Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

My Photo
Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Is this the end?

Man, this is tough. I'm moving to a more official website, That means I'll probably be writing more, which is good, but this right here has so much history. You can actually see me grow from a fairly naive Amboy to a fairly less idiotic kano in each post. I'll never forget the nights I spent slapping lamok off my ankles while trying to come up with something entertaining to say. Or how I rushed to write something about the Karl Malone to Red Bull rumors because I knew if I waited an extra day, the fact that it was pure, unadulterated bola would emerge, and I wouldn't be able to imagine what it would be like to watch the Mailman play against the Express! This blog will always remind me of the best three years of my life.

To quote a famous song: Manila Vanilla, hindi ka namin malilimutan.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Haiti has jeepneys too!

My thoughts upon seeing this NPR/PBS Newshour spot on Haitian Tap Taps, which appear to be almost exactly the same as jeepneys.
  1. They have jeepneys, too!
  2. They stole that whole idea from the Philippines!
  3. Did the Philippines steal that whole idea from Haiti?
  4. Which country was the first to start painting its share taxis with a semiotic salad of family references, religious homages and pop culture icons? And can Filipinos (and foreigners who care about the Philippines) continue to point to the jeepney as a unique example of Pinoy ingenuity? Ingenuity, yes. But is it unique if other countries have developed something so similar?
  5. OK, my man in the video can paint, but does he also outfit Tap Taps with giant Mercedes grill pieces, longhorn skulls and horns that blare Star Trek phaser sounds in traffic? If not, then our Haitian friends still have a way to go before they can stand on equal footing with the Jeepney.
  6. Part of me resents this kind of journalism. It smacks of foreign reporters who don't know much about the countries they get dropped into, so they do stories about whatever first grabs their attention. In the Philippines, at least, there isn't a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide that doesn't include a long, competent discussion of jeepneys, multicabs and FXs. And that's where it seems like these discussions belong -- in travelogues, in blogs of tourists and volunteers, etc. Take note, so when you read my description of jeepneys and basketball iconography, you can call me out for being a hypocrite. You'll be right. But what I hope I manage not to do is exoticize the jeepney. It's important to avoid the kind of tone that makes foreign readers feel like they're on safari: "The colorful natives enjoy riding in painted vehicles!" And while the NPR correspondent here doesn't do anything that egregious, I detected a whiff of that sentiment in his report.
  7. Finally, thanks to the Wikipedia share taxi entry (linked above), check out some of the names of the jeepney's worldwide brethren! The Albanian Furgon. The West African bush taxi. The Tanzanian dala-dala, which could work in Tagalog. The Costa Rican taxi pirata. They all sound so interesting. Exotic, even...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bigatin na ako!

No, not a Bigat10, although I once was one of those, as pretty much any tricycle driver in LP TODA can attest, but now I'm a real big-timer, because I contributed a guest blog to FreeDarko. What's even more exciting is that the post focuses on some of the unique aspects of Philippine basketball, including pektos, pag-upo sa ere, and larong buko. Not to mention, pretty amazing video of Samboy Lim, the 1996 Ginebra team and Noli Locsin wanting to make bugbog all over Bonel Balingit's face. Only our imaginations can tell us how that might have worked out for Noli, but I, for one, would not want to step to big baby Bonel.

The Samboy Lim video, by the way, is so sublime, it almost seems appropriate with musical accompaniment by Yanni. I've been watching it with breakfast every day for the past week, and I'm not tired of it yet.

Finally, if you aren't already reading FreeDarko, it's time to get your weight up, and if you haven't already seen their Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, you're missing out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Crispa saga continues (finally); some thoughts on Alaska

My apologies for the month-long hiatus. I have myself to blame, plus other deadlines and the fact that I'm scanning these Crispa images in on a hopeless HP home scanner that, combined with a mothballed Dell desktop, takes about 20 minutes to produce one of these images.

But my oh my, is it ever worth it? As our journey through what we believe to be the 1977 All-Filipino conference continues, how's this for a comeback? A ceremonial toss between Ramon 'El Presidente' Fernandez and Abet Guidaben, who once owned a video shop called 'Abetamax.' I expect by morning in New York, I'll know who the lovely muse is. If you're expecting me to recognize martial law era starlets on sight, than I will disappoint you time and again. I was neither alive nor in Manila in 1977.

Everyone looks positively effervescent in this shot, which seems normal for ceremonial tosses, but there's a reason I'm posting this "can't we all just get along" image right now. Earlier this week, my idol Jaemark wrote a post at FireQuinito that focused on the series of wise personnel moves--especially trades--that the Alaska Aces have made over the years. Jaemark's infographics are works of brilliant simplicity; they start with general PBA truisms like "Alaska has made some great trades" or "San Miguel Corp. sister teams have looted the talent of poorer teams in lopsided deals" and lets us see a chart filled with example after example proving those cases. He tosses in some welcome jokes and analysis, but in the end, the graphics say it all.

I spent the 2007 import conference with the Aces and got to know the organization well. Even though only five players (six, if you count Tony dela Cruz, who missed that conference to play for the national team) from that championship team remain on Alaska's roster, I think I can add some perspective to Jaemark's analysis.

One of the interesting things about Alaska in the past five years has been the feast-or-famine nature of the team. They're either world beaters, sweeping Ginebra en route to the current All-Pinoy finals, winning the 2007 import conference and losing seven-game series in the semis and finals to the eventual champions of the last two All-Filipino conferences; or, they're hapless, the picture of a basketball death spiral, as they've been in the past two import conferences. Why does a talented roster that plays well together seem to collapse every other tournament?

I think part of the explanation lies in Alaska's much-admired team culture. The Aces value continuity--most of the time, when they draft or trade for a player, they intend to keep him around for years and give him a chance to develop (they've been less successful integrating talented draftees like Aaron Aban and KC dela Peña than veterans). Alaska tries to run the team with the same wholesome values that you might associate with the milk company's brand image. This isn't just marketing, but a philosophy that comes straight from owner Fred Uytengsu. The times I talked to him, I got the feeling that the most important part of owning a PBA franchise, to him, was not winning championships but competing honorably. That means creating an atmosphere of trust and respect among teammates and coaches and following league rules on the salary cap and maximum salaries to the letter. Team Manager Joaqui Trillo, the lead negotiator in Alaska's contract talks with players, once told me that when players come to Alaska from other teams and asked about side contracts and extra bonuses, all he can do is chuckle and offer them an extra crate of milk.

This team-building approach is refreshing, especially considering that Alaska's stiffest competition often comes from teams who pursue winning at any cost and assemble rosters like rival powers accumulating nukes in an arms race. But don't forget that when all is said and done, Alaska Milk Corporation is a business, and any money they don't spend on players' salaries enhances the company's bottom line or can be reinvested into the business. While I believe that the team is committed to honest competition for its own sake, there's no denying that this commitment helps keep the team budget under control. That's good for Alaska Milk, but what about the Aces themselves? It's a complicated issue for the players. Like any athlete, they're competitive and want to win every game. At the same time, they're aware that they're playing this sport professionally, and that the number of years they have to earn PBA money is limited. They're supporting their immediate families and usually extended families in Manila or the provinces. They have to be conscious of getting the best deal possible, because no one but themselves is going to look out for them.

Sometimes, from this perspective, a player might wonder if Alaska's "family values" are really about being honest and playing by the rules or just a convenient justification for paying their players less than competing teams do. Team management's challenge is to find players who might not be thrilled to be making less than their peers at Talk 'N Text, but who nonetheless are such competitors that they'll play their guts out as long as their with the Aces. For players, it's much easier to buy into the team ethic during good times. When Alaska's on a roll, the team really does feel like a family. Willie Miller's pranks will have the entire team and coaching staff in stitches, players will show up unannounced at JoLas's summertime clinics for kids and step in as coaches, and you'll find half the team sitting around a bank of Monoblock tables at Metrowalk, drinking San Mig Lights and making kuwento. Players who came to Alaska from other teams or left the Aces to play elsewhere said that while locker rooms are always tight-knit, nothing compares to Alaska.

In bad times, however, everyone seems more aware of the business side of basketball. The coaches, feeling like their jobs may be endangered if they don't produce wins, get short-tempered with the players. Fewer won-game bonuses come in, and players gripe more often and more vehemently about their salaries. They start to question the coaches' judgment: Does a younger player deserve my minutes? Why should I lead the team if there are older guys to take that role? Why do we have to spend so much practice time on the triangle?

And so the happy family devolves into a dysfunctional one very quickly, and, using recent seasons as examples, almost irreversibly. I want to stress that I haven't been with the team during their last two, disappointing import conferences. Bottom line, I am an outsider speculating about what happened. But I was once an insider, and based on the understanding of the organization I developed, I think this analysis can be useful, if not definitive. There are other obvious reasons to explain Alaska's struggles in the recent past. In the 2008 import conference, they fielded 6-8 (and that's being generous) Randy Holcomb in a conference with no height limit. Alaska hoped that Holcomb, a superior slasher, would attack the basket and get bigger, opposing imports into foul trouble. Too often, he settled for jumpers, and Sonny Thoss had to defend legit 7-footers like Adam Parada and Chris Alexander. In 2009, the Aces hired Galen Young to keep Roe Ellis's spot warm while the former Best Import finished his season in Australia. Young turned old since we last saw him lead SMB into the 2007 semifinals, and Alaska started 0-4. Ellis returned and put up ever-steady numbers, but the team was already in a death spiral, and Alaska sputtered to an exit in the wild card phase of the playoffs. The right import can make a huge difference--look at how Shawn Daniels and Steve Thomas have turned Air21/Burger King from All-Pinoy also-rans to Fiesta conference contenders year after year.

It would be crazy to blame Alaska's troubles in the past two import conferences on the team's balancing act of contracts and egos. So much more determines whether a team has a successful season. But if Alaska sometimes seems combustible and volatile, like they'll either be world-beaters or cellar-dwellers, it might be wise to consider how the team is dealing with its ever-present challenge of paying top players less than they could earn elsewhere and keeping them happy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Crispanatic Delight #2

The second installment in my project to scan an entire Crispa yearbook and share it with the Net. Here, the Redmanizers are seen celebrating a conference championship. Early indications, which we'll discuss in subsequent posts, lead me to believe it could be the first conference title of 1977. Would any of my readers with deeper Philippine basketball roots care to give a full roster of the players, coaches, managers and other personalities in this photo? I see Danny Floro, Philip Cezar, Freddie Hubalde, Atoy Co, Tito Varela (kalbo!) and a few other recognizable faces, but I also see some faces I don't know. Educate me! I have lugaw on the stove. Gotta go check it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Crispanatic's Wet Dream

I don't know how many Crispanatics are still out there, but wherever you are, I have a treat for you. In late 2005, shortly after I arrived in the Philippines, I saw some kind of TV news lifestyle segment on Tiendesitas, the upscale Tiangge at the corner of C-5 and Ortigas Avenue, and decided to check it out. I will always remember that trip for two reasons. First, it was the day that the geography of the lower part of Quezon City clicked in my head. While sitting in a taxi headed toward Rosario, I noticed the road that takes you past Green Meadows and realized I knew how to get back to Katipunan from there. Later that day, foolishly, I decided to put my knowledge to the test, and walked from Tiendesitas to Green Meadows, then across to White Plains, past the Mormon temple, past the row of fertilizer and garden supply shops, up to Santolan, past Blue Ridge and now on Katipunan Extension, past Dannylicious and Countryside (oh the barbecue I missed that day!) over the flyover and finally into Loyola Heights and home. The trip took almost two hours but felt like seven. I realized by the time I hit the Mormon temple that I had set myself up for a miserable afternoon, but once I had committed to the trek, I refused to give up, even if it meant tripling my agony. It wasn't the heat or the exhaust fumes that did me in, but the fact that many sections of the walk I just described were woefully barren. There were no other pedestrians, just cars zipping past and taxis taunting me with their be-bopping horns. Often, I was just walking alongside high wall of a closed subdivision or an empty field or the air above the Marikina Valley. That view is actually quite splendid, but by the time I got there I was shuffling forward on little more than spite and didn't bother admiring the city.

Luckily, when I got home, I had something special to look at. A beat-up Crispa photo album from the late Seventies that I bought from an antique shop at Tiendesitas, which is the second reason I won't forget that afternoon. At the time, I don't think I really even knew who the Crispa Redmanizers were or why they mattered. I just bought the album because it looked like an important piece of history. Given how sparse the photo and especially video record is of the early PBA, I do consider this album to be a pretty meaningful find. Even before I could recognize the players in it, before Toyota #7 meant something to me, I could look at this and feel the immense passion behind Philippine basketball, and I can still look at some of these photos and feel inspired. I'm going to do my best to scan them all over the next few months and post them here for the world to see, if anyone ever finds my blog.

I'm not 100 percent sure what year this album is from. I could find out with a little more digging, but I bet some commenters will provide important clues. One possibly telling fact is that Freddie Hubalde is prominently featured in it. That leads me to believe that it's either a 1977 album, since Hubalde won the MVP that season, or it's a personal album made for Hubalde or one of his fans or someone in his family. As you can see, the very first photo in the whole album is a really nice portrait of Freddie, the only such headshot in the entire album. Enjoy reliving what many Filipinos consider to be the PBA's glory days.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Manny W. Pacquiao?

The news earlier this week that Manny Pacquiao talked to God about the great power he'd one day be blessed with reminded me of the recurring kerfuffle during the Bush years whenever George W. Bush would claim that God instructed him to make certain decisions as commander in chief. One of them, it appears, was invading Iraq. God, would you like to own up to that blunder?

Anyway, now that Pacquiao is back on the campaign trail, albeit unofficially until the campaign period starts next March, his Holy tête-à-tête reminded me of Bush. Here's what Pacquiao told the 1500 lucky attendees at his 31st birthday bash in General Santos City:
In my 31 years here on Earth, God appeared to me once and told me to have unconditional faith in him. I was not yet very popular and world champion when our God appeared to me and assured me of strength and power.
Of course, the alarm bells don't sound quite as quickly in the Philippines when a politician says he's guided by God as they do here in the States. Many Americans were shocked by Bush's bald-faced Bible-thumping. We knew he was Born Again, but the idea that he would use his power in office do whatever his lord asked of him was disturbing to a country that has enshrined the separation of church and state in the bill of rights. Of course, I think the Philippines has some nominal devotion to this concept, but the inability to pass urgently-needed family planning and birth control legislation and the Comelec's ugly disqualification of the Gay Rights party list group Ang Ladlad on grounds of "sexual immorality" seem to indicate that Catholic doctrine is in many cases stronger than lofty democratic ideals.

I'm Christian and I'm looking forward to Christmas here in New York (sadly, there will be no queso de bola, no buko salad, no nothing at my noche buena this evening -- can you feel my inggit?), but I think important government decisions are better made by men and women who aren't driven by their unwavering faith in religious dogma that isn't necessarily shared by the citizens they serve.

In other Pacquiao news, Manny took the oath of the Nacionalista Party this week and made formal his alliance with presidential candidate Manny Villar, an event many people saw coming after Mr. Sipag at Tiyaga showed up at Pacquiao's Baguio City training camp to talk politics and showed up in HBO's Pacquiao/Cotto 24/7. I don't know if it matters which candidate Pacquiao sides with. There's something heartening about knowing he's officially out of PGMA's Lakas-Kampi pocket, although who knows what kind of nasty crud lies hidden in Senator Villar's deep pockets. I am impressed by the sheer gonzo nature of Villar's Nacionalista slate, which includes Bongbong Marcos, whose dictator dad imprisoned Junior's running mate, Satur Ocampo, as well as all-around lunatic Miriam Defensor Santiago and Mr. Resiklo, Bong Revilla. Which Nacionalista Party candidate will dominate this week's Metro Manila Film Festival? Wapakman or Ang Panday?