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

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.


Anonymous NYC Teacher said...

You touch upon the cultural uses of the basketball court in the Philippines, implying that it serves as a civic center, or public square, if you will. Many events occur there besides a basketball game, pick-up or organized.
In your description of the pick-up games, and the fast break, you mention Bimbo, and his lack of shooting ability. My larger question: do you think that the youth who play are more interested in the game itself, or in the social interaction while the game is ongoing? Or: what larger purpose(s) does each individual game serve? Does it vary from town to town? village to village?
It would seem that there would be a fascinating cast of locals anywhere one went there, who play at whatever level...little vignettes of players, of their lives, how they play, there are so many questions and ideas you could develop...more on this, please.

12:22 PM  

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