Manila Vanilla

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

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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, December 31, 2005

Updated!!! PBA Imports: Won't you take me to? 'Tweenertown!

In basketball, a 'tweener is a player stuck between two positions. A power forward stuck in the body of a small forward; a guy who plays like a shooting guard but has the height of a point guard.

Look up "'tweener" in the dictionary and you will find a picture of the legendary Byron Houston.

Time for a brief detour into William Safire/H.L. Mencken territory -- somewhere I don't really belong. But being "between" two positions implies a reciprocal relationship where 'tweeners are too small for one position and too big for another. But there's really no such thing as too big in basketball, so 'tweeners are almost always just undersized. Magic Johnson was about 7 inches taller than point guards normally are, but the idea of calling him a PG trapped in a small forward's body is downright loony. However, "'tweener" is part of common basketball usage now, so the imprecise language seems like it's here to stay.

'Tweeners don't make it in the NBA. The players are so good there that being three inches shorter than the man you're matched up against is a serious disadvantage. 6'7'' power forwards have to play against 6'11'' guys with the same skills, and most of the time, even guys who play bigger than their height struggle to make an impact.

In Philippine professional basketball, however, American 'tweeners are all the rage.

The PBA's import height limit of 6'6'' is intended to keep native players competitive. Starting guards in the league are usually less than 6-feet tall, and small forwards top out around 6'3''. The tallest Filipino players are about 6'9", and most of them have some serious mixed blood, which in some cases (Mick Pennisi and Asi Taulava, among others), has caused skepticism that they're Filipino imposters ("Fil-Sham" is the local term, a play on Fil-Am, for Filipino-American).

Teams out here want their imports to do everything -- score, rebound, pass, block shots, get steals, etc. 'Tweeners, armed with basketball adaptations and hybrid skills that have allowed them to excel despite their size limitations, often offer the best bang for a team's buck.

The PBA's 'tweener imports also have funny quirks and kinks in their games. These deviations from textbook basketball skills are probably why they couldn't play in the NBA, but the unique styles make them fun players to watch.

Here are some of the imports who caught my eye this conference, for one reason or another:

Grab the proton packs. Zool has done it again.

  • Shawn Daniels, Air 21 Express -- Imagine yourself as a young Filipino forward from somewhere on the Visayan Island of Negros Occidental. A 6'4'' stringbean, lanky and fearless. You come from a large, relatively poor family, but you struggled and made it to the PBA. Then you have to deal with Shawn Daniels.

    The 6'6'', 250-pound beefcake Daniels, who played college ball for Utah State, looks like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man's politically-correct, ethnically-diverse cousin. He looks like he eats skinny boys like you the same way you eat Negros' famous Bacolod Chicken Inasal. Literally.

    But seriously, if the first thing you notice about Daniels is his girth, the second thing you should notice is the expert way he uses it to body lighter players close to the basket. He usually plays the first half on chill, scoring about 8 points on offensive rebounds and letting Air 21's long-distance chuckers Ren-Ren Ritualo and Wynne Arboleda bomb away.

    In the second half, Daniels starts pounding. No one in the league is as wide as this guy, with the possible exception of Coke's Fil-Am Ali Peek, who resembles a 6'4'' human brick. Daniels backs defenders down, gets them stuck to his big ol' butt, and just banks shots in all night.

    My favorite Daniels move is a staple of New York widebodies. If he's missing shots, it doesn't matter, because he just keeps leaning on his defender to force him out of position and snatching the rebounds, repeating the process several times, inching closer to the basket until he finally makes one. It's as if he's missing on purpose to pad his stats.

    An eruption of emotion from Mount St. Greer.

  • Quemont Greer, Red Bull Barako -- When he's playing well, Greer is the most exciting player in the league. He's toughest around the basket, especially inside the key, where he's got a soft touch and a knack for getting all kinds of borderline circus shots to fall, even against good defense. He was doing this against Louisville and Cincinatti when he played for DePaul, so he isn't having many problems scoring in the PBA.

    The two most entertaining aspects to Greer's game are his ball-handling and the way he carries himself on the court. For a 6'6'' guy with shoulders that appear to be almost four feet wide, he's got some really nice moves off the dribble. No import leaves as many defenders looking confused as he does after a couple hesitation inside-out fakes and a crossover.

    Greer also acts like the WWF/WWE's Undertaker on the court. He's a very quiet, reserved guy, and he rarely shows much emotion during games. This is often hilarious because he'll be swatting shots, dunking on people, faking guys out and making them jump in the wrong direction, and all the while he walks around like some kind of stern-faced Dickensian magistrate. (Reader, please note that the Dickens reference is based on my preconceptions of Dickens novels more than my actual knowledge of them.)

    Greer plays at the same deceivingly high level of intensity, always looking like he's too cool to exert himself but at the same time scoring more than anyone in the league. He lopes back on defense in a pigeon-toed strut just in time to grab a rebound and key the fast break. Then he glides across half-court, catches the ball at the top of the key, holds it for a moment as if he's wondering what he feels like doing, then breezes past his guy to the rim.

    His on-court persona is a lot like his real personality -- extremely reserved. It betrays the fact that he actually plays very hard. But it's great entertainment to watch a guy who so nonchalantly punishes his opponents while they frantically try to stop him.

    Odell Bradley at his most cheerful after winning the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament MVP in 2004.

  • Odell Bradley, Alaska Aces -- He's a relatively new import and only has a couple games under his belt in the PBA, but they have been impressive. Bradley is more of a true guard than most of the other imports. He's about 6'3'' and 220 pounds and his mean gameface and powerful, squat build are reminiscent of a bulldog.

    Hiring a smaller import is an interesting bit of strategy from Alaska, because it upsets the inherent balance in PBA games where imports usually guard each other. It turns the contest into a chaotic free-for-all.

    The 6'6'' 'tweener imports can't stick with Bradley on the perimeter, so he gets matched up with a native players. At the same time, Bradley can't handle the bigger Americans inside, so they too get to play against Filipinos.

    The end result is a scoring contest. The imports score at will against their native competitors while the supporting casts, instead of watching the two Americans battle one-on-one every other possession, get involved in a free-flowing shootout.

    In the Christmas day game between Alaska and the Barangay Ginebra Gin-Kings, Bradley torched his Filipino defender for 21 points in the third quarter and 34 overall. Many of his points came off of extremely difficult off-the-dribble three-point bombs. When they tried to play him close on the perimeter and stop his jumper, he just muscled the smaller Filipino players to the basket and scored that way. There doesn't seem to be anyone to guard him in this league.

    (By the way, Alaska is a popular powdered milk brand in the Philippines; although, it would be cool if the 49th state randomly decided to purchase a professional basketball team in the Philippines.)

    So listen up, America, the next time you're in Manila and wondering which professional basketball game to go to, find out which team has a smallish import like Odell Bradley. And then don't sit behind the basket unless you want to listen to wailing transvestites cheer on their favorite players for two hours.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Department of State on surviving the tropics

After the monthly stipend that allows me to live in third-world opulence, the best thing the U.S. Department of State Fulbright program has given me is the U.S. Fulbright Fellow Orientation Handbook. More specifically, Appendix F, "Helpful Hints for Life in the Tropics," which consistently proves its ability to brighten the blackest moods with deadpan proscriptions for dealing with equatorial horrors.

Cockroaches, meet your doom..

Here are some of my favorite hints:

1. "Schisto parasites, carried by snails, may be present in freshwater lakes and streams and can cause a very unpleasant disease."

Is anything more vague or cryptic than this?

2. "The sun is very hot and can burn you quickly, especially between noon and 4 pm."

Really, surface and core temperatures of 11,000 and 27 million degrees Farenheit, respectively, don't sound that hot. Thanks for the tip!

3. "Iron all clothes which have been hung outside. This kills the larvae of flies before they can burrow into your skin."

Oh the humanity! I actually considered turning down my grant because of this one.

4. "[Cockroaches] eat clothing, books, and furniture, as well as food, voraciously. They do not only crawl, they fly as well."

Truer words hath never been spoken. I'd like to add that they also hiss, menacingly.

5. "A mixture of mashed potatoes and boric acid is lethal to cockroaches but this is a dangerous poison and must be kept away from the reach of children and pets."

So many questions here. Why mashed potatoes? What about baked potatoes, potatoes au gratin or TGI Friday's Potato Skins? Don't you have a host of new problems after you've chucked gobs of toxic potatoes all over your house?

Now, some hints I would have included if I were writing the Orientation Handbook:

These mosquitoes have learned from the best.

1. Human papillomavirus, carried by erotic masseurs named Penelope, may be present in the masseurs' nether regions and can also cause a very unpleasant disease.

2. Change sponges regularly. They are a favorite burrowing place for tiny worms, which are not what you want to be squeezing onto your dirty dishes.

3. Expect mosquitoes to be faster and more intelligent than North American bloodsuckers. They have the cunning and patience of the Predator, they almost always bite below the ankles, and you'll never catch one in the act of biting you.

Sun, fun, babes, bugs, basketball, worms, parasites, VDs, graft, corruption, bribery, pollution, pools of sweat. It's Manila! What's not to love?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

PBA Swap-meet

In the sometimes-bizarro world of the Philippine Basketball Association, the best players have the least job security.

The import players -- usually American players from decent Division 1 programs with varying levels of international experience -- dominate the competition. They rack up 30- and 40- point games pretty regularly, and occasionally manage outlandish statistical feats like quadruple doubles of points, rebounds, assists and steals/blocks.

PBA teams, like Janet, don't care about last week's triple double. It's all about "What have you done for me lately?"

Teams and coaches expect their imports to put up these numbers, but despite their acknowledged importance to the teams, it's normal for foreign players to get cut after one bad performance.

The way teams treat their franchise players here is the exact opposite to the way American college and pro teams treat their stars. After a poor shooting night, a coach in the United States usually drops all the de rigeur supportive cliches: "We need to have confidence in our guy," "I know he'll make them when it counts," and "His shot just wasn't falling."

In the PBA, they sing a different tune. "We're evaluating our options" or "We'll see who we can get by next week," a Philippine pro coach might say after his import clanks his way to a 20 percent shooting night.

The process of replacing imports -- handled with about as much care as changing a spare tire -- is mind-bending. The players know they can get the hook at any time, but the teams give them very little advance warning and don't really discuss the import's chances of staying on the team with the player.

The days after a bad game must be harrowing for foreign PBA players, like bombing at amateur night on Showtime at the Apollo -- everybody's waving you off the stage, and it's only a matter of seconds before the Sandman comes out to sweep you away with the push-broom.

Even the PBA's leading scorer is currently on the chopping block. He's averaging around 27 points per game, but he had a horrendous shooting night (1 for 10 from the line; 4-21 from the field) and now his team is fishing for replacements. When they found a guy, they didn't tell the current player until about five hours before his potential replacement flew into Manila.

If you don't like this slab of beef, we can pull another one out of the freezer! How does Dickey Simpkins sound? I got some fresh Ace Custis in here somewhere.

When the team called their somewhat-unsuspecting import to break the news, they offered as consolation the opportunity to keep his roster spot by outplaying the new ringer in practice. I'm still shocked the player didn't hand over the keys to his hotel room and hop on a plane back to Milwaukee. He accepted the deal, and the team is practicing with both guys -- from the perspective of the team, it might be more appropriate to call them slabs of meat or circus animals -- and trying to evaluate who will give them a better chance in the playoffs.

Note to readers: I apologize for being vague regarding the players' and teams' names. I'm writing about the players and teams involved in this situation for a publication in the States and I don't want to publish too much of the story online before I sell the official version.

As the import showdown unfolded, I could hardly believe the seemingly underhanded way the players were jerked around. I was feeling pretty indignant on their behalf, but everyone involved was strangely blasé about it.

I asked around, and their nonchalance was due to the fact that imports are shipped like this all the time in the Philippines. The Santa Lucia Realtors, one of the worst teams in the league, have had four different imports during the 16-game regular season. The Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings just dropped Sean Lampley for former Auburn stud and one-time Golden State Warrior Chris Porter.

The PBA's market for imported star players isn't much different from Manila's frenetic food, clothing and craft markets and pawn shops -- picking up a new 6'5'' swingman with hops and SEC credentials isn't any harder than buying pirated DVDs or a papaya bigger than your head.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Reviews of "Crashing the Borders"

Last week I devoted a couple posts to the advance proof edition of "Crashing the Borders," a new basketball book by New York Times columnist Harvey Araton. Now, I give you a couple articles from the Times itself about the book. The paper lined up two impressive reviewers -- Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff and Terry Pluto, whose books "Big Game, Small World" and "Loose Balls," respectively, are vital additions to any serious basketball library.

Let's not forget that Harvey Potter touts his rough-and-tumble upbringing in a Staten Island housing project multiple times in "Crashing the Borders." What's his Wu-Gambino nickname, again?

A chapter from Wolff's "Big Game" on Philippine basketball inspired me to apply for the Fulbright grant that landed me in Manila. Pluto's oral history of the old ABA is a lot more fun lesson in basketball history than books about the old NBA, which tend to focus ad nauseam on the Celtics' dynasty with Bill Russell and Red Auerbach, who -- to this 23-year-old, at least -- seem like the two most self-righteous know-it-alls in league history. But international basketball -- in some of the remote places Wolff goes to -- and the ABA were both very underreported stories at the time each book was written.

Wolff's review is pretty short. He gives a rundown of Araton's argument about the system-wide failure in American basketball, and that's about it. He agrees with the Araton's notion that versatile, fundamentally-sound foreign players are improving the NBA game, and says they're responsible for faster-paced, higher-scoring games over the last two seasons. That sounds like a reference to Canadian point guard Steve Nash on the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns to me, which is a bit of a red herring since Nash played college ball in California and developed in the American system.

I'm similarly irked when writers, in their overzealous attempts to hype the dominance of foreign players in the NBA, point to Tim Duncan's upbringing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as if Duncan didn't play four years of college ball in the ACC or as if he didn't compete on Team USA at the Athens Olympics. Young American players like Amare Stoudamire, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and their ilk are doing as much to restore the NBA's luster as Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovich and Andrei Kirilenko are.

My favorite part of Wolff's review is his playful ribbing of Araton's fondness for adjectives. "The author rarely permits a noun to leave the locker room unaccessorized with modifiers," says Wolff, referring to Araton-isms like "unspeakable inferno" and "orgasmic marketing inferno." I don't remember feeling like the book was over-written while I was reading it. I just get a kick out of one writer taking polite pot-shots at another.

In his review, Pluto chides Araton for trying to discredit Michael Jordan's winning bucket in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against the Utah Jazz, where Mike chicken-winged Bryon Russell to the floor before hitting the shot. Like that M.J. pull-up, Pluto's view of the book -- that it's splendid food for thought and that "the fights you can pick with Mr. Araton about his book are reasons to read it" -- is right on target.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Taxicab Confessions

There are a lot of terrible jobs in Manila. Traffic officers stand in the sweltering heat all day long, sucking in diesel fumes and vainly trying to direct the swarming, weaving mass of trucks, jeepneys, cars, motorbikes, pedicabs and pedestrians -- all of them determined to ignore the officer. Some guys make a living by walking through the rush-hour gridlock on massive thoroughfares like EDSA, tapping on windows and hawking individual cigarettes, single pieces of candy and the occasional bizarre, found item like a plumber's metal snake for unclogging toilets and drains. Even people with normal jobs by American standards, like convenience store cashiers, are so poorly paid you wonder if it's worth the effort. From the privileged perch of an American point-of-view, it's hard to think of many jobs here that aren't awful.

The neighborhood street hawker. You want plumbing snake?

It's always somewhat shocking, then, to see how cheerful people are while slogging through the daily grind. Manila taxi drivers, for example, have every reason to be hateful misanthropes, but are almost inexplicably friendly. And while it's not entirely unexpected, given the legacy of American colonialism and high rates of English literacy in the Philippines, it never fails to amuse me that the average Manila cabbie's English is about five grade levels higher than his New York counterpart.

The obvious annoyances and dangers that cab drivers face on the streets of Manila are traffic, frequent hold-ups, the city's enormous square-mileage, unmarked streets, and guarded subdivisions that are off-limits to the public.

Light traffic in Manila.

Manila traffic deserves its own word. "Traffic" alone is not enough to describe it. The creative, albeit insane drivers of the city routinely make three-lane streets into six-lane morasses. Between 4 and 8 p.m. (make it 2 a.m. on Fridays), it could easily take an hour and a half to drive somewhere you walk in 20 minutes. The American notions of signalling, waving and allowing drivers to get over are useless here; they would make driving even slower. Depending on the size of the vehicle, the lane-changing schools of thought are "survival of the fittest" and "get in where you fit in." Massive buses and the long, colorfully-painted and lightly-armored Jeepneys -- one-time U.S. army transport vehicles that have been refinished for public transportation -- butt in and out of lanes whenever their drivers want, and operators of smaller cars make room or get run off the road. Smaller, more maneuverable rides, however, have the advantage of being able to speed ahead on the elbow or, occasionally, the sidewalk, and then sneak back into traffic.

The Jeepney. Pimp my decades-old army transport vehicle!

Cab drivers spend half their waking hours dealing with this. What's worse -- for them, at least -- is that their meters start at 30 Philippine pesos, roughly 60 cents. About every eighth of a mile, the fare rises 2.50 pesos -- a nickel. And there is no time element to the meter. Only distance. So drivers make nothing for all the time they spend sitting in traffic, burning up gas they paid for.

Yet despite all this, many of my most memorable conversations in Manila have been with cab drivers. One guy named Bernard, who keeps a lineup of five stuffed, Beethoven dogs on his dashboard, kept promising me that I wouldn't leave the country without a Filipina wife, because they have "too much sexy body." Every time he said it he let out this giddy, sinister laugh that could earn him a nickname like "Chuckles" in a mafia film.

Bernard, like many of the cabbies I've met, is a sports enthusiast. Being Filipino, they have no choice but to like basketball and boxing, but they also love pro wrestling. Bernard had to pause and gather himself when talking about the recent death of Eddie "Latino Heat" Guerrero, and I could only cheer him up with stories from the WWF glory days of the '80s and early '90s, with the Ultimate Warrior and The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.

Another driver, Marvin Salem, invited me to watch next month's Manny Pacquiao/Erik Morales boxing match with him and his son, Kobe Bryant Salem. Marvin said he saw Kobe Bryant play on a goodwill tour to the Philippines just before young K.B. Salem was born, and he was so moved by Bryant's grace and skill he decided to name his son after him. Let's hope the boy inherits his namesake's athletic prowess and not his Machiavellian thirst for power.

My BFF and fellow New Yorker, Eddie Murphy.

Another charming cabbie quirk is that they seem to be vastly overestimating the close-knit nature of American society. Or underestimating the size of the United States.

Bernard asked me if I ever ate at Michael Jordan's steakhouse. I had. He then asked if M.J. was a nice guy, as if his Airness greets everyone on the way in. When I told another driver I was from New York, he just said, "EDDIE MURPHY!" and also wanted to know if me and Eddie were good friends. When I told him Eddie moved to California to make children's movies and pick up male, cross-dressing prostitute hitchhikers, the subject changed to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did I know him?

I felt like a disappointing American, since my only celebrity claims to fame are having played basketball with a couple Beastie Boys and playing on a youth basketball team -- I like to think of it as a downtown Manhattan dynasty -- with NBA up-and-comer Smush Parker of the L.A. Lakers.

Maybe the greatest testament to the resilient character of Manila cab drivers is the way they deal with adversity. One driver picked me up, drove for about 4 minutes, then started laughing and pulled over. When he noticed my bewildered look, he pointed to the dashboard and said, "No fuel!" and launched into even heavier hysterics.

Michael Douglas wouldn't have been around to save me from the crotch-rocket goons.

Another driver I was with cut off a suped-up Honda Civic with a three-foot spoiler on the back -- the classic Asian Rice Rocket -- and wound up in a slow-speed car chase with the obviously drunk and/or high madmen inside the Honda. They pulled in front of the cab, then slowed down to a crawl and kept sticking their heads out the window and cursing in Tagalog. I was sure a swarm of uzi-toting Pinoy thugs on Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles would appear momentarily to take us out like the Yakuza hitmen who killed Michael Douglas partner in Black Rain. Whenever the cab driver tried to make a move around the Civic, the Honda would lurch and swerve in front of us. When my driver finally escaped by taking an unexpected detour down a narrow alley and doubling back to our previous location, I expected him to be frazzled, frustrated or pissed-off. Instead, he turned to me, raised his palm and said, "Hi-Five!"

Moral of the story: hours of sitting in traffic and inhaling diesel fumes have made Manila's cab drivers completely insane. That's not much of a moral. We need something more maudlin. How's this -- another example of the indistinguishable human spirit at work.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sensationalized History Lesson

I don't know about everyone else, but when I read history books, I'm looking for the insane, disgusting, gruesome and sexual details that pop up every 30 pages. Vile punishments, corrupt largesse, megalomaniacal bosses -- these might not be the driving forces of history, but they are the forces that propel me through a book.

Here are some highlights from the first two chapters of Stanley Karnow's Pulitzer Prize-winning history of American involvement in the Philippines, In Our Image.

Brothers don't shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.

  • "Reflecting the racist attitudes of his time, [William Howard Taft, governor of the Philippines from 1900-1913] was not particularly fond of the Filipinos. But obedient to Root's instructions, he undertook to Americanize "our little brown brothers." Now I have something to say back to people when I'm pissed off and tired of hearing "Hi, Joe!" 17 times per walking mile. "Well, hello to you, my little brown brother."
  • On local justice before the period of Spanish rule began in the 16th century:
    "Trials were public, but not adversarial. The chief sat as judge and the elders as jury, and without lawyers to complicate the proceedings, justice was swift and brutal. Defendants were put through rigorous ordeals on the theory that the gods protected the innocent; to refuse to retrieve a stone from boiling water, for example, was an admission of guilt."
  • On the sex lives of indigenous Filipinos, before Spanish prudes ruined coitus:

    Interests: Golf, the beach, romance novels and backshots from the dong prong.

    "Early Spaniards were avid voyeurs who took a prurient interest in the sex life of the natives ... Antonio Pigafetta [a Venetian aristocrat who chronicled Magellan's first voyage to the Philippines in 1519] interviewed and examined couples at length, with the diligence of Masters and Johnson. 'Both young and old males pierce their penises with a gold or tin rod the size of a goose quill, its ends either pointed like a spur or shaped like the head of a nail ... When a man wishes to have intercourse with a woman, she takes his penis not in the normal way but gentley introduces first the top spur and then the bottom one, into her vagina. Once inside, the penis becomes erect and cannot be withdrawn until it is limp.'"

    Well, that's one way to nip indecisiveness in the bud. Karnow notes, then mocks, the Europeans' cocky and mistaken notion that 16th century Filipinas were into that soft, Luther Vandross style of loving practiced in the West:

    "Pigafetta asserted that the women hated this mode of fornication, which lacerated their organs. 'They very much preferred our men to their own,' he noted with the hint of a boast. He was wrong. Later Spaniards found the painful posture to be the rage, especially in the Visayas. Juan de Medina, an Augustinian friar, wrote that women there would copulate only that way and were "grief stricken" when Catholic missionaries compelled them to reform."

    Note to self: get fitted with an ultra-violent Prince Albert piercing before visiting Cebu.

Of course, these excerpts are to Karnow's book what the local news is to life as a whole. If it bleeds, it leads. All the tantalizing, sensational, bloody, freaky-deaky details.

Karnow digs up some examples of cultural misunderstandings -- the Filipino habit of agreeing with everything you say and promising to help you in face-to-face relations, then completely ignoring those promises, for example -- that plagued Spain's first Philippine viceroy, Manuel Lopez de Legazpi, and continued to marr communication with Westerners all the way through the American colonial period. He also introduces trends like the perpetual dissidence of Muslims in southern islands like Mindanao and the divisive regionalism inherent in a country composed of more than 7,000 islands with hundreds of dialects between them, which in many ways are as much a fact of Philippine life today as they were 500 years ago.

But who cares about that stuff? Bring on the penis prongs!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A fundamental principle of Philippine court etiquette

Offering someone a shot while you're enjoying some private shooting drills on a basketball court in Metro Manila operates on pretty much the same principle as inviting a vampire into your house. Once you do it, you're never going to get rid of them and hell can very quickly break loose.

I experienced this just the other day. I woke up early so I could get in an hour and a half of practice before the ubiquitous league teams that reserve every court with an actual backboard showed up. Nearly every organization, subculture and occupation seems to have its own team. Tricycle drivers play together. Neighborhoods face off against each other. I wouldn't be surprised if the underground communist New People's Army comes out of hiding for league games. The point is, you need to be motivated and little creative if you want to just practice your drop-step.

You'll need a few dozen cloves of garlic, some silver bullets and a wooden stake to keep this meat salesman off the court.

I succeeded. I found some covered courts at an elementary school where the league wasn't starting for a couple hours and the only people around were guys setting up some steam tables full of porcine delights for the players to snack on between games. After about 45 minutes of shooting, one of the pork-chop vendors walked by me and smiled, so I threw him the ball and told him to take a shot.

Silly me, I thought he'd shoot around for a couple minutes and go back to assembling his smorgasbord of intestinal firecrackers. Instead, he called for the other food vendors to join in, and before I could do anything about it my kind gesture exploded into an invitation to host a one-on-one tournament of chain-smoking sausage-slingers wearing tank-tops and slippers. With every shot someone's flip-flop would go flying to the other side of the court. Most of the guys hadn't played in years and wanked the ball off the backboard from one side of the court to the other. I kept waiting and smiling, laughing along with the assorted airballs, thinking that they had to get bored and move on eventually.

Not so. This went on for a good 40 minutes. I could count the number of made baskets on two hands. There was still no sign of stopping. Eventually, I had to pretend I had to meet someone for lunch -- a lame excuse at 10:15 a.m. -- so I could find somewhere else to finish my workout.

Philippine Court Etiquette rule #1: Don't invite people to share the court unless you plan on spending the entire day there with them. This applies to any and everyone, including, but not limited to, 11-year-old girls, chain-smokers, people wearing slippers, flip-flops or any other article of clothing that ought to render playing basketball impossible, and octogenarians, who are often surprisingly nimble on the court.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Araneta Coliseum goes Roman

I railed against a pretty good book by New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton in my last post. I don't agree with the argument in his new book, Crashing the Borders, that American basketball and its players have become indecent, ugly and unlikeable in the past 15 or so years of commercial growth for the NBA, NCAA, AAU and even the And-1 Mixtape Tour.

Case in point: what went down Thursday night in Manila's Araneta Coliseum. It was a feel-good exhibition double-header -- "Dream Game" was the official title -- between the Philippines' most elite universities, Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle. Game one would be a legends game -- old-timers who starred in the '60s, '70s and '80s facing off like it was the good old days. Game two pitted current professional players who'd attended each school against each other.

When you've got crowd control issues, there's only one man to call.

This is by far the most intense sporting rivalry in the Philippines. The actual, non-exhibition games during the July/August college season are supposedly loud enough to cause hearing impairment and about as rowdy as a scene from Road House. Well, the melee broke out Thursday night and Patrick Swayze wasn't around to whip everyone into shape with his well-polished martial arts moves and well-dimpled buttocks.

During the second game, Joseph Yeo, a former De La Salle guard who's now in the PBL (a developmental league players spend a year or two in before moving onto the PBA), served up a forearm shiver that left former Atenean/current PBA player Enrico Villanueva bleeding from the nose and both his upper and lower lips. Unprovoked, he messed up Rico's whole grill. (Perhaps it'd be a good time to refresh your memory of my post comparing Philippine basketball to the classic video game "Arch Rivals," which took the combination of violence and basketball to sublime new heights.)

Yeo, described to me as an up-and-coming Pinoy Allen Iverson by a cab driver, taunted Villanueva as he was helped off the court and "flashed the dirty finger sign" to Ateneo fans, according to the Manila Bulletin.

Don't think you can't catch a beatdown from someone just 'cause he's sporting barong.

The crowd, consisting of well-heeled alumni from both schools who're among the wealthiest, most powerful people in the Philippines, went "bu-bu-bu-buck-buck-buckwild," as Pharoahe Monche would say. They showered the court with trash and pesos, and people who were able to get tickets to the game said that old men in their ultra-formal barong tagalog shirts were screaming Pilipino obscenities along the lines of "I'll have you killed, you fucking faggot!" almost in unison. Given the power some members of the crowd certainly wield and the relative ease with which private armies are bought in this country, those threats probably weren't entirely empty.

But imagine, if you can, an all-out riot about to break out between the blueblood alumni of Harvard and Yale over a basketball game. That's the closest analogy to what happened at this game. Ateneo counts four Philippine presidents, including current head of state Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo among their distinguished alumni, as well as two former chief justices, countless members of congress and long-dead Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. De La Salle's list of notable alumni reads like a map of Manila's light rail system -- Araneta, Recto, Ortigas, Ayala. They all have stops named after them.

The image of a country's social elite pelting each other and players with Purefood Chunkee Hot Dogs and the world's worst Jamaican beef patties -- both on sale at Araneta concessions stands, and arguably more appropriately used as projectile weapons than food items -- is more than a little hilarious to Western eyes. Ted Kennedy probably doesn't like Dick Cheney, but is Kennedy ever going to kneel behind Cheney on the floor of the Senate and wait for Joe Biden to push the VP over him? No. But that's exactly the kind of atmosphere it is between these two schools.

Circling back to the argument that American basketball has become such an ugly sport, leading up to and in the aftermath of the November 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl, is the American game really that bad? Here, in the Philippines, you've got the wealthiest, most powerful, best-raised people in the country showering the court with debris after one player cheap-shotted another to make his face look like a jigsaw puzzle. I think the passion of competition and rivalry brings these nasty moments out of both players and fans, and while it's not a representation of the way the game is meant to be played, it's a corollary to the positive fact that people care about and love basketball, sometimes to the point of going overboard.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

I'll never do this

I started a book yesterday, Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost its Soul at Home by New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton. The book is well-written, intelligent and everything else you'd expect of a veteran NBA reporter. That's what I don't like about it.

Old-school sports journalists like the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan and Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith seem to look at the game and wish for the golden years of Larry and Magic. Let's pause a moment to note some of the rest of the deadwood that drifted into the league back then -- Jack Sikma, Tom Boerwinkle, Larue Martin, Scott Wedman (he made an All-Star team!), Brad Sellers, Dave Corzine. Yes! Give me more of that.

And was it better before then? Not unless you yearn to watch "Chocolate Thunder" Darryl Dawkins attacking the rim in a cocaine-induced fury. Actually, that sounds pretty good to me.

Here's an excerpt of Araton's first paragraph: "If you have ever loved basketball, then you had to hate November 19, 2004. ... your senses came under assault by what you saw that night at The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. And the more times you watched the most frightening eruption of sustained violence ever in the American sports arena, the more you saw the replaying of a troubled young man named Ron Artest bold trom his reclining press-table position, across your television screen, and into everlasting infamy, the more angry you were and the more you hurt for the game that had brought so much joy into your life."

Uhh, no. I have loved basketball since I was about 10 years old. In college, my personal record for consecutive days playing was 92. I only stopped because of injuries. And when I watched the Pacers brawl with the Pistons fans, I felt surprised, excited, entertained -- pretty much anything but appalled. The night of the brawl, I talked to some other players on our college traveling team, other guys who had played and loved the sport since an early age. They all had the same reaction I did: "That was nuts! Play it again!"

So Araton is wrong from the beginning. Grandstanding reporters who feel the need to protect the game and dispense morality hated that moment. So did millions of fans, I'm sure. No thanks, Harvey. When I'm in the mood for morals I'll read the Bible.

There were others, probably many others like myself and my friends, avid basketball fans and players who grew up watching basketball in the 1990s and like the NBA in its present incarnation. We weren't and aren't willing to see this brawl as the end of the great game of basketball. And if I'm writing about basketball in 30 years, when the game is ruled by 8-footers from China who're afraid to dunk the ball, I will never play Nostradamus and spit doomsday prophecies for the game. I'll never be the old man wishing that every team was like my favorite team from when I was a child. I'll never try to argue that Wu ChangXi wasn't as good as Xavier McDaniel just because I used to love the X-Man.

In paragraph two of Harvey's book, he slides in some references to his hardscrabble upbringing on Staten Island in New York City. Fans of basketball non-fiction will recognize this ploy. "Hey, I'm from New York, and I grew up in a neighborhood that's kind of crappy now, so take me seriously. I knew some guys who made the NBA! I'm a real basketball lifer."

Araton slides in all the important cues -- "West Brighton Houses," the name of the housing project in which he was raised; it was a "working-class" neighborhood; he loved the game while playing and even just watching "the kids with size and skills;" a local kid made it to Columbia, and would bring future pro Jim McMillian back to Araton's "unevenly paved oasis insite one of the Island's few pockets of relative poverty."

Can't you just see Araton and his friends running around in white undershirts and Converse Chuck Taylors, drinking soda pop and shooting baskets all day long? Getting into good-natured scuffles with each other and playing pranks on the local icey vendor? What a dignified, working-class upbringing. I just don't understand why this makes a writer any more of an expert in basketball than someone else.

Almost everyone who was raised in New York and was involved in sports knew or played with somebody who made it to the NBA. Can all of us have book contracts? Mel Brooks went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, same as Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Does Mel Brooks get automatic street and basketball credibility? Do Starbury and Bassy pound him up when they see each other at alumni day? Do they offer to take his yarmulke to Jacob Jeweler and have it iced out with diamonds? My guess is no.

New York City changes really fast. My mother and I were victims of a semi-violent robbery outside my apartment when I was a child; my father used to carry a military baton to protect himself when he returned from work late at night. Now, there are more bankers, lawyers and wealthy entertainers on my block than anything else. So whenever a lifelong New Yorker starts squawking about his or her rough upbringing, take it with a grain of salt. And again, I hope I'll never use the neighborhood I grew up in as a way to nudge readers into thinking I'm a street-tough New Yorker.

Here's where I grew up. Respect me immediately and give me a book deal.

Araton mentions how he lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn until he was seven years old. There are two ways to look at this. A) He comes from the same place as playground legend Fly Williams former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. He's really cool and streetwise. B) White flight. If the old, Jewish/Italian/Irish immigrants of Brownsville hadn't jumped ship at the first whiff of black people, maybe it wouldn't be a segregated pit today.

I'm oversimplifying things here because it's hard not to. It's not Araton's fault his family moved. He was seven at that time, and I'm sure the family had its own reasons. White flight is too broad an explanation to understand what drives families to move. Likewise, having once lived in Brownsville or any other well-known rough neighborhood does not automatically make someone an authority on basketball or New York. Mr. Araton is authoritative in both areas, but it's because he's been reporting on them for almost 30 years.

The Grinch who stole basketball.

Interestingly, Araton's in-depth analysis of the Pistons-Pacers brawl considers a lot of racial ambiguities that lesser columnists never bothered to mention last year. Araton writes insightfully about the behavioral double standards NBA athletes face as employees of a league that relies on a black, urban image for marketing purposes but needs well-heeled gentlemen on its benches to appease the corporate types who can still afford tickets to live games. But it's almost too late. The title of the book states that basketball has lost its soul, and the first paragraph tells us it's been hijacked by a band of tattooed thugs led by Ron Artest.

I disagree. It's a great game, as it has been and always will be, whether dominated by lanky white guys wearing short shorts, muscular black guys wearing long shorts, Bunyan-esque Chinese guys or the Monstars from Space Jam. The soul of the game comes from trying to shoot the ball into the basket and trying to stop another player from doing it, not from whoever's playing it.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Quick Hits

  • Halftime Snack -- This weekend I worked as a coach at Ateneo de Manila University basketball school, a basic skills camp for kids ages five through 15. It was standard stuff on the court -- chest passes, the three man weave, dribbling through cones.

    Off the court, however, was a different story. About halfway through the morning session, the head coach called a 15-minute break, during which the campers flocked around a snack stand to chow down on some of the heaviest foods known to man. Instead of orange slices and powdered Gatorade, there were cheese-covered hot-dogs, chicken and pork longanisa sausages, warm bananas wrapped in fried dough and a gelatin-filled drink made with tapioca and brown sugar.

    What time is it? Gametime, huh!

    It was a pretty traditional Filipino breakfast without the garlic rice and fried eggs. I've got nothing against eating a big, square breakfast -- although, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I usually stick to cereal, just for the fact that it's a way to keep one meal sacred from the omnipresent blight of pork and assorted organ meats in this country. But eating that food during a basketball practice is beyond insane. It's suicidal. I was ready to call in a crew of 17 mop-wielding, bandana-wearing women to clean up the Roman vomitorium the courts were about to become.

    I learned one thing that morning: Filipino children can hold their sausage. Unfortunately, they do it by becoming extremely lazy (tamad na masyado, 'di ba?). They avoided severe reflux by dogging it for the next hour and a half. A heavily sated 13-year-old might as well be heavily sedated. The sausage and cheese food coma was nearly unshakable. Crisp outlet passes became blubbery lobs and defensive slide drills looked more like a round of the Electric Slide at a retirement home. Next week, we'll just play Bingo after the mid-morning merienda.
  • Arch Rivals -- Shame on all those who don't remember this video game. Before NBA Street, even before NBA Jam, there was Arch Rivals. Unlike the more recent games, Arch Rivals wasn't wildly unrealistic in the sense that you could dunk from 25-feet out and shoot fireballs through the basket. Rather, it was wildly unrealistic in the sense that you could punch players on the opposite team in the face and break beer bottles over their head. Or, if we're talking about Philippine basketball, it was completely realistic.

    If you think this is rough, trying going to a karaoke bar in Quirino.

    Listening to the complaints of American and American-born Filipino basketball players in Manila, you'd think they played in a real-life version of Arch Rivals. Foreign players here are always warned about the physical nature of the Philippine game, but it's hard to take seriously when many of them are coming from NCAA Division 1 programs in the United States, where they routinely bounced around with well-muscled 6'10'', 260-pound enforcers (Aloysius Anagonye, anyone?). It's also hard for Americans to imagine what's waiting for them, given the U.S. interpretation of the rules.

    In one player's second game in the country, he was running down court on offense while his point guard brought the ball up the other side of the floor. His defender ran up to him and started working his midsection like a boxer working a speedbag. Now, the American said he keeps his stomach muscles tensed throughout games to avoid having the wind knocked out of him by sucker punches.

    Players lucky enough to play in the basketball-crazed provinces are often punished for underperforming with a hailstorm of 5-peso coins thrown by crowds. The dirtiest players have tricks that amaze the American imports for their creativity, like slipping their feet under jumping players so they land on them and sprain their ankles or stepping on guys' feet before they jump up for a rebound, so that when they try to leap their knees will buckle and possibly tear ligaments. I've seen guards retaliate against defenders who stole the ball from them by running them down and delivering full-speed, mid-court hip checks that send recipients flying to the sideline.

    The famous 1970s Toyota-Crispa rivalry in the PBA was punctuated by an all-out brawl between the two teams that landed all the players in jail for a night.

    It's only a matter of time before a player steals a page of Chong Li's book from Bloodsport and starts carrying a fine powder that can blind opponents for up to 20 minutes. Then, it's clobbering time! He just better be careful not to try that one on any diminutive Belgian mixed martial arts masters.
  • Unfortunate Acronyms -- Some jokes never get old. The freedom fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front did nothing to deserve this. They're just some Mindanao O.G.s who want to live the dirty south thug life without the Philippine Army and government sweating them. If the country hadn't been so haphazardly annexed by God- and gold-loving Spaniards, those southern islands might be a part of ethnically and religiously similar Indonesia. I'm afraid saying this may land me on a terrorism watch list, but I feel for the Filipino Muslims stuck down in the ass-end of a nation full of Christian die-hards.

    But while they're probably unaware of this, the Moros made one very serious mistake. They named themselves after an acronym (MILF) that's already widely known in the United States as Mom I'd Like to Fuck.

    Not only is she sexy, but she also believes in something: self-rule for the Muslim south!

    So when I'm reading the newspaper and see a headline like this -- "Soldiers, MILF rebels rescue 2 kidnap victims" -- I can't help laughing. I hope when I'm kidnapped, some soldiers and a couple of plucky, smoking hot maternal types come to my rescue.

    God forbid the people in the California porn industry ever get wind of this funny coincidence; between the steamy jungle locale and the freedom-fighting nymphomaniac mothers, we might witness the invention of a whole new genre.

    The sad thing is that I read something in the paper about these guys nearly every day, and after a full month in the Philippines, I still chuckle to myself and make mental quips about Stifler's Mom from American Pie.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Who wins the Gold in Assault?

Manila is hosting the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, and boy are they doing a bang-up job. Only one of the countries participating has accused them of cheating so far, and it's not those pesky East Timorians. Leave it to a salty Thai to try and rain on your gold medal parade. Will the people of Thailand ever understand that they'll always be second to the Philippines in athletics and prostitution? It's hard to tell from their half-hearted apology, but one way or another, the games must go on.

It's a wonder that so many people have actually found events to attend in the first six days of the competition. The organizers thought of everything, it seems, except publishing the times of specific events. The online schedule only includes the day and location of a sport, thus giving spectators the generous window of 24 hours in which to guess when the event starts. My first roll of the dice came up snake eyes, so when I arrived in Pasig City all pumped for the Badminton medal rounds, I was greeted with the news that the matches wouldn't begin for another five hours. But while the masters of competency behind the SEA Games didn't bother posting the times of events, they did manage to create a Web page full of ever-so-cute illustrations of the Philippine Eagle participating in all the events.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Winner of the gold medal for vaguenessCute picture. Too bad FIBA refused to sanction basketball at the games.Dragon boaters of the world unite! All six of you.
I guess this is why we need a separate "athletics" competition.Featuring judge of honor Chayanne, star of "Dance with Me."Even birds look dainty when holding foils.

Despite the Philippine Olympic Commission's best attempts to bamboozle and mislead me, I found one arena where an actual sporting event was taking place. Well, kind of. It was men's gymnastics, and although the competitors were capable of contortions and flips I couldn't execute in my wildest dreams, my old-school conception of masculinity depends mostly on one's ability to win a game of Dead Arm, and I don't think these guys had the heart.

Still, it was thrilling and tragic to watch a Malaysian gymnast slip and obliterate his balls while warming up on the parallel bars. I laughed; I cried; his human drama inspired real empathy among all the male onlookers.

I spent a lot of the rest of the time imagining how much cooler the events would be if they incorporated elements from the American Gladiators playbook. If the athletes are going to be flipping around on the horizontal bar, why not force them to dodge tennis balls shot from a cannon on the other side of the gym? They could bring in the skeet shooters, give them some rubber bullets and combine the events.

There's so much downtime in gymnastics between the ever-shuffling judges for different events, the actual judging process and the finalists' "traditional march" set to a karaoke rendition of the Survivor theme song at the beginning of each event. Why not let spectators amuse themselves with Tasers or some other tossable projectile? Javelins would be nice.

For the vault event, they could steal a gag from The Eliminator from American Gladiators and force the gymnasts to jump through one of three paper doors, not knowing which one has a 'roid-raging NFL tryout veteran behind it?

Laser, a failure at pro football, but the spitting image of success with a tennis ball cannon.

This is all so ridiculous. I feel like I should have more respect for world-class athletes, but the truth is I had a serious hankering for a jumbotron showing Gladiators reruns during my SEA Games visit. In terms of artistry, watching Dolph Lundgren lookalikes named Laser and Nitro chase witless former high school varsity athletes up a rock-climbing wall receives pretty low marks, but it's right up there with World's Strongest Man competitions, lumberjack trials and Oktoberfest home videos in the pantheon of pure entertainment value.

Maybe it's time to start thinking about changing the title of this blog to "Insensitive American Nitwit."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Nomenclature, Philippine-style

Talatawagan, nomenklatura, n. nomenclature.

What a surprise! After consulting the diksyunaryong ingles-filipino, it seems there is more than just a Taglish cognate for nomenclature, and it is talatawagan. I was ready to swear on my seed's first-born that the concept of systematic, appropriate naming was alien to Philippine culture in its native form.

Actually, I'm still a little skeptical about talatawagan. It may mean the act of naming things, but naming them with complete disregard to their function and purpose.

Nowhere is the Filipino anti-talent for naming things more apparent than in local cigarette brands like "Hope" and "More." Teams of DeVry marketing students couldn't come up with more ghastly names for smokes.

Skiing, a favorite pastime of toothless smokers across the Philippines.

Smoke enough Hopes and eventually you'll have nothing left but hope. I'm still waiting for a commercial showing someone's surgically removed lung with a voiceover saying, "I'm down to one lung, but I've still got Hope." I won't hold my breath for that one, but the irony-masters at Hope have come up with some notable advertising campaigns, including TV commercials that appear to be stolen Baywatch B-roll of assorted blond smokers lounging on beaches and a poster of Hope smokers skiing! From what I've seen, the majority of Hope smokers have mouths filled with nothing but gums and buy their cigs one at a time from EDSA street hawkers. Kudos to the ad-wizards at Hope for their laser insight into their customers' psyches -- I'm sure nothing tickles the tropical everyman's smokey bone like thoughts of zipping down the double black diamonds in Aspen.

Please sir, I want some More.

And then there's More, the valedictorian of the crappy cigarette name class of 2005. This is so deadpan and thoughtless, it can only appeal to smokers whose habit is driven primarily by the desire to hasten their deaths. "Smoke More, die sooner."

A more cheerful example of the Philippine knack for naming is found in their professional basketball teams. Teams in the professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and the semi-pro Philippine Basketball League (PBL) belong to businesses instead of localities. So while the San Antonio Spurs sit atop the NBA's Southwest Division, the PureFoods Chunkee Giants lead the PBA Fiesta Conference. Other names range from the irresponsible San Miguel Beermen and Barangay Ginebra Gin-Kings to the pitiful Santa Lucia Realtors and Hapee Toothpaste TeethMasters.

This is pure fantasy, but I dream of the day when the teams will not only name be named after the products they're pushing, but the players will also play like their names suggest they should. Hey, the Realtors already do this -- they suck! But I want to see some really chunky Chunkee Giants out there bodying people. Likewise, the Gin-Kings and Beermen need to start imbibing their respective boozes at least two hours before tip-off and play like belligerent drunks. And who could resist a team full of pretty boys with million-dollar, bright white, Hapee toothpaste smiles?

One last example, and it's going to be low brow, but there are just too many people named "Bong" here. I've been in the country less than four weeks and have already played basketball with three separate Bongs, been served by a waiter named Bongrex and eaten at another place called Bong's Bar and Grill. English is way too widely spoken here. There is no excuse. If the word "nomenklatura" exists, than somebody must know what a "bong" is, and it's not a 5'4'' guy with a deadly-accurate set shot.