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, February 17, 2008

The Collison Encounter

A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece for Seattle Weekly's basketball blog, which later made it into the front of the print product. It's about my Basket List -- the roster of professional or otherwise noteworthy ballers who I've played with or against over the years -- and the day that Seattle Supersonic Nick Collison showed up at a pick-up game and landed on my list. Of course, if I had included all the well-known basketball figures in Philippine basketball I've had the good fortune to play with, my list would be five times longer. The only problem there is that no one outside of the Philippines will be impressed when I boast, "I played with Alvin Patrimonio!"

Here's a link to the Seattle Weekly Basket List blog. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Rogue

The quickest way to get material up on the blog is to use stuff I've already written! So, even though it's not the original, exclusive, Clueminatti-type ish readers are used to here at Manila Vanilla, I'm reprinting an essay I wrote about the Ateneo de Manila/De La Salle basketball rivalry for Rogue magazine, a gorgeous 6-month-old glossy in the Philippines. It's hard to imagine a magazine with huge, thick pages and spectacular-yet-costly art surviving financially in the Philippines, where its potential readership seems restricted to a small, elite audience. Rogue seems to be catering to the Manila Polo Club crowd with a fairly equal ratio of society pieces to semi-serious journalism. Still, Rogue is backed by the seemingly limitless Zobel fortune, which means they can afford to produce it at a loss pretty much indefinitely without making much of a dent on the family income. For now, however, let's hope that the magazine turns a profit on its own and keeps producing some of the most lively writing in the country. Some of the articles are duds, but their profiles of broadcast journalist Ricky Carandang, Manila Mayor Alberto Lim and the band Rivermaya have all showcased something that I had never before seen in the Philippine media: brainy, entertaining feature writing that's not FHM men's magazine blather.

Of course, with pictorials featuring the likes of cover girl Jasmine Maierhofer and MTV Asia VJ Kat Alano inside, Rogue tries to achieve the feel of an upscale laddie magazine, like FHM's older brother. The arty photography works toward this end, although the accompanying stories aren't much different from Maxim Philippines' innuendo marathons. Maierhofer, however, is worth mentioning because she's the sister of La Salle star Rico Maierhofer. If my editors at Rogue had told me that the sister would be the cover girl, it would have made for a nice paragraph about the paths from basketball to high society (showbiz, politics, business) in the Philippines, especially at these two universities, where the diamond-crusted alumni remember their players' heroics for decades.

As an aside, the Maierhofer siblings' rise to stardom in basketball and modeling is a telling story about the Philippine social ladder -- their Swiss dad married a Filipina, opened a resort in Sabang, Puerto Galera, and the kids were each discovered with star potential thanks, in large part to their kalahati ("half" in Tagalog, and a way to refer to people with mixed blood), biracial background. That Swiss Miss in their blood almost surely contributed to Rico's height (around 6'2'' or 6'3'') and Jasmine's exotic look. More on the Bakekang phenomenon another time.

A taste of the madness to come: Grown-ass La Salle fans holding a poster of a Green Archer slaying a Blue Eagle.

Well, there's my intro. Enjoy the article. I'll throw in a editorial asides for my Western readers when it seems necessary to explain a term or reference that might not be on the radar for people living outside of the Philippines. For background on Ateneo and La Salle, click here and here for previous posts about the schools and their rivalry, including my New York Times article on the rivalry. Finally, as in the magazine, all photos from the games were taken by Kat Palasi.

Now, the text of the article as it ran in Rogue.

by Rafe Bartholomew

When these ladies see me on the Katipunan strip, they're looking at me. I might not be the real Captain Kirk, but I'll beam them up.

It was a good rainy season to be a 6-foot-3 American on Katipunan. Thanks to a much-hyped season of college basketball and another white six-footer, Ateneo’s prize freshman guard Kirk Long, I couldn’t stroll past Sweet Inspirations without bumping into a throng of jubilant Blue Eagle fans who thought they’d spotted Long himself. Never mind that I’m more than five years older than Long and a couple inches taller; being a pale beanpole and wearing a pair of basketball shorts was enough to have people slapping me five and asking for autographs, bakeshops offering me free chocolate crinkles and college girls eyeing me like a pair of 15,000-peso jeans. For three glorious, ethically dicey months, I hi-fived them back, gorged on crinkles and returned the ladies’ smiles. The way I saw it, I earned the right to enjoy this case of mistaken identity: A year ago, I couldn’t step outside without hearing someone shriek, “Naku! Daniel Smith!” (Smith is a U.S. Marine who was convicted in late 2006 for raping a Filipina after leaving a Subic Bay bar with her. He, like Kirk Long, doesn't actually look like me, but he's white.)

The hoopla surrounding this 70th UAAP campaign was especially rabid thanks to La Salle’s return from a yearlong suspension for two cases of academic fraud that were revealed at the tail end of 2005. This could only mean one thing: the resumption of the country’s biggest sports rivalry. The schools don’t exactly offer a striking contrast. It’s the affluent, educated Jesuits of Ateneo versus the wealthy, sophisticated Brothers of La Salle, yet those similarities allow the sports rivalry to take center stage. With so much in common, the annual basketball games have become the way for the students, alumni and faculty of each school to distinguish themselves from each other. The victors earn the right to call themselves – sometimes a tad too pompously – richer, smarter and Holier.

The teams this season made up for last year’s absence by facing off a whopping five times, twice in the elimination rounds and three times in the postseason. All the games showcased college basketball’s trademark triptych of sloppy play, poor shooting and roughhousing underneath the basket, but they also provided enough crunchtime drama – J.V. Casio’s string of off-balance jumpers and kamikaze drives towards the end of the first elimination game and Chris Tiu’s double-clutch lay-up that clinched game one of the semifinals come to mind – to make us all forget the first half doldrums. Besides, everyone already knows what happened. Ateneo beat La Salle three out of five times, La Salle beat Ateneo when it counted and went on to win the championship, and even though the players supplied the action, the real show was always in the crowd.

San Miguel/Magnolia star Olsen Racela, came to watch his alma mater, Ateneo.

Call it what you want: an alignment of stars, an eclectic brew of elites, a bloodthirsty madhouse. The throng at an Ateneo-La Salle game is a Philippine original; it’s where a joint session of Congress encounters a CEO-filled Makati boardroom, mixed with the Luna awards, a PBA All-Star game and a Binibining Pilipinas pageant. (The Lunas are like the Oscars. Binibining is like Miss America.) There’s enough eau de toilette in the building to give Araneta Coliseum a pungent sweetness, and a sampling of failed attempts at the tasteful donning of blue and green barongs that would be unimaginable in any other setting. Yet, amid all the glamour and pomp, it’s heartening to see a couple of the same haggard drag queens who never miss a PBA game get their hands on the hottest tickets in town; a perverse hint of social justice to remind everyone that Araneta is also the habitat of Ginebra, the space of sabong (cockfighting), the milieu of the masses.

Before a game, the arena fills up in reverse order, with green and blue foot soldiers staking out territory in the upper decks long before tip-off, followed by the well-heeled alumni in the courtside seats, who trickle into the arena moments before the jump ball. Don’t be fooled, however, by the leisurely arrival of the most highfalutin supporters. They pulled every string to get those seats; some have bribed media pals for press passes, some have flown in from Jakarta and New York, and others have paid scalpers more than 5,000 pesos for tickets with a 200-peso face value. Thus, they defend their hard-earned seats like hyenas guarding a juicy carcass, and the handful of interlopers who arrived early with hopes of squatting on front-row seats are swiftly removed.

MVP, on the right with arms crossed, watches intently while his homeys get loose before tip-off.

Soon the entire arena is packed with the exception of one row near the court. There, alone, is Manuel Pangilinan. It’s sometimes hard to figure out what comes first for MVP, being a telecommunications mogul or the godfather of Philippine basketball, but on this day there’s no question. The basketball programs at Ateneo and San Beda, Talk ‘N Text in the PBA and the recently formed Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (Basketball Association of the Philippines) would be in the poorhouse if not for the beneficence of MVP, and his solitary row seems to be a collective gesture of deference. As he sits with his arms folded in front of him, peering intently at players in their lay-up lines, Pangilinan is visited by a slew of upscale hustlers eager to get on his good side. They shake hands; some choose to beam their widest smile, others opt for a steely, professional demeanor; they wish each other good luck, and then, having paid their respects, disappear to their proper seats. The procession of well-wishers continues for an improbable 10 minutes, until Coaches Franz Pumaren and Norman Black have put the finishing touches on their pre-game speeches and the referees’ whistles are heralding the start of the game, when MVP is joined by an Atenean of equal stature – some might say infamy – Senator Jinggoy Estrada, and moments later the empty seats are full.

Her excellence, her neutralness, Ambassador Kenney.

Across the court, fronting the proverbial sea of green, is U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney, guest of La Salle luminaries José T. Pardo and the Araneta clan. It doesn’t seem very diplomatic at first, but upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that even though Kenney sits with the Animo crowd, she always wears a modest blue blouse or holds a pair of Ateneo balloons. Although Kenney currently serves a Republican administration, the she plays both sides of the crowd is pure Clintonian triangulation, and with her cropped blond hair, perky composure and clever neutrality, Kenney brings to mind President Bush’s near opposite and possible successor, Senator Hillary Clinton. Of course, Kenney’s aides say that attending Ateneo-La Salle games has nothing to do with her diplomatic agenda; that she has been a basketball fan since her college days at Clemson University, but her presence at UAAP games seems more meaningful than everyday public appearances. Kenney watched four out of the five Ateneo-La Salle games last season; in comparison, she makes it to one or two PBA games each year.

Elsewhere in the lower decks we find the posers, who bogart courtside seats in chunks of five for themselves and their bodyguards. It makes an impression (congrats! You’re important!), but when you ask people about the guy in the brown shirt with his private army in tow, no one can identify him. Really, guys, take a cue from the U.S. ambassador and leave the SWAT team at home. The Quezon City government and PNP have already pledged nearly enough manpower to occupy some small nations, and they’re in plain sight, huddled together in camouflaged cabals beside each entrance to the arena.

The lovely ladies with the flammable hair.

Standing in a courtside corner near the players’ entrance are three Binibining Pilipinas contestants looking like they got lost on the way to prom. Never mind; the Ateneo-La Salle provides more than enough pageantry for the beauty queens, who seem as concerned with posing for the photographers prowling around as with the game. Their heavy duty makeup reminds me of that popular American style of histrionic fandom – face-painting – only these sports fashionistas lack beer bellies and have thrown glitter into the mix. Their hair is teased up into shimmering black meringues, held together with enough hairspray to cause a minor explosion should a lit match or cigarette fall from the rafters.

But beyond the world-class people watching, what sets the rivalry apart, what makes it not just notable but phenomenal, is its ability to transform everyone involved in it. Players start as teenagers from the provinces and become household names, striving to fulfill a mythical, gladiator ideal and become heroes to their own side and villains to the other. The young athletes are transformed once more after a loss, sending the losing side into a state of childish blubbering. The warm friendship between Black and Pumaren, longtime San Miguel Beer teammates and members of the same coaching staff, is transformed into a cooler and more cautious relationship, because the past is the past and the rivalry owns the present.

You won't see them using this kind of body language in the board room.

The Ateneo-La Salle games have the power to change the fans, some of the most well-mannered, best-educated members of Philippine society, into raving madmen and feral femme fatales. What else could make Senator Richard Gordon, the former Ateneo cheerleader, sneak behind Pumaren at a restaurant and whisper “La Salle bulok!” in the coach’s ear ("bulok" basically means "rotten trash")? What else could make the senator jump on the scorer’s table during a time out and start pumping his fists to whip the Blue Eagle crowd into a frenzy? What else could make executives and socialites flip their middle fingers at each other, curse the fans of the other team and occasionally shower the court with peso coins and full cans of San Miguel Beer? The rivalry allows society’s crème de la crème to forget the years of socialization and layers of wealth that distinguish them from the masses; it allows them to become an irrational, passionate mob, the kind you might expect to find at on of the PBA’s Barangay Ginebra games.

And as its most remarkable trick, the rivalry transforms the individual into the many. Throughout the games, the each side of the crowd acts as one. They have one voice, booming out the familiar “Get that ball” and “Animo La Salle” chants. When they’re upset with a referee, out comes the pikon point, fifty shame-filled fingers burning a hole through the offending official. And at the end of the games, the rivalry’s ultimate gesture of collectivity, the synchronized fist-pump that accompanies the schools’ alma maters. Ten thousand people chanting and punching the air in slow, rhythmic unison sounds like something out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films, and for that brief moment, the fans of La Salle and Ateneo are brainwashed, too. The domineering personalities and personal ambitions are swept away, and 20,000 people become two entities: La Salle and Ateneo.

The sublimation of self, or the zombie-fication of fans. "Must eat brain. Ateneo must win."

The rivalry teases out the human side from the Philippine elite. Sophistication, etiquette and self-control go right out the window and they cry like babies, hurl invectives like street-corner drunks and chant together in a zombie-like trance. It may be unbefitting of such luminaries, but it might also be necessary. These crazed fans are many of the country’s leaders of business and government. Their actions and decisions play a role in the lives of millions of Filipinos, and, even though some of them could take this responsibility more seriously, the Ateneo-La Salle games provide a break from the weighty issues in their lives. For an afternoon, they weep and rejoice, argue and curse, tune out of their lives and tune in to one cathartic fight. (A reference to Ateneo's rallying cry: "One big fight.")

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blowing myself up

I'll soon be back in Manila, so it's time to start blogging again. Let's warm up with this modest horn-tooter. My March 2006 story in the Chicago Reader, Have Game, Will Travel, was selected in the honorable mention section of the 2007 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. I discovered this while leafing through the book in the Union Square Barnes and Noble. Of course, this is a huge honor. I'm also encouraged by the fact that this story, written only a couple months after I arrived in the Philippines, isn't my best work. After two years of living in the Philippines, I've been able to pull from a broader understanding of local culture and basketball's role in it, and my writing has improved. Hopefully, it means bigger accomplishments will follow.