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, 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.


Anonymous porouslogs said...

I like Yeng's selection of players, especially the addition of santos, thoss and baguio

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read through a lot of your blogs but I still don't have the sense of what level of play the PBA can compare to in the US? NCAA Div 2,3, small conference D1? It seems as if the have some US D1 players and D1 benchwarmers that are stars and even JC players that do well. What is your sense on the level of play?

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Zarr said...

Cardona's intensity is actually refreshing. I havent seen a player in a while with that Jordan quality of hating to lose. Jordan was a sore loser according to Barkley and I believe Cardona is the same way, that's what you call "pikon" in tagalog. The last who reminded me of that was Robert Jaworski. I hated his guts, but you have to respect the fact that he really hated to lose. He hated it so much he went after a referee and kicked him when he was down during his MICAA games. :D

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pretty interesting that an american guy is up-to-date when it comes to philippine basketball. Your view regarding the pba is accurate I must say.

1:48 PM  

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