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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Balunbalunan sure tastes nice on the Foreman Grill

There are so many reasons to adore Manny Pacquiao. In these recent remarks to ESPN boxing honcho Dan Rafael, (in the sidebar), PacMan has given me one more reason to smile. In the spirit of Halloween, Rafael asked both Pacquiao and his November 14 opponent Miguel Cotto which boxer they'd most like to dress up as. Cotto said Muhammad Ali for all the obvious reasons. Here's how Pacquiao responded:

I would be 'Big' George Foreman. Not only because it would give me an opportunity to win a world title in an eighth weight division but in a division I would never be big enough to grow into on my own. Plus, I would be big enough to play power forward in the NBA.

For the record, "Big" George is six-foot-three and a half. Now it's possible Manny may have trouble judging height for anyone over six feet, but even though George weighs enough to bump uglies with Rick Mahorn, he's still about six inches short of the standard height for NBA power forwards. Foreman's height, however, is spot on for the four position in another league Pacquiao may have heard of -- the PBA.

Pacquiao's well-chronicled love for basketball is a constant source of amusement. HBO's video of his private games in Baguio -- the ones that drive trainer Freddie Roach crazy -- gives a hint of what kind of player Pacman is, and it doesn't look like he's a natural power forward. We see an awkward behind the back dribble and some hideous jump shot form, but like almost any Pinoy baller, he's a whiz at double-clutch lay-ups with plenty of pektos. (Basketball comes in around the 13:20 mark of this video.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Basketball/Ondoy pictures

I just wanted to share a pair of photographs that caught my eye in recent weeks, as I've watched the Philippines torn apart by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. There's not much that hasn't been said about the devastating loss of life and property the storms have caused, and it was particularly distressing for me to see pictures on (it's number five in this slideshow) of the street in front of my old house submerged in water that would reach my chest.
Sometimes it's inappropriate to turn my one-track basketball mind onto subjects that are obviously much bigger than the game. I wrestled with that possibility and its associated guilt when I saw these photographs and felt a tinge of happiness at seeing basketball woven into the story of this crisis the same way it has become part of practically every facet of Philippine society. In the top photo, the scene is of grim resolve, people saving those few dear keepsakes that can be saved, while the bottom picture is just plain fun.

Of course, the far more important stories are the crippling effects the storms have had on people's lives, the number of people who've lost their homes and who may be permanently relocated. That alone is a frightening prospect, a disaster lumped on top of a calamity, like finding someone who's been shot and stabbing them through the bullet hole. That's not to say that slums/informal settlements aren't a problem, or that they didn't exacerbate the floods by clogging waterways with shanties, kangkong and solid waste, but the idea of the government overseeing a mandatory relocation of the urban poor is horrifying. And then there's the more positive story of the thousands of volunteers who stepped up to help those hardest hit by the storms. I'm proud that a lot of my friends contributed and continue to give to these efforts.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Spreading the blame: A note from a newly minted Wynne Arboleda fan

OK that's a little too strong. I wouldn't call myself a new Wynne Arboleda fan after watching him briefly smother a PBA fan with assorted Hadoukens and Muay Thai knees. But I'm tired of the reflexive condemnation that follows anytime an athlete overreacts and confronts a fan, whether or not the scene becomes as grisly as it did in the Burger King/Gilas game.

Full disclosure. I like professional basketball players. I like them more than the coaches and more than the fans. They are the people who made me fall in love with the game when I was eight years old. They inspired me to become a half-decent player, and even though I was never good enough to go past truly dismal college ball, I still -- by now you can officially call me deluded -- think of myself as an athlete first and fan second. My sympathies run toward the players. I felt bad for Ron Artest when the NBA gave him a season-long suspension after the Detroit brawl. Likewise, I already feel sorry for Wynne Arboleda, because it seems like people are already calling for his head, and he'll be sitting for the rest of the conference at least and I'm guessing longer.

What gets me is that when the dust settles, everyone always points at the player and no one else. Yes, the player is ultimately responsible for his actions, but no one looks at the league, the franchises or the fans that through all the ingredients for a disaster into the pot and turned up the heat.

For starters, step back and look at the history of Philippine basketball. Over the years, fans have always posed a greater threat to players and referees than vice versa. From Yco-Ysmael to Crispa-Meralco to Crispa-Toyota to Ginebra-Tanduay to just plain Ginebra (that would be from the 1960s until about ten years ago), fans felt entitled to express their disapproval with bad calls or dirty play by showering the court with peso coins, spent batteries, Monoblock chairs, water bottles, beer cans and other projectiles. Teams wouldn't enter an arena without enough beach umbrellas to make payong over the entire bench. I've heard that PBA players started covering their heads with towels on the bench because it took the sting out of peso coins. By many accounts, crowd violence over the years was just as bad if not worse in the college ranks, with rivalries like Ateneo-San Beda and Ateneo-La Salle leading to regular parking lot brawls.

The point is that the atmosphere at big-time Philippine basketball games has always been wild and woolly, and I think it's fair to suggest that leagues -- MICAA, PBA, NCAA, UAAP -- have tolerated and even encouraged fan misbehavior. It spiced up games and brought in bigger crowds.

In recent years the PBA has more or less eradicated the air of lawlessness that once predominated in the stands at Araneta or ULTRA, but the legacy is still there. I'd argue that this tradition is especially important in the Philippines, where basketball games have been a place for people to blow off steam and act in ways that would be unthinkable in their everyday lives. Yes, American fans also get drunk at NBA, NFL, and MLB games and do ghastly things, but they don't have martial law in their not-too-distant memories. Outside of the Big Dome, martial law-era PBA crowds were forced to live by the Marcos slogan Sa ika-uunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan, and if they missed curfew or failed to live up to that standard of "discipline," the consequences could be grave. Inside the Big Dome, on the other hand, they could expect to see Jaworski knee somebody in the gut or Rudy Kutch clobber somebody, an if they were truly lucky a full-scale brawl would break out. They could pepper the referees with peso coins, skirmish with other fans, and scream their lungs out with the filthiest invectives that came to mind.

That release valve was probably a good thing. But these days, with the PBA striving to emulate the NBA's stuffiness and with the Philippines more than 20 years removed from Marcos's repressive dictatorship (OK, I'm aware of the PGMA parallels; let me skirt that issue for now), the power dynamic between players, fans and the league is changing. Some fans still want to blow off steam, primarily by heckling. The players can't be as rugged as they were in the Seventies and Eighties, because this is a modern league now, with "scientific" coaching and professional standards. The league wants the fans to have their fun and the players to remain beatific basketball machines, passionate only about scoring and defense, and impervious to whatever bedlam occurs in the stands. But if the league continues to allow fans to treat players like animals while expecting the athletes the athletes to "take it like a man," every once in a while a player will snap and react in a more primal manner.

That's what happened with Arboleda, and what might have happened last year, if Danny Ildefonso's teammates hadn't restrained him in a similar situation. Which calls into question the league and the arena and security. After the beatdown, BTV courtside reporter Patricia Hizon asked why security didn't try to get between Arboleda and the fan. Araneta security told her they're not allowed to touch the players, while PBA security said they're only responsible for the referees. This is tragically predictable. Anytime something goes wrong in Philippine society, the institutions responsible calmly explain that due to some strange technicality or forces greater than all of us, it wasn't their fault. Recently, we've seen Pangulong Gloria calling the Philippines a victim of global warming in the aftermath of Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. Really? Global warming is a new phenomenon? It wasn't around when rains led to the 2006 Southern Leyte landslide? Or when Milenyo hit Manila? Or when Typhoon Reming caused mudslides that buried large swaths of Albay? And those are just the major natural disasters that hit the country while I was living there. In the basketball realm, when the late Sen. Robert Barbers asked government officials why suspected Fil-shams' citizenship papers were being rubber stamped, the Bureau of Immigration pointed to the Department of Foreign Affairs who pointed to the Department of Justice who pointed back to the B of I. The serial passing of the buck is as Philippine as the tinikling. When disaster strikes, it's never the fault of the people who are actually in charge.

So it's Sonny Alvarado's fault that Tanduay and the government fixed his papers, just as all the blame for yesterday's incident will fall on Wynne Arboleda. Everyone will turn a blind eye to the other factors that lit the fuse for his explosion. The bad guys get punished, everyone moves on and nothing gets solved.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Free Donbel (They did!)

Quinito Henson's Sunday column heralding the opening of the PBA's 35th season reads like a fairly rote list of transactions and announcements for the upcoming season. But a close reading reveals some fabulous laugh lines. Since I'm a terrible blogger, let the fact that I'm actually posting something about the new season be an indication of how excited I am. And I'm 8,000 miles away.

Anyway, more than any other line in Quinito's piece, this one killed me. It made me chortle a fine mist of Diet Coke on my keyboard and it broke my heart at the same time:
In the transition, several veterans were left by the wayside. Gone from the PBA are the likes of ... Topex Robinson (reportedly playing in Masbate).
What? A PBA without Topex? I guess after Purefoods re-acquired Paul Artadi, they decided they didn't need two non-shooting midget point guards in their lineup. But it's simply criminal that no one signed Topex as a backup. He was a solid ball pressure/change-the-tempo backup PG, not to mention his nickname is an acne cream! Did James Yap put the kybosh on him because of his well-chronicled love of Vicky Belo facial products? Now where will we find a 5-foot-6 guy to miraculously corral 3-5 rebounds in 15 minutes per game?

But the truly bizarre thing about the Topex line is the mysterious, almost cryptic "playing in Masbate" line. What's he doing there? He's from Olongapo! Is he playing as an import in an Interbarangay tournament in Masbate City? Is he playing as a local? Seriously, he couldn't play for a Liga Pilipinas team? Did he join the rodeo? It's only eight months until an election, I hope he gets out of there before the trigger-happy Masbateños start licking shots.

Topex, I want you back in the PBA where you belong. I remember I saw you the first time I visited a PBA practice, with Red Bull in 2005. You came over and said what's up to me right away. Maybe because you thought I was the new import. But anyway, I appreciated your kindness. I hope somebody brings you back, or that you set new records in bull-riding.

Then there's this line:
Barako and Coca-Cola are the teams with the most veteran recruits. The Bulls picked up Aris Dimaunahan, Chad Alonzo, Gilbert Lao, Aljamal and Donbel Belano.
Hallelujah! Donbel Belano is finally free from the Talk-N-Text reserve list. Let's hope the only man to ever log a quadruple double (points, assists, rebounds, steals) in the MBA still has some game left in his tank. The Phone Pals/Tropang Texters/whatever-the-hell-they-go-by-nows have been hording reserve talent for years, guys like Belano and Jonathan de Guzman who would be a joy to watch on some of the league's low-budget teams. Finally, Belano is free to share his swashbuckling, sidestepping talents with PBA fans again. (Sadly, there's a decent chance he made more money wasting away as a TNT practice dummy.) The last time he got to play consistently was during the 2007 import conference, when Jimmy Alapag left TNT to play for the national team. And Donbel tore it up! He was one toilet-bowl in-and-out miss from pulling a Rudy Distrito (not that kind of Rudy Distrito!) in the last minute of game seven of the Finals that year. If his last-minute shot went down after rattling around the rim, Alaska might have lost. He's playing on Barako Bull with the rest of the blue-light special all-stars, budget-salaried journeymen from every corner of Philippine basketball, not to mention Alex Crisano in all his tattooed, Rodmanesque glory.

One more line, the buried/misleading sports news item of the year. When Henson mentions the upcoming game between Burger King -- the team that made Japeth Aguilar the #1 draft pick in August, only to almost lose him to the Smart Gilas national team, then get him back two days before the season began by basically threatening to permanently blacklist Aguilar from the PBA -- and Smart Gilas. Here's the line:
Fans are expected to come out in droves to witness Aguilar’s transformation from a Smart-Gilas anchor to a Burger King rookie.
That's certainly one way of looking at it. If I were in the country, I'd be hoping to witness BK coach Yeng Guiao plant an elbow in Chris Tiu's neck, then send a band of his henchmen from the Thug Life Bar at SM Pampanga to make parol -- Christmas lanterns -- out of Gilas coach Rajko Toroman's bones.

Have a great season guys. I'd give anything to be there.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Revisiting Rudy Hatfield

Has anyone looked at Rudy Hatfield's Wikipedia entry lately?

About the Man

Rudy retired from Basketball to follow his true passion. Teaching innercity quadrapalegic kids the wonderful sport of dodgeball. He even became a big brother to one of the kids from his dodgeball team (Matt Groundstone). It was with his time with Matt that Rudy decided to learn the Appalachian art of whittling.

"Rudy has really come a long way in his artwork. His unicorns easily sell anywhere from $500-$1500 each" says Sebastian Motiff (A whittling expert who has been seen on the Antique Roadshow in both the US and Canada).

"When I whittle, its like I'm in a whole new world. Its a happy place with flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate, where children dance and laugh and play with gumdrop smiles" said Rudy in his most recent interview.

Rudy has since opened up his on boutique where he sells his unicorns, and has earned the nomiker "The Unicorn Whisperer". It was his wife,Bethany, who first called Rudy 'Unicorn Whisperer' after seeing how whittling those unicorn figures from wood, just seemed to calm the rage inside of Rudy. Bethany has been Rudy's biggest fan, supporting his whittling and aspirations of making it big in the Unicorn art world.

Before the crazy rumor mill cranks up, let me state that I'm fairly positive Rudy "The Unicorn Whisperer" is a hoax. None of the names included in this description appear anywhere else on the Web. It also seems like the kind of joke worthy of Rudy Hatfield's unhinged sense of humor. I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote the whittling myth himself, and if it wasn't him then it's probably a clever fan's homage.

For those who aren't caught up on Rudy Hatfield, he was the PBA's premier rebounder and garbageman for much of this decade. He was so good that I saw opposing coaches devote most of their scouting time to keeping Hatfield off the boards and keeping his energy from spreading to his teammates. Like that other great boardsman, Dennis Rodman, Hatfield had an eccentric side. He left the Philippines in the prime of his career to try out as a professional wrestler and then attend fire department training, because "they’re crazy enough to run into a fire when everyone’s heading out and I get to wear suspenders all day," he wrote in an E-mail to Quinito Henson. "Chicks dig guys in suspenders, if you smell what the Rock is cookin’." To give you an idea of what the H-Bomb was capable of, here's the YouTube video of his immortal post-game speech after Ginebra bagged the 2007 All-Filipino championship. Wherever Rudy Hatfield is, the PBA misses him.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Recycling my comments from FireQuinito

I admit it. I have a problem. I only seem capable of blogging when I've already responded to something at FireQuinito. I have excuses: I'm writing non-stop to finish this book, and will return to blogging in about a month. I hope. Until then, if there's anyone who reads my blog but doesn't read FireQuinito (message to this reader: Baliktad 'yan! You should pay more attention to Jaemark, who actually updates FQ.), here is a comment I posted there about racial prejudices in the Philippines as they relate to basketball and some other things. I was responding also to Howie Severino's blog. My take only scratches the surface, but I'm not expert enough to really get to the bottom of this subject.

It never surprised me that racial attitudes in the Philippines were a bit behind those in the U.S., since the Philippines has a much different racial history. Both countries have their baggage, but the States has to deal with the legacy of slavery, which is where racism against African-Americans comes from. There are relatively so few black immigrants or half-black Filipinos that it's not a surprise that the Philippines hasn't had to come to terms with that kind of racism.

You definitely see it in basketball, where imports are lauded as athletes but viewed with a sharp-edged paternalism, where teams spy on their black American players to make sure they aren't running wild like the O.G. Black Superman, Billy Ray Bates. When imports are in public, people try to touch their hair or ask why it's so curly, ignorant racism that most players graciously ignore. It's like because most Pinoys see relatively few black people, they've never had to update their dated, racist attitudes about them.

It's interesting that Howie Severino framed his blog in terms of Filipino-Americans, because of the generational divide in that group, where many older Fil-Ams exhibit the kind of racism Howie wrote about, but younger Fil-Ams identify with American youth culture, so much of which comes from black trendsetters. Plus, if they play basketball, their idols are black NBA players, and their teammates are probably black, too. I've heard young Fil-Ams say, sometimes with pride and sometimes with annoyance, that they're known as the blackest of the Asians, i.e. they're good at breakdancing, basketball, DJing, etc. It's a generational dichotomy that somebody who's done some real research will have to parse out better than I have here.