If there's one truth we know to be indubitable, it's this: the Philippines is obsessed with basketball. The proof is in the landscape. In Manila, or far into the mountains, one cannot go from point A to point B without their eye chancing upon a basketball ring in some form. We love the sport not unlike a pretty girl loves her selfies: anywhere, and anytime.
This is something that one American, Rafe Bartholomew, a basketball fan and an editor at the sports site Grantland.com, didn't fail to notice. In 2005, this New Yorker received a grant to come over and study our passion for hoops—himself baffled by the fact that a nation that's not known for regularly producing Mutombos, and Manute Bols has embraced a sport that's not known to be so kind to short people.
Immersing himself, Bartholomew experienced basketball at every level—from the barefoot kanto games, all the way to the PBA, with sideshows in between such as the now-infamous bading versus unano games. During this time, he also witnessed just how the sport permeates everyday life—with basketball jerseys accepted as daily wear, and jeepneys plastered with basketball iconography—himself soon becoming part of the culture he set out to study.
All that work was put to paper in the book Pacific Rims, released in 2010—and not to be confused with the giant robot movie of the same name, minus the "s."
Now, Rafe returns to tackle Philippine basketball once more. This time, he's doing it with National Geographic in the new three-part series, Pinoy Hoops. Pinoy Hoops is Pacific Rims in a different medium, although the content is all new.
Explains Rafe, "I think the book was a guide for the show. The themes are very much the same: the different places you find basketball [in], some of the extreme environments that you see in the show, some of the quirks in the professional game, which come up in Episode 2, and the people whose lives are connected to the sport, which is like Episode 3. A lot of those themes are represented but not much of it comes straight out of the book."
The one-hour episodes take Rafe to to various locales in the Philippines, wherever there is basketball-- which if we haven't made clear by now, is practically everywhere. And once again, Rafe discovers how the sport can fly past the actual court and into other things such as a karaoke where Rafe sings Parokya Ni Edgar's "Buloy" with Kobe Bryant highlights as visual accompaniment.
In the first episode, Rafe ventures into a mini slum community atop a building with a full court as a centerpiece; the mountains of Laguna where rebels and the military purportedly lay down arms for a game; and in the country's most infamous landfill, Payatas.
For foreigners, these locales will seem very exotic: "A court in the middle of a giant trash mountain? Incredible!" To a Filipino, that appeal is lost a little bit, because to us, the presence of courts everywhere is an ordinary part of daily life. For other people seeing the Philippines' longstanding relationship with basketball, for the first time, through the show, the initial feeling might be akin to a Filipino seeing a show about, say, monster truck derbies: "Holy shit, these trucks are gigantic. And you can drive them to crush other little cars?! Incredible!"
That is not to say however that the show can't be liked by a local. The opposite is, in fact, the truth. Pinoy Hoops is a sincere tribute to Philippine basketball by a foreigner who, in spite of the length of his stay here, is still genuinely surprised at how deep the roots of this sport run in our culture. The show's effect on us (like the book) feels like Rafe came from behind, took us by the shoulders, and pulled us back to show us: "Look! Look, you crazy Filipinos! You love basketball so much, it's crazy! Tell me why you love basketball so much!"
Rafe, we are glad to report, is not typically as strung out as we had just made him sound.
What we mean is, because basketball is so common, we take it for granted. No Pinoy would have found the need nor the fascination to fastidiously document the topic. Thankfully, we have Rafe--through his book and the show, and fueled by a curiosity that hasn't seemed to have dimmed a bit in his nearly decade-long exploration of the subject—doing that for us. He has thoroughly documented an important part of our culture—although we feel there are still a lot of levels and angles on this topic that are still waiting to be uncovered.
So yeah, instead of closing this review with another statement on how much Pinoys love their basketball, we'll close with this: "Hey Rafe, you're doing a cool thing. Keep on shooting."
Catch the premiere of Pinoy Hoops on October 21, Monday at 9 p.m. only on National Geographic Channel. New episodes premiere every Monday, 9 p.m.