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 25, 2009

Manny W. Pacquiao?

The news earlier this week that Manny Pacquiao talked to God about the great power he'd one day be blessed with reminded me of the recurring kerfuffle during the Bush years whenever George W. Bush would claim that God instructed him to make certain decisions as commander in chief. One of them, it appears, was invading Iraq. God, would you like to own up to that blunder?

Anyway, now that Pacquiao is back on the campaign trail, albeit unofficially until the campaign period starts next March, his Holy tête-à-tête reminded me of Bush. Here's what Pacquiao told the 1500 lucky attendees at his 31st birthday bash in General Santos City:
In my 31 years here on Earth, God appeared to me once and told me to have unconditional faith in him. I was not yet very popular and world champion when our God appeared to me and assured me of strength and power.
Of course, the alarm bells don't sound quite as quickly in the Philippines when a politician says he's guided by God as they do here in the States. Many Americans were shocked by Bush's bald-faced Bible-thumping. We knew he was Born Again, but the idea that he would use his power in office do whatever his lord asked of him was disturbing to a country that has enshrined the separation of church and state in the bill of rights. Of course, I think the Philippines has some nominal devotion to this concept, but the inability to pass urgently-needed family planning and birth control legislation and the Comelec's ugly disqualification of the Gay Rights party list group Ang Ladlad on grounds of "sexual immorality" seem to indicate that Catholic doctrine is in many cases stronger than lofty democratic ideals.

I'm Christian and I'm looking forward to Christmas here in New York (sadly, there will be no queso de bola, no buko salad, no nothing at my noche buena this evening -- can you feel my inggit?), but I think important government decisions are better made by men and women who aren't driven by their unwavering faith in religious dogma that isn't necessarily shared by the citizens they serve.

In other Pacquiao news, Manny took the oath of the Nacionalista Party this week and made formal his alliance with presidential candidate Manny Villar, an event many people saw coming after Mr. Sipag at Tiyaga showed up at Pacquiao's Baguio City training camp to talk politics and showed up in HBO's Pacquiao/Cotto 24/7. I don't know if it matters which candidate Pacquiao sides with. There's something heartening about knowing he's officially out of PGMA's Lakas-Kampi pocket, although who knows what kind of nasty crud lies hidden in Senator Villar's deep pockets. I am impressed by the sheer gonzo nature of Villar's Nacionalista slate, which includes Bongbong Marcos, whose dictator dad imprisoned Junior's running mate, Satur Ocampo, as well as all-around lunatic Miriam Defensor Santiago and Mr. Resiklo, Bong Revilla. Which Nacionalista Party candidate will dominate this week's Metro Manila Film Festival? Wapakman or Ang Panday?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some links

It's pretty rare that I do the links thing, but since I'm trying to update more frequently, it may become a habit. Unfortunately, I've botched one essential part of the posting links formula -- my stories are all pretty old. I found them on Friday and sat on them all weekend. However, lets hope that they can spur some thoughts and discussions of a more timeless nature.

  • Geoff Calkins, a sports columnist in Memphis, tries to talk himself into believing in the Grizzlies, who turned in a couple of surprising wins recently over the Mavericks and the Cavaliers. I dig it; Memphis has some appealing young players. I've been a Rudy Gay fan for a few years now, and Calkins's effort hits a lot of the standard sports columnist notes, until he goes off on this rhetorical splurge: "[Fans have] also started to notice that -- hey, what do you know? -- some of the players on the current roster are easy to like. What's not to like about Marc Gasol, for instance? What's not to like about Zach Randolph or Rudy Gay?"

    Huh? Did he really just ask, without any trace of sarcasm, what's not to like about Zach Randolph? The guy might be the most maligned big man of his generation. Ask Ruben Patterson, whose eye socket Randolph broke back in the Jail Blazers heyday. Actually, I like Zach Randolph, but not in the honest-to-goodness fan's sense Calkins seems to be advocating, but because I like talented misfit players. Knicks games since they traded Randolph haven't been as much fun without Zach's couldn't-care-less three-point attempts.
  • A sad and slightly shocking story about James Lang, the 26-year-old D-League center who suffered a stroke the day after Thanksgiving. In college, I used to scour This was before Jonathan Givony had turned DraftExpress into a sterling, professional-style operation that routinely out-reported ESPN, when draft websites were a mess of garbled sentence fragments describing high school, European and African players I'd never heard of or seen before. The impressionistic sketches of these players' abilities and their tiny thumbnail headshots made the old draft sites about imagining a player's skill set more than absorbing an accurate scouting report. Surely, DraftExpress is an improvement, but I had more fun in the old days.
    Anyway, I remember James Lang from those days, when he was just another thumbnail (I seem to recall a pointy, Boondocks-style blown-out afro in his headshot), and I was upset to learn about his health. It was hard to maintain an appropriately somber mood, however, because the Washington Times coverage of his story was so ridiculous. It includes quotes describing him as a "gentle giant" and a "special person" -- does this paper have editors? Where were they, and how did they allow these euphemisms for developmentally disabled people into the story? Beyond that, there are details about Lang hiding candy bars in his shoes and using an over-the-counter colon cleanser to shed pounds.

  • Then there's this, the New York Times' in-depth attempt at explaining the Maguindanao/Ampatuan massacres for American readers. I was impressed. It's something I would recommend to someone who knew little about the Philippines, the Muslim separatist movement in the South, the proliferation of warlords and private armies or the recurring trend of election-related violence. It's also heartening to see the Times giving Carlos Conde, their Filipino stringer, some room to flesh this out, even if I didn't see the story in my print edition of the paper. In the past, Conde has been stuck writing 300- to 400-word accounts of major events like typhoons, coup attempts and clashes between the AFP and rebel forces in Mindanao, while Southeast Asian correspondent Seth Mydans would be flown in to write the bigger, more meaningful pieces. That strategy didn't seem to cut it, since Mydans was spread too thin over several countries. Even before the Ampatuan massacre and subsequent declaration of martial law thrust the Philippines back into the international news spotlight, Conde penned worthy primers on the challenges of passing reproductive health legislation and Erap's presidential aspirations. I hope the paper, and Conde, keep up the good work.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Almost there!

This is exciting, isn't it? It's still rough -- the images, especially the back cover, are grainy and the text is maybe a tad corny, but that's how the flap copy tends to be. Chances are, when this book is released in June 2010 from NAL/Penguin, it's going to look a lot like this. I've always been a fan of this wire image of this kid about to take down this rim with one of his air tsinelas sliding off his heel. It's superimposed over a shot of a game I saw in Sorsogon.

The book isn't quite done yet. My editor and I are still making some minor tweaks. But the heaviest lifting is done. It's based on an import conference I spent following the Alaska Aces from inside the team's locker room, where I witnessed the sublime basketball wisdom of Joel Banal (who may want to create a line of hoops-themed fortune cookies), the antics of Willie Miller, the intense planning of Tim Cone, the rat tail of Rey Hugnatan, a season-saving three-pointer from Dale Singson and much, much more. Along the way, I take lengthy detours to explore the historical milestones of the Philippine game, the impact of Billy Ray Bates and Norman Black, the quiet beauty of homemade hoops in the provinces, Crispa/Toyota, Ateneo/La Salle and even the Cebu Gems/Negros Slashers rivalry. And blended in with it all are a few personal scenes, things I experienced that were so rich that I had to work them into the narrative: My star-making turn in Bakekang, how I ended up reinforcing the Boracay Cockpit Arena Cockers alongside former Pasig Pirates PG Jonathan de Guzman in a local tournament, how I made a fool of myself in said tournament and much, much more.

One thought on completing a project like this, which I might end up repeating a hundred times over the next year, is that what feels best about finally achieving this goal (or being so close that I can taste it) is not that I'm proud of myself, but relieved that all the people who so generously gave me their time and insight are actually going to see the product of that. These were not people without better things to do, they were many all-time great players and coaches like Norman Black, Tim Cone, Baby Dalupan, Philip Cezar, Atoy Co, Ronnie Magsanoc and many, many more. They spoke to me about their careers and their own loves for the game long before I had a book deal, and for years I was haunted by the possibility that I wouldn't be able to pull it off. Talk about utang na loob; this was mine. And I was thrilled and remain elated that the people and country who gave me so much would get to see an actual book about Philippine basketball that hopefully validates the time they gave me. (Of course, to properly pay down my debt of gratitude, I will be writing puff pieces about players and coaches' Brothers Burgers franchises for the rest of my days.) I look at this book as a love letter to Philippine basketball and the Philippines in general, and I hope when it's released, readers will feel that way too.