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 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.


Anonymous Larry from the Bronx said...

Your last paragraph in this post gets to the essence of this violence problem. An occasional flare-up of violence in American basketball, whether it be on the pro or college or h.s. level, is inevitable given the passions involved in playing the game. And the word "occasional" really should be read as "rare." Technical fouls are called at all levels to keep the game under control, and this works 99% of the time. Automatic ejection works even better. In whatever country, you don't want to see the violence become endemic, or entrenched, in any significant way. Yes, the NBA was within its rights to serve out severe punishment to Artest,
But for Mr. Araton to assert that the game has lost its soul because of this incident, and the perceived selfishness of certain players, well, it just doesn't ring true. Players come and go, the style of the game changes in varying degrees. Speed, strength and athleticism are more valued than ever before, even at the expense of fundamental skills. Yet the teams that consistently win have solid fundamentals as well as the other attributes. Hot tempers reflect, as you say, a passion for the game. Fan behavior is a completely different issue, whether in the Philippines or in the U.S.

3:27 PM  

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