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

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Book Bashing

Months ago, I railed against a basketball book by Harvey Araton after reading only its introduction. I'm going to go one step further now and argue against a book without even reading it. The book is "The Wages of Wins" by three economists, David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook.

This book does not get the same robust recommendation as Da Jesus Book.

While I haven't read the book, I did at least read this review of it in The New Yorker. The authors claim to have come up with an algorithm that weighs players positive and negative statistics like points scored, shooting percentage, assists, turnovers, rebounds in such a way to determine how many wins a player is worth to his team in a season. They call it a Win Score.

And according to the article, Allen Iverson has a pretty lousy win score and his former Georgetown teammate, Jerome "Junkyard Dog" Williams, is "among the strongest players of his generation." If that doesn't raise a giant red flag in your mind, you have never watched an NBA game.

The authors of "The Wages of Wins" argue that NBA talent evaluators overvalue scoring when they look at players. Only an objective, mathematical formula that ignores the artistry in Iverson's game and focuses on his bottom line impact on his team's record can tell us how good he is, according to the book.

I think the author's are mistaken. You can't win basketball games without scoring points. It's a lot harder to find players like Iverson, who can average 30 points over a whole season, than it is to find role players like Williams, who rebound, set screens and play defense.

One of the best players of his generation, according to The Wages of Wins, The Junkyard Dog could use some work from the best orthodontist of his generation.

The New Yorker review doesn't contain details on the authors' methodology or exactly which statistics are weighed in their algorithm or how. I wish it did. But I'm guessing they aren't able to take into account factors pertaining to players' roles on their teams. Iverson turns the ball over a lot and shoots a pretty poor percentage, but that's because he always has the ball in his hands and the teams usually built around him need him to shoot a lot. And as the team's main guy, the task of getting up a shot -- even a difficult or forced one -- on broken possessions with the shot clock running down always falls to Iverson. Jerome Williams' teams never ask him to make low-percentage or risky plays. His job is certainly difficult and he did it well throughout his career, but he just doesn't have as much responsibility on the court as Iverson does. Unless the authors of "The Wages of Wins" have somehow accounted for all these seemingly unquantifiable ways in which players differ, it's hard to take their Win Scores seriously.

It's surprising to see the reviewer, Malcolm Gladwell, buy into the authors' argument so wholeheartedly. One of the major themes of Gladwell's bestseller "Blink" was that snap judgments made by experts often trump even the best formulas. But he ends the review by emphasizing the "reality" that "the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off" without Iverson and quoting the book, which says: "One can both play and watch basketball for a thousand years. If you do not systematically track what the players do, and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, you will never know why teams win and why they lose.”

How is this different from the chapter in "Blink" where Gladwell goes on endlessly about a musician who'll never succeed according to music industry measurement tools but who is touted by all the experts like Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst who know good music when they hear it. (On second thought, maybe using Durst's recommendation to prove a musician's worth is the equivalent in spuriousness of displaying the power of the Win Score with Jerome Williams.)

The authors of "The Wages of Wins" may be right, or at least partially right. But there's no reason to accept their arguments until someone assembles an NBA team based on the players' Win Scores rather than how good they appear to be. If a starting five of Howard Eisley, Devin Brown, Jerome Williams, Antonio Davis and Jason Collins can win an NBA title, I'll bow to infinite wisdom of the number crunchers.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Catchin' the Holy Ghost

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Well, when I saw the bright blue cover and the title of "Da Jesus Book" in a shabby, disorganized second-hand book store in Makati Cinema Square, I knew right then and there that I found something special.

Could you resist a cover like this?

What is Da Jesus Book? It's the New Testament translated into Hawaii pidgin English. And by writing about it, I'm going to potentially offend millions of people with my lack of religious, cultural and linguistic sensitivity. But the fact remains -- Da Jesus Book is 700 pages of pure comedic genius.

Here's a sample from Matthew, book 8, verses 1-4:

Jesus Make One Lepa Guy Come Good
Had one lepa guy wen go by Jesus, an go down in front him an beg him. He say, "If you like, you canmake me come good so I can go wit da odda peopo fo pray, yeah?
Jesus wen look at him, an he pity him. He touch da guy, an say, "Okay I do um. Come good." Right den an dea da lepa guy come good. No mo lepa!
Jesus wen talk strong to da guy. He tell um, 'Eh! You betta not tell nobody bout dis! Go let da priest guy check you out. No foget make da kine sacrifice now, jalike Moses wen tel inside God's Rules. Den everybody goin know dat you stay good now." Den he tell um fo go. But da guy, he go outside an tell everybody wat wen happen to him. So, Jesus no can stay inside da towns, but he gotta stay outside inside da boonies. An da peopo, day stay come from all ova da place fo hear him.

There isn't one page of this book that isn't written like this. It's truly an endless supply of giggles. And it's not because I'm just a jerk who likes to make fun of people who sound different from me. I taught ESL for four years and currently live in a country where everyone speaks there own version of English which is only outdone in brokenness by my Tagalog.

In spoken language, anything goes. Being able to express your needs so that whomever you're speaking to understands is all that matters. But in written language -- especially for semi-professional writers -- it's still really bizarre to see words like "peopo" and "spesho" in print. This sentiment applies to instant messaging, E-mails and text messages, where I capitalize, write in complete sentences and avoid contractions like "bcoz" and "2nyte." And the way printed pidgin is juxtaposed alongside the Bible in such a straight-faced manner -- something supposedly base with something supposedly holy -- makes it even funnier.

My kind of preacher.

Most of the preachers I've seen (admittedly, it's not that big of a number) have presented themselves as somehow above the masses to whom they preach. Maybe it's with their eloquence, or their garments, or they're actually standing above them in a pulpit. Reading Da Jesus Book is like being preached to by Buckwheat. When I look at the glossary of "Bible Kine Words" in the back of Da Jesus Book and read entries like "Cain: Adam's numba one boy. He wen get huhu wit his brudda Abel, an kill him," I can't stop myself from laughing. Maybe I'm a bad person. Maybe I need to turn in my Liberal New Yorker membership card, but it's the truth.

The back cover of Da Jesus Book shows quotes from satisfied readers. One, from a high school student in Nanakuli says, "I like dis Bible. I can undastan!" Another, from a Leeward Church churchgoer, proclaims, "Oh! Dass wat dat mean!" If this Bible exposes Hawaii pidgin speakers who couldn't understand the standard English versions of the book to Christ's teachings, it will probably be considered a success. But maybe the publishers haven't considered another potential audience for the book -- culturally insensitive jackasses. I would never have bought "The Holy Bible" in that store. But I saw "Da Jesus Book" and was rifling through my pockets for cash in a split second. Who knows, maybe reading the Buckwheat Bible from cover to cover will stir up the spirit inside me.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Ground Rule Double

One of the scholarly responsibilities I've charged myself with investigating is the difference between Philippine and American basketball. The most telling differences are cultural, not technical -- the per capita number of basketball courts in the Philippines, for example, must dwarf the number of courts in America. There just aren't neighborhoods without courts here, no matter how improvised or ramshackle they may be. They also serve as all-purpose centers of civic life in a way you won't see in America. Coronations, debutante balls, beauty pageants, dance competitions, town hall meetings and probably every other community-wide event imaginable are held on basketball courts.

You can't walk far without seeing one of these.

But in the States, common knowledge of the Philippines seems to be limited to the simple fact that it is a nation of short people. Forget the Phil-Am war and nearly 50 years of American colonial rule here. (I wonder if 100 years from now, the only thing people will know about Iraq is that it's peopled by hairy Arabs of normal height.) Anyway, height being the salient fact floating around in the minds of most Americans' I've spoken to about my research, they often reply with the question, "Do they play on lower rims?"

This question is just behind "Don't they have mad hookers over there?" "How much does a virgin slave cost?" and "Aren't they going to kidnap you?" on the list of the most irritating questions people ask me about the Philippines. Yes, Filipinos are short, but if four-foot 9-year-olds can shoot at regulation height rims, why can't grown-ass men in the Philippines do it? Yes, dunking is a rarer talent here, but shooting is alive and well, and people here have raised the execution of impossible, ugly circus lay-ups to the level of a high art form.

Why doesn't anyone consider how difficult international competition would be if a country decided to lower all their rims? The Philippine national team has enough problems dealing with Yao Ming's towering ass and the painfully disciplined playing-style of the sharpshooting Koreans. They don't need to handicap themselves by switching to hoops 6 inches or a foot lower than the rest of the world uses.

But I like to please the crowd whenever it's reasonable to do so, and it just so happens that I've got a funny observation about how Filipinos' height affects the way they play basketball. Everyone go grab your lobster bibs so you won't drool all over your shirts!

The fast break is a major part of pick-up basketball in the Philippines. There are a lot of explanations for this. The heat -- summer is winding down, but for about three months temperatures have stayed in the mid- to high-90s, with brutal humidity -- makes playing during daylight hours an extremely draining experience. A few trips up and down the court make for a lot of sweat-soaked jerseys, and after about 10 possessions players must decide between sprinting back to play defense and collapsing from total-body cramps in a sort-of spontaneous combustion of the muscles. So there's an awful lot of cherry picking and 3-on-1 fast breaks because players on both teams choose to conserve the energy running back on defense would require and engage in a competitive lay-up drill. The fact that most guys here smoke Champion and Hope cigarettes before, during and after games also plays a role in the selective hustling style of pick-up basketball.

In a typical sequence, one team will come down on a 3-on-1 fastbreak looking to have some fun with the defender and then score. The rest of the defenders are just lingering around halfcourt, maybe walking back but hesitantly because getting back on defense would surrender their cherry picking advantage once the other team scores. In a ritual that is half-charity, half-mockery, the first lay-up attempt often goes to the worst player on the team. In my neighborhood, this is a hapless chunky guy named Bimbo. Some might consider it a gracious act to let Bimbo shoot. If he makes it, Bimbo gets a nice self-esteem booster. But judging by the way everyone giggles every time Bimbo receives the ball, there's more going on here. We feed Bimbo to see what he'll do next. Will he manage to wank a shot off the side of the backboard? Will he shoot over the entire basket support? Will he rocket the ball into the bottom of the rim and have it bounce back in his face? All of these outcomes are as good as or better than a made basket, and you still have a good chance of getting a rebound and cleaning up Bimbo's mess after the shot.

When you pass to Bimbo, you better hit him in the hands with the ball, or else you might get one of these.

After the lay-up, the defender throws a baseball pass down to the other side of the court, and the scene repeats itself with the teams reversed. The pass is where height becomes a factor. With full-court or 3/4-court passes, you can usually just lob the ball into an area on the court and let your players go retrieve it. But you have to be wary of the ground rule double.

You need to put a bit of oomph and height into a full-court pass to get it to travel 60 or 70 feet. But in the Philippines, if you throw it so it bounces five or 10 feet in front of the intended recipient, there's a good chance it's going to bounce right over his head like a ground rule double over the ivy in Wrigley Field. It's an on-the-spot physics calculation that you don't have to make in the United States. No matter what the trajectory and force, if you throw a ball basically to the right spot, it's not going to bounce over a teammates' head. In the Philippines where some of your teammates in a casual pick-up game will be in the neighborhood of 5'1'', you have to be a little more precise.

Friday, May 19, 2006

We will crush you! Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 15, 2006

More Ink

This photo ran with the article in the Daily News. I'm in Donsol, Sorsogon with some kids after I taught them some dribbling drills. The girl with the ball was a very fast learner. Photo by Lubna Ali.

I'm just an E-mail away from appearing on Oprah. Here I am feeling overexposed already; imagine what things must have been like for Vanilla Ice. It's good to get love in my hometown paper, though, especially when my hometown is New York. So without further ado, here is the New York Daily News short feature on me and my research.

Bouncing his way to the Philippines
By Caitlin Kelly

Saturday, May 13, 2006

How not to run a major sporting event in the Philippines, by Mario Whitmire and Dennis Rodman

The Philippines has a reputation for being an American retiree's paradise. Web sites like Living in the Philippines, where a 68-year-old Amerikano named Don touts his $380/month, six-bedroom house, army of servants and 20-something wife/loveslave Ani, present a pretty common interpretation of paradise out here. Don's benificent, paternalistic racism and his thinly-veiled inner horndog, as well as entries on where to find men's hairpieces in Cebu City and the going rate for local rum make Living in the Philippines worthy of a few posts of its own, but I'm building towards something else here.

The Philippines has a serious case of Puppy Love for my man Paul Anka.

This blessed archipelago bestows good fortune upon another group of rather pitiful American senior citizens -- prehistoric lounge crooners. According to Ticketnet, between now and early August this roster of Vegas has-beens will do their darndest to sate Filipinos' unquenchable hunger for World War II era ballads: Paul Anka, The Four Aces, The Cascades, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Manhattan Transfer and Neil Sedaka. This may top a January/February slate that included The Lettermen and The Zombies (back from the dead, literally!) and culminated with a Valentine's Day blowout performance by Andy Williams (he of "L, is for the way you look at me" fame). At Gateway Mall in Cubao, which is connected to the venue that hosts most of these concerts, riders on the escalators were treated to a 4-story banner of Andy Williams' parched, age-beaten face hanging from the ceiling and falling all the way down to the bottom level of the mall.

So it was only natural, then, that an enterprising American businessman would apply the same principle to another great Filipino pasyon, basketball. And like that, Dennis Rodman's Bad Boy Tour was born. Mario Whitmire, the promoter behind the Bad Boy Tour, brought together the NBA equivalents of Wayne Newton, Tom Jones and Burt Bacharach and their ilk in Rodman, Alex English, Darryl Dawkins, Otis Birdsong, Calvin Murphy and player/coach Sidney Moncrief. Their ages, respectively, are 45, 52, 49, 50, 57 and 48.

But ballers and balladeers are not equals. When Paul Anka comes to Manila, he doesn't have to sprint up and down 90 feet of hardwood against overzealous local stars out to prove their worth against fading foreign stars. When Anka sings "Puppy Love," Nic Belasco won't be draped on him and DonDon Hontiveros won't be clotheslining him. As long as Anka can stand up and muster up enough breath to sing his classics, the crowd gets what they came for. Basketball is another story. Filipinos love basketball enough to appreciate the novelty of a gang of NBA old-timers coming to town, but Filipinos also understand that this is a young man's sport, and there was likely to be more drama and suspense swirling around the question of how many of the NBA legends' knees would be blown and backs thrown out than how many backboard-breaking dunks Dawkins would unleash or how many rebounds Rodman would pull down in traffic. The game itself would almost surely be a dud.

If you can name all these players, you're a basketball nerd.

There are a thousand things I'd like to ask Mr. Whitmire about his business strategy and his motley crew of players. How did they all manage to blow their NBA pension money, for starters? But the number one issue on my mind is branding. What made some of these guys agree to be part of the "Bad Boy" tour? Does Calvin Murphy, less than two years removed from being aquitted of molesting five of his daughters, really want to pronounce himself a bad boy? Does he need that on top of the awesome burden his nickname, "The Pocket Rocket," must be on him? The same goes for "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, one of the posterboys for the drug abuse and excess that is associated with the NBA in the 1970s. And what skeletons do English, Birdsong and Moncrief -- ho-hum former all-stars, as far as I know -- have in their closets to warrant joining touring the Philippines with a cross-dresser, an accused-then-exonerated molester and the self-styled "Chocolate Thunder."

But these players' advanced ages and tarnished reputations would be the least of Whitmire's problems. He promised the players, 11 in all when you count the 5 younger American minor leaguers (including Bronx, NY legend Kareem Reid!) who came along to play while the legends received oxygen on the bench, $10,000 up front and $5,000 upon completion of the tour. That's $165,000, not including airfare, the cost of housing all the players for a week and other overhead.

Whitmire was committing the cardinal sin of carpetbagging in the Philippines. He was spending dollars and earning pesos. With the peso-dollar exchange rate hovering around 50-1, that's not just risky, it's stupid. There was no way he could make his money back at the box office, where people are used to paying $13 for courtside seats, $5 for seats on the floor behind the basket and 10¢ for general admission upper deck seats. Newspaper reports said Whitmire was also getting lower offers for the game's television rights than he expected.

This humble carpenter couldn't ball, but he still gets mad love on the Philippine archipelago.

You could practically feel Whitmire going through the stages of bereavement as he struggled with ticket pricing in the week before his doomed event. At first, the general admission seats were going for 800 pesos or $16. In a country where you feel gypped paying more than 150 pesos for dinner and airfare promos go as low as 88 pesos, charging 800 pesos for nosebleed seats at a basketball game featuring NBA has-beens whose average age is over 50 is suicidal. Only Christ resurrected and Dean Martin could command those kind of prices. As the week went on, panic set in and the prices fell. All of a sudden general admission was 300 pesos. Finally, on game day, Whitmire accepted his fate and dropped the price to 159 pesos, still more than 30 times the general admission price of a PBA game. The rest of the seats, roughly 80 percent of the arena, were all 800 pesos and over. Courtside seats cost over $200 (enough for a week of armed bodyguards, probably), and so the arena was filled to 25-30 percent capacity and tumbleweeds were rolling through the courtside aisles.

The NBA legends gave what seemed like a respectable effort for overweight old men. English hit a jump shot. Calvin Murphy sprinted up and down a couple times and hit a jump shot. Darryl Dawkins didn't deliver on a dunk he promised in pre-game press conferences, but he did manage a lay-up.

Rodman gave the crowd all of his signature moves. An ugly 20-foot jumper that rattled in miraculously. 16 rebounds, including one where he tipped the ball to himself about 7 times then saved the ball as he was flying out of bounds. He got a dunk. He even pretended to care for a minute and slammed the ball to the ground so he could draw a technical foul. He got in an argument with his estranged father, who abandoned Rodman and his mother when he was three years old and now lives in Angeles City, the prostitution Mecca of the Philippines with several women and 10 children. The few people in attendance loved it. Everytime Rodman touched the ball you heard the sound of a thousand Filipinos giggling.

Of course, he had a greater monetary incentive to put on a show. All the popcorn and soda vendors in the arena were wearing signs around their necks advertising Rodman's newest autobiography at the laughable price of 1,500 pesos/$30, which is probably enough to buy an entire Encyclopedia Britannica set. The P.A. announcer reminded the crowd during every timeout to buy Dennis' book and get it signed at Pizza Hut the next day. And in the day's most shameful, exploitative bout of salesmanship, at halftime Whitmire took the microphone and told everyone the story of Miguel Herrera, a Filipino teenager suffering from leukemia who couldn't be at the game but was given a signed copy of the Worm's book instead.

But the game's very public financial difficulties and the very empty Araneta Coliseum clearly affected the quality of play. The visitors, especially the young reinforcements like Reid, Myron Allen and Olu Famutimi, who actually needed the money, played like they knew Whitmire would never make enough money to pay the extra $5,000 he still owed each of them. They were so indifferent out there, I wondered if they were expecting to have to pay for their own airfare back to the States.

Reid, who fills it up every summer at the Rucker and who was a great flashy ball-handling, high scoring little man at Arkansas in the mid-90s, shot about 5 times the entire game. Famutimi and Allen scored a ton, but they played as little defense as humanly possible. No matter how many three-pointers the Filipinos made, the Americans would not guard them. They wouldn't look at them. They'd just wait for the ball to go through the net, walk it back upcourt and play offense.

Asi Taulava says: Sleep on Team Pilipinas at your own risk, you dirty Yanks!"

And they weren't playing a bunch of bums. This was the Philippine National Team, stocked with Fil-Am players like Kelly Williams and Rafi Reavis who have solid D1 credits in the United States and native Filipino shooters like Ren-Ren Ritualo and DonDon Hontiveros who DO NOT MISS open shots. Even down the stretch, Rodman's team let Team Pilipinas shoot open threes to regain the lead, and trailing by 4 points with less than a minute left, the Americans didn't even bother fouling the Filipinos to get the ball back.

But even if it wasn't the most impressive win for the national team, it was a good day for Philippine basketball. A lot of people here weren't sure if the local stars could handle the Americans, even if they were all over-the-hill or disgruntled and unmotivated. Plus, opposing factions within the Philippine basketball hierarchy had previously battled over whether the national team should be composed of all native Filipinos or if it should include Fil-Ams. The messy dispute got the country into trouble with FIBA and resulted in basketball (a sure-shot gold medal for the Philippines) being barred from last year's Southeast Asian games. The much better Fil-Am/Filipino team of PBA stars stated its case strongly by dispatching Rodman and his not-so-merry band of ballers, 110-102.