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

Friday, July 25, 2008

Arenas follow-ups

Here's an image that sort of puts you in Gilbert Arenas' shoes during one of his adidas store appearances. There's just a wall of hands pointed out at you, trying to get a piece of you. Looks a little like a zombie film, or Sunday service at an evangelical church. Either way, it can be scary, and Arenas proved himself to be a cool customer by handling it well and making a lot of people happy.

Read below for a series of quick posts offering the deleted scenes from Arenas' Philippine tour. Well, they weren't deleted, but they never made it into my story.

All photos by Sandro Paredes, whose Web site has hundreds more like them.

Show your love, Apollo

For a short while in the wee hours of the morning, my story was on the front of the New York Times home page. I'm also in the photograph, so not only was my story on the home page, but so was my filthy, no-good mug.


If you browse Sandro's photos, you will find little bits and pieces of me in many of them, but none so much as this one, which is really just a shot of me looking pissed off. I can't say why, however, because I was much more relaxed here, at Arenas' first appearance of the day at SM Mall of Asia, then I was 10 hours later, after three in-stores, one quarter of Ateneo-La Salle, Arenas' basketball exhibition and a new personal commuting record that took me from from Katipunan to Mall of Asia to Rockwell to Cubao to Trinoma and back to Katips, all using trains and jeepneys.

The ball

Arenas signing the plush toy ball I wrote about in The Times. His generosity with the fans brought to mind the most popular local players like Sonny Jaworski and Alvin Patrimonio, who were legendary for spending hours signing autographs and posing for photographs after games. Arenas slipped into the role effortlessly.

I know what Hell sounds like

There is but one soundtrack playing in Hell -- Philippine girl group Mocha -- and it afflicts the ears of the eternally damned like a million alcohol-soaked bobby pins being driven into their heads. The ladies of Mocha seem to have a lock on basketball events; they were hired to ruin Alaska's championship after party at Hard Rock Café last year, as well. Their hit 'Patcha' could rival waterboarding on White House counsel/fascist ogre David Addington's short list of party activities.

They opened for Arenas at multiple events during the tour, wearing these adidas outfits that give new meaning to the term "performance apparel." Thankfully, we were spared 'Patcha,' in favor of shoddy Beyoncé and Rihanna covers. One sure sign of Arenas' smarts was that he instinctively knew to stay away from these dames. He posed for some pictures, but when Mocha, the aptly-named leader of Mocha (in the center wearing the red top and skirt) tried to pull him on stage for some sexy dancing, I saw Arenas look more serious than at any other moment of his time in Manila and shut her down with a very definitive "no." He was comfortable being pawed and grabbed by hundreds of screaming fans, but the attention from Mocha proved too frightening even for Agent Zero.

Oh Brother!

Even the La Salle Brothers were psyched about the opportunity to have their photos taken with Pope Zero.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Where's Cassell?

Amazingly, hype man Sam Cassell was not hand to upstage this gathering of luminaries by chanting "Pacman! Pacman!" like he did after the Pacquiao/Diaz fight. Sam, you're slipping.

The pre-Ateneo-La Salle gathering in the Araneta Coliseum VIP room was impressive nonetheless, with Arenas and Senator Richard Gordon shaking hands in front of U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney and Manny Pacquiao. Another Arenas nomme de court is Black President, and this part of this Manila trip felt the most like an official state visit.

There's a lot to love in this image: Pacman's bewildered smile set against Madame Ambassador's neck-throbbing enthusiasm and Gordon's black on black outfit that could almost pass for a polo-unitard come immediately to mind. The country is truly screwed if a natural or man-made calamity ever occurs during an Ateneo-La Salle basketball game, because Gordon, an avid Blue Eagle follower, former Ateneo cheerleader and, oh yeah, head of the Philippine Red Cross, is not going to call in the calvary to pull anyone out of the mudslide until the game is through and he has finished pumping his fist to the Ateneo alma mater. "You're doing a heckuva job, Gordie."

Pacquiao had the largest entourage, but Ambassador Kenney's made the largest impression. A half-dozen paunchy, Caucasian gentleman dressed in Blackwater casual -- beige polo shirts, black Ray-Ban sunglasses, crew cuts, 'staches, stern faces -- followed closely behind her. They were a good deterrent to keep curious reporters like me away, for fear I might provoke a warning shot.

The adidas flasher

The local ad-wizards who cooked up the promotional campaign for Arenas' tour presented a very literal interpretation of his nickname, Agent Zero. Even two weeks after his visit, every sporting goods store I pass in a mall has a 7-foot tall poster of Arenas as Agent Zero, wearing this long, black leather trenchcoat and cradling a basketball. At his Trinoma appearance, he actually wore the jacket, which I presume was meant to evoke Shaft, although to me the outfit seemed like something a flasher might wear on his way to a pick-up game.

Look at my banana pants!

What basketball exhibition would be complete without interpretive breakdance? At Arenas' "statement show," supposedly the main event of his tour, where he put on a short shooting exhibition, the thousands of onlookers actually spent more time watching this dance troupe than Arenas himself. In the background, please note two-time PBA most valuable player Benjie Paras (with the shaved head and black t-shirt) assuming his "this is unbelievably wack" pose. I concur, Benjie. It's the same pose I strike while watching Bubble Gang.

Trinoma Impostor

I'm not really sure what big man in the left foreground is doing in this photograph. It looks like he's trying to show off a nipple ring or something, but he was among the many, many fans lined up in Trinoma mall's adidas store to see Arenas.

The more interesting moment, however, was after the in-store, when this guy, probably the only other athletic-looking black man in the building, showed up at the mall atrium to watch Arenas' mini-performance. Although he's about 6'5'', so maybe one and a half or two inches taller than Agent Zero, and much less broad-shouldered than Arenas, he was darkly complected enough to convince more than a few onlookers that he was actually the NBA All-Star they came to watch. Kids were asking for pictures and autographs, while others just gazed in astonishment, while this guy's mischievous friend in the green hat further misled people by yelling, "Gilbert! Gilbert!"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Not impressed

On his final morning in Manila, Arenas presided over the dedication of an adidas-sponsored court at a Gawad Kalinga village in Brookside, up in the Bagong Silangan wastelands of Northeast Quezon City behind Commonwealth Avenue. Getting there is an adventurous drive. One right turn takes you away from the bustle and commerce of Commonwealth and into a rapidly devolving landsape of plywood and aluminum shanties; pocked, gravel roads; and desolate, scrubby wastelands filled with brown weeds. The streets are meandering and poorly marked, offering the same sights of people squatting in the shade, others pushing 'diyaryong-bote' (newspaper-bottle) carts of recyclable trash and still others sorting through piles of scrap metal outside junk shops. These are standard sights for people living in Metro Manila, but for Arenas, whose trip until then had kept him inside the city's poshest malls and the Presidential Suite at the Peninsula Manila, it was an important trip to take. When I got to interview him, he mentioned that he was sad, of course, to see so much poverty, but grateful that he had been able to see more than just Manila's cellophane-thin layer of glam.

Before Arenas arrived, adidas officials and a small platoon of security guards got the court ready. Ronnie Magsanoc and Benjie Paras, former star players known as the Stockton and Malone of the PBA, ran drills for a group of third and fourth graders under a vicious morning sun along with Purefoods Coach Ryan Gregorio and current PBA players Enrico Villanueva and Rey Evangelista. This provided the true highlight of the morning, when Coach Ronnie told the kids they should run to their houses and change out of their school uniforms into some athletic clothes, like shorts and t-shirts. One girl yelled out, "Puwede bang pajamas?" as in, "can we wear pajamas?" and everyone just shrugged and said, "of course!" I'd pay to see an NBA team send its players out on the court in team pajamas one night.

Anyway, when Arenas finally showed up, it was brutally hot and no one was really gathered around the court because they were huddled together wherever shade could be found. He toured one of the schools in the village, and received this warm response from a charming little lady. "Stop wasting my time, Arenas. I'm trying to get an education."

Word of the Day

GMA sportscaster and PBL commissioner Chino Trinidad showed up at Arenas' Gawad Kalinga appearance. After Arenas left, I rode back to Makati with some of his PR people, who complained that Trinidad ambushed Arenas for an interview on his way out of the GK Brookside community in Quezon City. What disturbed me was Trinidad's resemblance to Pee Wee Herman in these photographs, which I attribute to his rosy cheeks, waxed hair and maniacal, red-lipped grin.

You might also notice Trinidad's lovely adidas dry-fit shirt. Nearly every member of the local press corps who covered Arenas' visit came decked out head-to-toe in adidas gear at every event. I suppose they didn't want to offend the adidas employees who worked very hard to make Arenas' tour here run smoothly and successfully, but it was still jarring for me to see so many journalists sucking up to a sportswear company at the same time as they were covering it. Watching the procession of newspaper and television journalists march through the Manila Peninsula hotel lobby during the afternoon of one-on-one interviews was like watching an adidas runway show. Of course, many local media personalities are literally on the payroll of either Nike or adidas, so they have good reason to be all sipsip to their corporate masters. Also, while it's easy to take shots at the less-than-independent aspects of Philippine journalism, let's try to remember that local reporters aren't given much of a choice in the matter, because their news organizations usually pay them poor wages and expect them to make up the difference through envelopmental journalism, i.e. handouts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Arenas story

Here is my recent story in The New York Times about Gilbert Arenas' trip to Manila in the first week of July. The madness the ensues when an NBA All-Star descends on the Philippines has to be seen to be believed. It felt like I was trailing the Pope around Manila. Arenas was so impressed by the reception Filipino fans gave him that he wrote a blog entry titled "Everybody should visit Manila." He ended the post with these words of wisdom: "Just remember people, if you want to feel like a king and feel like a star, you know where to go: Manila. So, Pauly Shore, after you finish reading this, you head to Manila to jumpstart your career, baby. You’ll be back in the business, baby. You’ll be doing Jury Duty 2 in no time."

From reading his blog or watching him interact with fans, it's pretty easy to understand why Arenas has a reputation for being one of the NBA's funniest, most candid and likeable personalities.

Now that the story is published, I'll post some behind the scenes anecdotes and photos from Arenas' visit in the next few days. Stay tuned.