ready for their own basketball tournament.

Up the coast from the jail in Navotas, other games happen in the unlikeliest of places. As the sun began to go down and the heat lost its intensity, the players — both adults and children — came out to play at Navotas City Cemetery among the “apartment tombs,” stacks of concrete boxes containing the dead. It was there that 21-year-old Renalto AbAdies, who lives in a slum adjacent to the cemetery, played on a recent evening. “I don’t fear the dead,” said AbAdies, who said he has spent his life playing there.

In the Philippines, the game is everywhere.

Men play basketball among the apartment tombs at Navotas City Cemetery in Manila, the Philippines, April 30, 2019. Basketball has been in the Philippines since the sport’s earliest days. And it’s everywhere you go, from churches to jails to the slums. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times