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

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Long Overdue Return -- Why the UAAP is not for me

One of the comments on my last post chastised me for writing long-winded diatribes on the sad state of Philippine journalism while far more vital events -- the men's UAAP basketball finals between Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Santo Tomas -- were transpiring.

Point taken. About half of what I write on this blog concerns Philippine basketball, and I shouldn't ignore one of the most ballyhooed basketball events in the country, even if I find UAAP basketball about as compelling as the Alan Thicke E! True Hollywood Story. College basketball in the Philippines, as in America, enjoys this reputation of being more pure than professional basketball. The season is shorter, the players aren't paid (although in the UAAP, many of them already play professionally in the PBL and most are getting cash under the table from some big-timer), and the fact that college teams stink compared to professional ones makes for exciting, unpredictable outcomes.

Back home in the States and here in Manila, I don't buy it. I prefer watching the best players ply their trade, not the scrappiest or the most passionate. Watching some of the boneheaded plays in last September's UAAP finals was just plain frustrating for me.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles, the Duke Blue Devils of the Philippines. And that's not a good thing.

Start with game one, where Ateneo managed to win by one on a last second lay-up. The Studio 23 broadcast showed Coach Norman Black set up a play for Ateneo's top senior, JC Intal, to shoot a potential game-winning jump shot. UST's wunderkind pivot-man, Jervy Cruz, must have read Norman's mind, because he was so desperate to guard the jumper he left Doug Kramer alone under the basket to chase another Ateneo player up at the high post. Ateneo lobbed an inbound pass to Kramer for what might have been the easiest game-winner in the history of basketball. And, on a related note, the musclebound Kramer looked a lot more awkward shooting that lay-up than he does modeling underwear for Bench, the Philippines' answer to the Gap. It's hard to imagine pros blowing a game this way. I just want to see the game played well, and as unpredictable as that play was, it wasn't very good basketball.

Let's jump ahead to the deciding game three, which UST won in overtime. It's a wonder that they managed to win, given that they played the most mindless defense imaginable against Intal, who torched them over and over again in the fourth quarter. I've been matched up with Intal in pick-up games. The guy is a tough cover -- 6'4'', real long, quick first step and an excellent extension to the hoop. What does that mean? If you don't block his path to the basket, he's going to take one hard dribble and be at the rim, and there's nothing you can do about it. UST let Intal glide to the bucket with the ball in his right (strong) hand on about five straight possessions. He scored or got fouled on several of them. How does this happen? A strong offensive player gets to go to his number one move time after time? Why not force him left? He was on the right side of the floor, so forcing him left would have had the added benefit of forcing Intal to the middle, where other defenders should be able to help. Yet these simple strategies were ignored every time, and every possession was like watching instant replay. Intal catches the ball on the right wing, gives his defender an inside-out hesitation dribble, pretending to go from right to left but keeping the ball in his right hand, then takes one dribble to the hoop for a good shot.

J.C. Intal. Good player. Better model.

How did Santo Tomas manage to win the game while playing such crummy defense? This seems like quite a conundrum, but we're not dealing with Fermat's enigma here. Ateneo's defense was just as bad. UST had its crunchtime scorer, Jojo Duncil, who's a wing player like Intal but cut from a different mold. Intal is more athletic, a better slasher and finisher at the hoop. Duncil has a shiftier handle and an array of deceptive headfakes he uses to set up pull-up jump shots from 15-18 feet. How would the thinking man defend Duncil? Stay in front of him, make him work hard for his shots, and most of all, DON'T JUMP ON HEAD FAKES! How did Ateneo's defenders tackle the assignment? Like a band of human pogo sticks. They jumped at every fake. Maybe once, Duncil's defender didn't bite on the first pump fake. So Duncil faked again and the defender went flying. Duncil waited for the guy to come down and calmly sank his jump shot. At the end of the game, UST won not because they played good team defense to shut down Ateneo's top players, but because their guy got hot at the right moment and made a couple more shots over crappy defense than Ateneo's guy made over equally inept defending.

The UAAP, it's FAN-tastic.

It's clear that I'm not the greatest admirer of UAAP basketball, however, in terms of pure spectacle, it beats anything the PBA puts on except for certain Barangay Ginebra games. Traffic was at a standstill throughout Cubao starting at 10 a.m. the morning of the final game because of students and alumni blocking the streets. The game didn't start until 7 that evening. Towards the end of regulation and throughout overtime, when the lead changed hands on almost every possession, all 16,000+ fans in the Araneta Coliseum had their rosaries out. They screamed like banshees during the game and prayed during the timeouts. Whenever a team fell behind, it's fans would start crying. When Ateneo finally lost, the players took it like a death in the family. They solemnly waved away TV cameras, bawled inconsolably in the arms of former Ateneans Rico Villanueva and Rich Alvarez and then pumped their fists to the beat of Ateneo's alma mater with tears streaming down their agony-ridden faces.

Meanwhile, a bizarre, overtly religious celebration was taking place on the UST side of the court. One fan was waving a wall-size poster of Pope John Paul II in front of coach Pido Horencia and his players, who were mobbing each other with hugs.

At UAAP games, the energy is infectious and the passion is overpowering. Unfortunately, the basketball rarely lives up to the atmosphere created by the crowds.


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11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog on the UAAP. It is too bad that you are covering basketball in the Philippines without witnessing an Ateneo-Lasalle game. It is the country's version of Duke-UNC, Red Sox- Yankees, Real Madrid- Barcelona.

When I was an expat in Manila, work and meetings would revolve around the schedule of these games. The basketball sucked, but the atmosphere in Araneta was amazing.

1:59 PM  

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