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, December 29, 2008

An NY Pinoy's first thoughts after recovering from a stroke

This is rich stuff. The NY Times' Neediest Cases stories -- features about New Yorkers who've struggled through devastating hardships and received assistance from worthwhile charities -- are a valuable public service, but they tend to be pretty boring and I have a hard time reading past the third paragraph before my eyes glaze over and I start reminiscing on my glory days as a Telenovela villain. 

Fernando Kabigting, painter extraordinaire and an early favorite to star in my prequel to Goonies.

Yesterday's Neediest Cases article, however, was an exception. It told the story of Fernando Kabigting, an accomplished Filipino painter who moved to New York in 1994 and who suffered a stroke on a balikbayan visit to Manila in 1999. The stroke jacked up Kabigting's right side and his whole family anguished over the possibility that he might not be able to paint again. Thanks to hard work, prayer, support from loved ones, help from Catholic charities in NY, yadda yadda, he managed to recover the ability to paint. If this were the whole story, I'd think, "that's nice," and move on. I have an acquired taste for Philippines-related schmaltz that doesn't seem to transfer to any other cultural product. I don't read Neediest Cases stories about native-born New Yorkers. I'm not a huge fan of romantic comedies like PS I Love You. I don't sit around watching daytime soaps. But I can read Kabigting's Neediest Case file and I soak up Pinoy schlock romance in movie and TV form -- from When Love Begins to Ysabella! -- like an extra-absorbent Bounty paper towel. 

But the Kabigting article had one extra detail that really made it sing for me. Immediately after his stroke, Kabigting couldn't speak and communicated only by tracing messages, one letter at a time, on the palm whoever he was talking to. When his daughter flew from NY to Manila to visit him, and when she arrived at the hospital, the first message he had for her was "DID THE KNICKS WIN?"

I spend a lot of time researching the big ticket items related to basketball's mighty foothold in Philippine society -- PBA imports past and present, the early Olympians like Caloy Loyzaga and Kurt Bachmann, the Senate hearings related to Fil-Shams and the FIBA suspension, the legacy of Sonny Jaworski, and so on. But often times, it's little details like Fernando Kabigting's message to his daughter that really cement the significance of basketball in the lives of so many Filipinos. Taken on their own, a Growee commercial that suggests kids who drink the right vitamin syrup can grow tall enough to dunk, a multicab in Surigao City with a New Jersey Nets decal painted on its side and a reality show that highlights grassroots hoops talent like MyMVP might seem trivial. But lumped together, along with stories of Kabigting, whose first thoughts upon reviving from a stroke seem to have included basketball front and center, and countless other Filipino men and women who've made small tokens of their devotion to the sport, these little details weave together to form a mosaic of a country where basketball is deeply adored by macho athletes, painters, poets, and fishermen alike. It never fails to inspire me, and although I'm not Filipino, I feel the same way so many Pinoys do about basketball.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ambassadors of the Philippine Game: The RP Team Part 2

I've always had a soft spot for underachieving basketball players and teams. Maybe this is because the first basketball team I really worshiped was Michigan's Fab Five in the early 1990s. With Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and company, they won with a style and attitude that seemed like the epitome of cool to an 11-year-old learning the game. And although they famously choked in their second NCAA title game against North Carolina in 1993, I love them all the same. Since then, most of my favored teams and players seem to have been cut from the same cloth: brilliant talent but lacking some essential quality that makes them winners. From bottom feeders like Marcus Banks to borderline stars like Lamar Odom, I love the loveable losers.

So in this, my second post about the Philippine national basketball team, I want to express a gentle desire for the country to be represented by a team that might not necessarily be most likely to succeed in international competition, but one that showcases the unique and exhilarating aspects of the Philippine game.

Let me say this up front: This post is pure fantasy. I don't think that the Philippine Sports Commission should follow my perscriptions for the national basketball team. The people charged with forming a national team have one concern, and that is preparing a team that can be as successful as possible and potentially return the Philippines to its perch near the top of Asian basketball. And that's how it should be. But I'm not on the PSC and I'm not a representative of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, so please permit me to indulge in my little fantasy.

Willie Miller. Da bess, pare!

Filipinos are right to feel proud of their place in the basketball world, both its history (which includes participation in the first Olympic Games to feature basketball in 1936, a bronze medal in the 1954 World Championships and the Philippines' routine domination of Asian tournaments until the late 1960s) and its present. The country may never reach those heights again, but I think they could reasonably aim for earning a spot in the Olympics or World Championships sometime in the next 10-15 years.

Aside from this overall goal, I think the RP team should be assembled with another purpose in mind: to share Philippine basketball's unique character. What, precisely, am I referring to? Filipino basketball players have a unique blend of creativity and toughness that makes them a joy to watch. One-on-one moves like the sidestep and the gallop dribble on the break don't exist anywhere else in the world. The wild yo-yo layups and pektos spin shots that players like Willie Miller and James Yap convert every game, at their most exhilarating, can be as exciting as Lebron James' dunks. Maybe I've just been around Pinoy basketball for too long, but I really believe that.

Area 51 escapee Arwind Santos claims to have been raised in Lubao, Pampanga. The truth is out there.

Another factor that contributes to Philippine basketball's pleasure factor is that the sport truly begins at a grassroots level in the Philippines. By "grassroots," I mean that many and perhaps most players learn to play in barangays and baryos, on covered courts or straight-up lupa, and they pick up unorthodox styles that spice up their games. Miller and Yap learned to play in the streets of Olongapo and Escalante, Negros Occidental, respectively, and they've blended the fundamentals and textbook skills they've picked up through years of organized basketball with the freewheeling flair of the barangay games where they learned to play. In contrast, Chinese national players are plucked from their families in early adolesence because of their ideal height or build and enrolled in sports academies where they are molded into basketball robots through endless drilling. I will admit that these robots can really play, and the Philippine team is no match for the Chinese team, but I would rather watch Pinoys play any day of the week.

So does the latest RP team, in its current incarnation, reflect my desire to showcase the unique character of Philippine basketball? In this sense, I think it's an improvement over the 2007 RP team. Willie Miller was left off that team, presumably because of his erratic tendencies, Arwind Santos was a tad young back then, and Yap was left out in favor of RenRen Ritualo. Miller, the PBA's crown prince, with all his jukes and spins and scoop shots, is like the pure id of Philippine basketball. Yes he turns the ball over and disappears sometimes, but when he's on he's better than everyone else in the PBA.

Santos is beyond unorthodox. He's otherworldly. I'm talking about his game, although the guy also happens to look like he's from another planet. He's kind of like a Pinoy Shawn Marion, although I don't think the comparison gives Santos full credit. But, like Marion, Santos is a small forward who seems like he can guard any position, who outrebounds and out-blocks most big men because of his hops and go-go Gadget arms, who consistenly sinks strange-looking three-point shots, and who's an exciting finisher on drives and putbacks. An exquisite garbageman.

Sometimes I want to give James Yap the benefit of the doubt. Then I see pictures like this.

I love how smooth Yap's game is, how easily he breaks down defenders with his dribble, and his ability to adjust his shot in mid-air on drives. I'm less crazy about his metrosexual tendencies and the constant media harping about his intrigues and, worse yet, Baby James. He's the PBA's Kobe Bryant -- annoying as a celebrity but enchanting as a player.

A reader left a comment on my last post complaining about MacMac Cardona's being left off the RP team roster, and I have to agree. No discussion of one-of-a-kind PBA players is complete without Cardona, who shoots and makes one-handed runners from everywhere on the court. I remember in the 2007 Fiesta conference finals, he was torching Alaska in the second half of a game at Araneta, and Rosell Ellis switched onto Cardona to slow him down. Cardona got the ball on the wing and tried to drive past Ellis, but the quick import was having none of it. He stopped Cardona dead in his tracks about 19 feet away from the basket, on the right side of the court. Cardona looked like he didn't know what to do, so he just threw the ball up with one hand and it went in. The guy has an incredible nose for the ball; loose balls just seem to drop into his hands for easy lay ups. His bizarre style makes him hard to scout and hard to guard, which I think could make him effective in international competition. On top of that, the guy is aggressive. Like, scary aggressive. When he goes to the basket, I think I can hear him growling like a mad dog. If he plays with that kind of energy against Air21 in front of a thin crowd at the Ynares Center, then imagine how hard he'll play for the flag! And he's DYING to play.

I also think that Jimmy Alapag's play in 2007 earned him a spot on this team, as long as he's healthy and interested. I read some comments from Yeng Guiao that made it sound like he thought Alapag was too short. After being the RP Team's best player by a wide margin in Tokushima, that shouldn't matter. Although Alapag's game is more American than Pinoy in style, he's still an exciting and tough player, and he belongs on the team.

Finally, there's Coach Yeng Guiao. I've already written at length about him, but in the context of this post, I'd like to add that I think he's a perfect representative of the old-school Pinoy style of coaching. Of all the coaches in the PBA, he's the last major practitioner of Jaworski-style coaching, which basically consists of hyping up players and freaking them out in order to make them play like desperate maniacs. The Big J worked his psychotrauma magic for decades with Ginebra, and Guiao was employing it with similar success until the most recent All-Filipino conference, when Red Bull's firesale of its most talented players finally seems to have caught up to the team. Still, Guiao's troops play like their lives depend on it, like they're worried a turnover could lead to them being chopped up and turned into Pampanga's Best longganiza. I'm not convinced this style of coaching will work with the national team, but on a sort-of Platonic basis, I appreciate the choice of Yeng Guiao as coach. He's the purest example of traditional Philippine-style coaching.

Let's dispense with one last question: What's the point of being an entertaining team if you can't win? You've got a point. But a more conservatively assembled RP Team without all the tantalizing, inconsistent talents of Willie Miller or the eccentric skill set of Arwind Santos, like the 2007 Tokushima team, wouldn't be guaranteed to do much better. If you're going to be a long shot, I say be a long shot with character, become the scrappy, wild team that's the darling of the fans, and go out in a blaze of glory.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

There's yin, there's yang, and then there's Yeng: Thoughts on the RP team

It's not easy following developments in Philippine basketball from an apartment in New York. Especially since there's nowhere for me to install a DirecTV dish and subscribe to the package of Filipino channels. Anyway, kawawa naman ako. I'll stop bitching.

I have been reading up on whatever I can find on the PBA's Web site, as well as the online portals of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star. It's hard to get a feeling for what's going on in the PBA because the game recaps are so basic, but I've been devouring the reports and imagining the behind the scenes gossip regarding the PBA-backed Philippine National Team that's supposed to play in the August 2009 FIBA-Asia tournament that will serve as a qualifier for the 2010 World Championships of basketball.

Although it's probably too early to tell if this will be a successful RP team, I can say pretty confidently that it will be an entertaining one. I don't mean this necessarily from the basketball standpoint, as in watching this team play will be an enjoyable experience. That may be true, but what I'm really getting at is that the selection of Yeng Guiao to coach the national team means that basketball fans will have plenty to debate.

Atak of da Bal-Hedz! Bacdafucup!

Here's what I like about Guiao: He's a character. He represents the mixed-up world of Pinoy hoops, its strengths and faults alike. The Philippines will head into competition knowing that no other coach has bigger brass balls than theirs. The standard adjectives for intense coaches -- fiery, confrontational, strong-willed -- are laughably bland when applied to Guiao. At times on the court, he's borderline insane. This is a guy who clotheslined Dondon Hontiveros in a playoff game two years ago when the San Miguel guard was lighting up Guiao's Red Bull squad. The old rumor about Guiao pulling a pistol on his players to motivate them at a Red Bull practice may or may not be true, but the story has been told so many times that it's become part of Guiao's urban legend.

Guiao is also blunt and outspoken. His wars of words with Talk 'N Text's Frankie Lim in November 2006 and his biting, sarcastic criticism of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas' hiring of Serbian coach Rajko Toroman to develop a team capable of qualifying for the the 2012 Olympics have been hilarious. Check out this quote regarding Toroman: “But if he has the technology or the system where the six-footers can beat the seven-footers and we don’t know it then I’ll carry his bag. We have to prove that, ‘Pinoy tabi ka muna because undoubtedly mas-magaling ito.’” That last bit in Tagalog, "step aside Filipino coaches because undoubtedly this one is better," is dripping with irony. 

Guiao is saying that you can't coach height, and Filipinos don't have it, so don't expect foreign coaches to come in and perform miracles. Instead, Guiao would prefer for the SBP to bring in foreign coaches to run a few clinics, show some new drills, share some of the wisdom they've gained from FIBA competition, and hit the road. I think that Guiao is understating the possible value of foreign coaches, some of whom, like Toroman, really do know the European-style FIBA game better than Pinoy coaches who have less experience and who mostly were trained by American coaches and countless Filipino mentors. And Guiao's vehement opposition to foreign coaches is seems mildly hypocritical since he's been a leading voice calling for the RP team to naturalize a couple foreign big men (that's not counting the PBA's current foreign big men who've been unofficially naturalized :P) to bang with the seven-footers suiting up for other countries' teams. However, Guiao's conflicting positions reflect a certain pragmatic, if also self-serving, logic. The players on the court are going to ultimately determine the outcomes of games, so if the Philippines is going to hire foreigners to prop up the team, they might as well start with the players. 

But beyond the substance of Guiao's arguments for and against naturalized players and foreign coaches, I just like the way he expresses himself. The arguments might be faulty, but Guiao has chutzpah, and I appreciate that.  It will be interesting to see, however, if a roster full of bona fide superstars find Guiao's chutzpah as charming as I do. Guiao's image as the swashbuckling, tough guy vice governor from Pampanga who can drive any collection of bozos to a winning season in the PBA leans heavily on his ability to motivate players through bullying and intimidation, or at least so I've heard, and it looks that way from the outside. Will James Yap, who's married to the Philippines' version of Oprah, respond to Guiao's haranguing style the same way Magnum Membrere does, or will he ignore the voluble coach? Or will he kick Guiao in the back of the knee and then run like his life depended on it, as he did in last season's Terrence Leather fiasco? Yes, James Yap jokes are irresistible, but jokes aside, are guys like Helterbrand, Willie Miller, Asi Taulava and Kelly Williams going to let Guiao bully them? It's hard to believe, although perhaps a bunch of players in the current national team pool have played for Guiao -- Miller, Kerby Raymundo, Mick Pennisi, Cyrus Baguio -- it won't be as large an adjustment as it seems. 

I do think that Guiao's simple coaching style will be good for the team. He lets the players push the ball, he lets them shoot when they're feeling hot, he lets them make mistakes. The only thing that seems to drive him crazy is weakness, whether it surfaces as hesitating to take a shot on offense or backing down from a challenge on defense. Other than that, it seems like anything goes, and I think that's good for a team with streaky guards who can really get hot like Miller, Yap, Helterbrand and Baguio. Let 'em play. And I think Guiao will do just that.

Stay tuned for another post, coming within the next few days, that tilts a wider lens at the RP team and asks, "What should be the goal of the Philippine national team?"