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, September 23, 2007

Ateneo/La Salle: Where the cream of Philippine society comes to curdle

Here's my story from The New York Times about the biggest rivalry in Philippine sports -- the men's basketball rivalry between Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle universities. Now that the official story is published, I'll come back in a few days with some of the DVD exclusives. Photo by Nono Felipe.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Basketball Ninjas

What makes ninjas so deadly? They're silent, and at night, dressed in their cute black jumpsuits, they're nearly invisible. You don't know what's coming until ninja stars are making mincemeat of you.

What's this have to do with basketball, or the Philippines? Well, after a couple years of playing in public playgrounds and dirt courts here, I must have been stripped from behind almost a hundred times. Part of that has to do with the blasé attitude towards protecting the ball in these games. Turnovers and points tend to accumulate in unison, and so, after grabbing a rebound, instead of bringing the ball to my chin, stabbing the air with my elbows and pivoting until I find a safe outlet pass, I might do something like start dribbling through a crowd of three or four defenders, and while I feel pretty confident against these guys, sooner or later you get stripped.

But there's another reason. Basketball ninjas. One of the biggest clichés in Philippine basketball is the footwear, or lack thereof, on children, teenagers and grown men who play on street corner hoops, barangay playgrounds and provincial dirt courts. They sprint, leap, jab-step and jump-stop in flip-flops and bare feet. Flip-flops, with their onomatopoeic name, have a recognizable pitter-patter. Bare feet, on the other hand, are practically silent. Hence the basketball ninja.

Don't you know bad boys move in silence?

In basketball, as in life, people use perceptual cues to construct an image of the world around them, including the parts that they can't see. On defense, you see the ball at all times, but you plant a forearm on your man so you know where he is. You stick your hands out and feel for cutters along the baseline, you turn around and box out a man with your arms and back; you watch for the ball to come off the rim while you feel your man. You also hear your man. You hear his steps coming from behind when he crashes the board or cuts behind you in a zone. When you're handling the ball, you hear players coming from behind to snatch your dribble.

Well, an opponent without shoes gives you no auditory clues. You listen for him, hear nothing, and assume you're safe to put the ball on the floor and begin your move. And that's when the basketball ninjas strike. You can't hear them coming, but they're there, and if you take your eyes off them, they'll sneak right behind you and wait for a chance to pick your pocket. If you're a first-world chump like me and 95 percent of the basketball you've played has been against players wearing nice, squeaky sneakers, you're going to lose the ball sometimes.

Now, I don't think I need to explain how wearing shoes is ultimately a huge advantage for a basketball player, but instead of the standard, mildly paternalistic musing about Filipinos' quaint passion for basketball, which is so great that they play without socks and sneakers, why don't we also consider one of the few advantages a barefoot basketball player has over his Nike-clad opponents.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Back with a vengeance ... and a video!

Friends! Long time no see. I've got big plans for Manila Vanilla, which I probably will never follow through on, so let's start off nice and relaxed with a video. This isn't just a video; it's also a contest. Since many of the people who bother reading this Web site know me personally, I challenge you to find me in this commercial for Anchor Beer. I shot it last February and only now discovered it online. It was filmed in Manila by world-class commercial director and wanker Franco Marinelli, but it was intended for TV audiences in Taiwan and Thailand, where the appetite for advertisements starring average-looking Caucasians is apparently just as voracious as it is here in the Philippines. If I can rouse up the nerve to revisit my hideous memories from the day I spent at this shoot, I will write more about it. For now, however, watch the commercial and try to spot me, then leave a comment with your answer! Maybe I'll give out prizes. But be warned: This commercial is chock full of white assholes, and singling me out will be no cakewalk. It will be like the infamous "Waldo World" spread in the final Where's Waldo? book.