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Why Filipinos Should Support Other Sports And Not Just Basketball

Should we forget about hoops? It's not that easy
by Jay P. Mercado | Sep 5, 2018
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Isaac Reyes, the lead trainer of DataSeer, a data science training company, recently came out with a satirical post on his Facebook account that garnered a lot of online attention. After the Asian Games held in Jakarta-Palembang, Indonesia, Reyes alluded to the need for Filipinos to finally give up on basketball and focus on other sports where we have better chances of excelling in internationally.

Look: 

No disagreement with supporting the other sporting events. It's no secret that much of our token success in the world sports stage has come from areas that aren't basketball. The Philippines has produced arguably the best ten-pin bowler of all time in Rafael "Paeng" Nepomuceno, a four-time world champion, as well as other Filipino bowling world champions like Lita Dela Rosa, Bong Coo, CJ Suarez, and, just last year, Krizziah Lyn Tabora. We also produced undoubtedly the finest pool player of all time in Efren "Bata" Reyes as well as a slew of billiards wizards like Francisco "Django" Bustamante, Amang Parica, Rubilen Amit, Ronnie Alcano, Alex Pagulayan, among many others.

In chess, the first grandmaster of Asia came from the Philippines—the legendary Eugene Torre, the one guy who made chess a mainstream hit in the country. Today, we have Wesley So, a former No. 2 player in the world (ranked ninth overall at present) and now playing for the United States Chess Federation. Weightlifting has also given us a world champion in Salvador del Rosario, who annexed the world flyweight title in the World Weightlifting Championship held in Columbus, Ohio back in 1970. We shouldn't forget our new national hero in Hidilyn Diaz, who after winning the silver medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro became the first Pinoy athlete to win a gold medal in the 2018 Asian Games.

Golf has also given us success in the past, producing heroes like Celestino Tugot, Luis "Golem" Silverio, Frankie Miñoza, among many others. But how can we forget the exploits of the likes of Ben Arda and Rudy Lavares, who won the silver in the team competitions of the World Cup of Golf in 1977? Or names like Dorothy Delasin, Ramon Brobio, Jennifer Rosales, Carito Villaroman, among others—who have won honors for the country in the world stage. True enough, our women's golf team, led by Yuka Saso, swept the individual and team awards in the Asiad.

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None of these though would approximate our success in boxing. With more than 40 world champions since the time of Pancho Villa back in the 1920's, the sport has given pride to Filipinos all over the planet. From the 10 Olympic medals (three silvers, seven bronzes, no golds), half of these, including two of the three silvers, came from boxing. While boxing didn't win a gold in the Asiad, there's no denying this is the sport that has given us the brightest spot and the best chances. In 1994, three boxers—Elias Recaido, Mansueto "Onyok" Velasco, Jr., and Reynaldo Galido, won all the golds for the country in the Hiroshima Asian Games.

So why give so much attention to a sport that, accomplishment-wise, has only given us a bronze medal finish in the 1954 Basketball Championships? Why focus on a sport where the premium is height, a physical trait Filipinos have never been known for? Why channel our resources into a sport that has given us so much heartache and pain?

The simplest reason is its popularity. Basketball has been part of the Filipino culture dating back during the American colonization period and peaked in the '50s when we became a world powerhouse. There is no other sport that generates advertising revenues and media attention quite like basketball. Networks and producers who have covered the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) in the past have practically ceded their primetime rights to the game as it provided them with the best opportunity to gain ad sales. It wasn't uncommon, especially back in the '80s, that basketball was the most viewed show on television, beating out the telenovelas and sitcoms of competing networks. And while the PBA doesn't rank as high anymore today, there are still occasions, particularly with Ginebra in the Finals, when they give Coco Martin and Dingdong Dantes a run for their money in the ratings game.

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The fandom for the support is not without basis. It has become part of the Filipino culture, with Nike saying the Philippines is its third largest market, just behind the United States and China. There is only one country in the world, other than the Philippines, where basketball is the No. 1 sport, and that's Lithuania, regarded as a basketball superpower. Filipinos generally recognize the NBA stars, and cable subscriptions increase tenfold when the NBA season begins.

The other reason is its sheer simplicity. As a child, one gets to play his version of basketball using a discarded piece of paper being thrown into the wastebasket. A goal can be put up anywhere and all you need is a ball and five other players for your usual "tatluhan." More importantly, the game is fast, physical, and exciting (unlike baseball). It's a sport where scores are racked up quick (unlike football), and where the typical mano-a-mano Filipino style of play can be riveting.

The closest perhaps to basketball when it comes to generating the same fervor, interest and excitement, is volleyball, or its distaff side. Which isn't a surprise, especially in this macho society. Volleyball's newfound popularity over the past eight years can be likened to how basketball has become just as popular—there's a regular league for players to play in, it has live and extensive TV coverage, and it makes stars out of personalities even if it's a team game. It's practically the same formula, only with a different sport, and yes, a different gender. You can say that we don't see enough of women's basketball, but the same is true of men's volleyball.

And so, the question is, should we Filipinos forget about basketball? It's not that easy, really. Until we find a sport as dynamic as basketball (and yes, volleyball), getting rid of the sport from our collective systems isn't feasible. But it also shouldn't mean that we should channel all our resources towards the sport and forget about the others.

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In 1980, then President Ferdinand Marcos instituted the project director concept, where a business crony of his was tapped to handle a particular sport and provide it with the funding that would make our athletes competitive in the regional and world stage. Hence, we had Danding Cojuangco for basketball, Roberto Benedicto for swimming, Rodolfo Cuenca for golf, Dominador Pangilinan (father of basketball patron, MVP) for baseball, among others. Not only did Marcos engage these businessmen to support their respective sports, he indirectly made them compete against each other in generating success. And with his nephew, Michael Keon, in charge of the training arm, Gintong Alay, and later, the Philippine Olympic Committee, other sports were able to do well. 25 years later, former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo reintroduced the project director concept with his own set of allied businessmen supporting various fields in preparation for the 2005 SEA Games to be held in Manila.

Unfortunately, our priorities for other sports appear to have been mixed up as well. The two richest medal sports in the Olympics are athletics and swimming, two sports where we didn't fare well in the Asiad. Athletics and swimming have produced two bronze medals each in the Olympics, won from 1928 to 1936. Some big names have come up—the likes of Mona Sulaiman, Lydia de Vega, Elma Muros in athletics and Ral Rosario, Billy Wilson, Christine Jacob, Eric Buhain, etc. in swimming—but none have come close to winning an Olympic medal. And with politics besetting the sports leaders of swimming, interest has likewise plunged, unlike before.

In the end, it's not basketball which is at fault. But priorities also need to be established to determine which sports need more support. We're fortunate to have an Enrique Razon (golf), a Manny Pangilinan (boxing), or a Jean Henri Lhuillier (softball) providing aid, but we also need to engage in less politics and focus more on the improvement and conditioning of our athletes. The sooner our sports leaders focus on the same vision and get their acts together, our chances of doing better than a 19th place, four-gold medal Asiad haul, would not only be higher, but fan support would improve by leaps and bounds.

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Even while we continue to love basketball just as much.

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