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

Monday, May 07, 2007

Courts of Public Opinion

The national elections are a week away, so I thought I'd dust off this old story I wrote on spec about the issue of politicians using public funds to build basketball courts. It seems like a nice way to post something topical and make it look like I'm back on the grind here at Manila Vanilla, when you could just as easily argue that I'm a lazy bum who's recycling content. Touché.

Likewise, there are two sides to the basketball court issue. There's no disputing the fact that people make use of basketball courts -- for drying rice, holding community events, shelter from the elements and, of course, hoops. In the same breath, there's something very peculiar, especially to Western eyes, to see elected officials pouring money into glass backboards when millions of Filipinos struggle to feed themselves on a few bucks a day. When a family living out of a wheelbarrow rolls by the barangay covered court, it's hard not to wonder if government money could do more for that family than put up a hoop.

The municipal court in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, is pretty dang nice. Pretty reasonable, considering it's a provincial capital. The court is also housed within the City Hall complex. A nice touch, in case the mayor feels like getting some run after taking his merienda.


So, without further ado, here's the recycled story. I actually think it's pretty good, but without a strong news peg or local angle to pin on the article, I couldn't sell it to any U.S. publications. Maybe with the elections coming up I can rework it and fatten my pockets. I'll set it off in a dignified, dark blue typeface to match the piece's serious, newspaperman voice.

Tucked behind a layer of trees, maybe 20 yards from the sweet corn vendors and blaring traffic of Katipunan Avenue, is the Loyola Heights public basketball court. A pavilion-style roof protects players from regular deluges of rain and shades the court from the searing midday sun. Overhead lights allow games to stretch past midnight. The court is furnished with fiberglass backboards and spring-loaded breakaway rims built to withstand powerful slam dunks. And, painted on a wall in white, capital letters over a sky-blue background, are the names of the local politicians who helped secure the funds to build the court.

Less than a ten-minute walk from the court, naked children bathe in the brownish-green, trash-filled water of Diliman Creek. Out on Katipunan, squatters from nearby shantytowns scavenge for food thrown away by local restaurants and cafes.

Scenes of devastating poverty are on display throughout the Philippines, yet somehow, lavish basketball courts are never far from the beehive-like settlements of sheet metal and cinder block shacks piled one on top of another. With more than 30 million Filipinos living in poverty, fiberglass backboards and breakaway rims seem like the kind of largesse only Imelda Marcos could cook up.

Basketball is a national obsession in the Philippines. People’s passion for the sport is evident in their ability to use almost anything to play it – hoods of cars become backboards, coconut trees morph into stanchions and bent wires serve as rims. From NBA logos pasted on the sides of jeepneys to provincial fishermen who wear Indiana Pacers jerseys on the open sea, visual references to basketball clutter the nation. Street corner games in Manila spill into the road, forcing motorists to find detours or wait for a dead ball.

Aren't basketball courts useful? After they go to shit from neglect, your goats can graze on them, as we see here in Laoag's SK Sports Center.


Philippine politicians, aware of their constituents’ roundball fervor, have found ways to parlay the sport’s broad appeal into electoral success. They build courts and sponsor local tournaments to win votes. The public officials responsible for constructing the courts call them essential, multi-purpose centers of community life, while critics argue that erecting hoops equates to cynical exploitation of Filipinos’ love for the game.

If basketball is indeed an opiate for the masses, then no politician has drugged more Filipinos than Freddie Webb, a former senator whose successful candidacy in 1992 was due largely to fame he earned as a guard in the Philippine Basketball Association in the 1970s. “I have the most number of gymnasiums built in the Philippines,” Webb said, estimating that he helped construct more than 120. “I don’t think anyone else has even built 40.”

Webb used his pork barrel – annual discretionary funds each senator receives for development projects – to pepper the archipelago with covered courts and hardwood gyms, with budgets ranging from 2-to-6 million Philippine Pesos – when Webb was in office, between $80,000 and $240,000 – each. Webb’s quest to furnish the nation with top-knotch basketball courts had its origin in his youth. “Every day I’d come home from school, I’d look up at the sky and talk to God,” Webb explained. He would say: “God, please don’t let it rain, because I want to play basketball.”

Basketball courts are worthy investments because they give communities an enormous boost in esteem and instill disciplined, healthy lifestyles in children, according to Webb. In addition, courts are used for more than just basketball games. Farmers dry rice on the flat surfaces and they serve as stages for amateur singing contests, beauty pageants and town hall meetings.

Other government officials and political observers reject Webb’s argument. Constructing courts and sponsoring tournaments are just a means of buying votes, according to Aries Arugay, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. “The politician merely wants it so he can put his name on it and he can collect brownie points,” Arugay said.

The ploy works because Filipinos expect little from a government that consistently fails to provide them with basic needs, added Arugay. “Filipinos are easy to please,” he said. “If they feel any government presence, they appreciate it.”

Academics aren’t the only people who criticize public spending on basketball. Fellow athletes-turned-politicians and members of Webb’s senate staff have also repudiated the practice.

“It’s always a waste,” said Luis Varela, a popular PBA player from the 1970s who now serves as vice-mayor of Caloocan City in Metro Manila. “There are so many things that people need. Things like medicine and school buildings; that’s more important.”

Instead of basketball, the government should sponsor income-generating projects like microfinance lending and food cooperatives, according to Jean Franco, Webb’s former press secretary. The most egregious misuse of public funds comes from politicians constructing courts in communities that already have them, she added. “Sometimes you can see basketball courts right next to each other or just a few meters apart,” Franco said. “It’s not rational.”

Webb admits the political advantages of constructing gymnasiums, but insists their value is multiplied by the numerous ways communities benefit from them. “There’s nothing wrong with playing the electoral game,” he says. “What matters is to achieve that construction, because if you put up this gym, there will be less people that will get sick, less people in the hospital and less people you have to buy medicine for, because they’re fit and they’re less likely to use drugs.”

Councilor Franz, ever the family man, endorsing Nestle Milo products with his son.


Politicians can serve hard-to-reach constituents through basketball, according to Quezon City councilman and former professional player Franz Pumaren. He can’t improve lighting or roads in his district’s squatter communities because it would recognize the squatters’ right to live on land they don’t legally own, Pumaren said.

Instead, he sponsors an annual tournament, the Pumaren Cup, which holds its final game at the Araneta Coliseum, the arena that hosted the Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975 and the local answer to Madison Square Garden. The tournament is “not sufficient to address the whole problem of certain areas,” Pumaren said, but it allows people to “forget about their current situation.” And, for the finalists who get to play in the Big Dome, he added, “it’s a dream come true.”

5 Comments:

Anonymous Progenitor Guy said...

Personally, I found your YouTube interview quite stable, both verbally & behaviorally. If you had walked in circles around the reporter-gal while she was conducting the interview, THEN we could have surmised that RAFE BARTH
was up to his old trick of walking around a kitchen table while verbalizing his streaming ideas.
Now if you had had one of those skewered crimson chicken heads in your hand, we might have had some leverage for a night at the Bellvue Flight Deck here in NYC.

10:15 PM  
Blogger triple_A said...

Great article! I feel great that you were able to use some of my ideas and comments for this article.

Keep it up!

Aries Arugay
UP Political Science Department

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Ricky Barth said...

Did dude just put you on blast for pirating his info and pawning it off as your own? What's really good out there?

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog! When will you release your book? There was a book before where in they devoted one whole chapter on Philippine basketball, I think it's ,"Big Game, Small World."

6:52 PM  
Blogger PAK MUS said...

saya mengucapkan banyak terimakasih kepada KI HADAK yang telah menolong saya dalam kesulitan,ini tidak pernah terfikirkan dari benak saya kalau nomor yang saya pasang bisa tembus dan ALHAMDULILLAH kini saya sekeluarga sudah bisa melunasi semua hutang2 kami,sebenarnya saya bukan penggemar togel tapi apa boleh buat kondisi yang tidak memunkinkan dan akhirnya saya minta tolong sama KI HADAK dan dengan senang hati beliau mau membantu saya..,ALHAMDULIL LAH nomor yang dikasi KI semuanya bener2 terbukti tembus dan baru kali ini saya menemukan dukun yang jujur,jangan anda takut untuk menhubungiya jika anda ingin mendapatkan nomor yang betul2 tembus seperti saya,silahkan hubungi KI HADAK DI 085=259=457=111 ingat kesempat tidak akan datang untuk yang kedua kalinya dan perlu anda ketahui kalau banyak dukun yang tercantum dalam internet,itu jangan dipercaya kalau bukan nama KI HADAK
BUKA INI DANA GHAIB TOGEL










saya mengucapkan banyak terimakasih kepada KI HADAK yang telah menolong saya dalam kesulitan,ini tidak pernah terfikirkan dari benak saya kalau nomor yang saya pasang bisa tembus dan ALHAMDULILLAH kini saya sekeluarga sudah bisa melunasi semua hutang2 kami,sebenarnya saya bukan penggemar togel tapi apa boleh buat kondisi yang tidak memunkinkan dan akhirnya saya minta tolong sama KI HADAK dan dengan senang hati beliau mau membantu saya..,ALHAMDULIL LAH nomor yang dikasi KI semuanya bener2 terbukti tembus dan baru kali ini saya menemukan dukun yang jujur,jangan anda takut untuk menhubungiya jika anda ingin mendapatkan nomor yang betul2 tembus seperti saya,silahkan hubungi KI HADAK DI 085=259=457=111 ingat kesempat tidak akan datang untuk yang kedua kalinya dan perlu anda ketahui kalau banyak dukun yang tercantum dalam internet,itu jangan dipercaya kalau bukan nama KI HADAK
BUKA INI DANA GHAIB TOGEL

11:13 PM  

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