Pacific Rims, by Rafe Bartholomew, New American Library, New York, 2010
Pacific Rims is an account about the culture of basketball in the Philippines in all its interesting forms. Written by an American, Medill journalism graduate and self-confessed hoops addict Rafe Bartholomew, the book chronicles his exploration of a sport subculture existing within and influenced by the mainstream. From bouncing balls off a jerry-rigged hoop at the side of NAIA Road to the huge professional court at Araneta Coliseum filled to the rafters with raucous fans, Bartholomew steeps himself in the sport wherever he finds it and discovers the soul of a country.
It is a look at an international sport that straddles cultures by inspiring passion and obsession in its fans, and provides insight as well into the psyche of a nation that includes appreciation of basketball among its simple pleasures.
Pacific Rims, shorn of details, is essentially a memoir of three years in one man’s personal story. It is his personal quest to satisfy his curiosity about the nature and state of the sport of basketball in the Philippines, a country that he had barely heard of before.
In this book he explores his own fascination with basketball, an interest stemming from his childhood when he played games with his father and later with neighborhood playmates.
As a young man, the author spent many hours in pickup games in college and poring over sports and basketball books. Minor references to the Philippines in two of the books he read set him off on a journey to visit the country. To raise funds for the endeavor, he applied for and received a Fulbright grant for one year. He ended up staying for three, stretching the funds he received along with whatever he made along the side.
In the Philippines, he played basketball wherever he could – pickup games with kanto tambays in makeshift courts in the city; ditto in the provinces; and in fully-maintained courts in the barangays in elite residential villages. He played with men wearing expensive trainers and men wearing worn flip-flops. He followed the fortunes of a professional basketball team – the Alaska Aces – and charted their wins and losses, their triumphs and defeats, until the exhilarating denouement of the season.
In the book, he recounts his researches at the Ateneo library and in newspaper and magazine morgues to trace the history of basketball in the country. The sport was introduced at the turn of the last century during the American colonial period, when the Americans taught the sport first to young women as a physical exercise, and later to men. From that time, basketball captured the nation’s heart until it became so deeply embedded in the country’s psyche that it is nearly inextricable – so the author says – from its politics and other social elements.
Along the way he learns more about, and for a time even becomes part of, Philippine popular culture. He achieves minor celebrity when he is chosen to play a minor role in the telenovela “Bakekang”; he also appears live on the variety show “Wowowee” and from time to time on the Philippine Basketball Association coverage, seated with the Alaska team.
The author set out to study a sport. But he found more than that – he discovered the passion of a country, and its soul as manifested in an activity embraced by its people and made a part of popular culture.
Pacific Rims is a “bio-confessional” that look at a country’s culture in general via the sport of basketball in particular through the author/researcher’s immersion in the context. It is a socio-cultural approach to the topic via ethnographic study through participation, conversation and interviews, and research. The participative immersion takes place via a day-to-day seeking out of basketball wherever he can find it, from street corners to well-appointed courts in elite barangays to professional venues like Araneta Coliseum.
The researcher takes a nomothetic study approach as he seeks to depict basketball and the social life it is embedded in through the lens of his own experience and knowledge of the sport. Although the author makes occasional subjective remarks, comparing Filipino attitudes and prejudices to American, he leaves leeway for cultural differences and keeps to a minimum his value judgments while refraining from making recommendations.
In terms of knowledge-making, he takes an empiricist stance, seeing reality as outside the person and thus available for study and analysis, leading to the formulation of concepts that describe and explain the phenomenon of basketball within the various environments in which the sport takes place.
It is a cross-cultural case study, a field report by an American who, before he set out on this journey, knew practically nothing about the Philippines. Predictably, his frames of reference inform his experiences in the Philippines. Another instance of the cross-cultural influence stems from the fact that basketball itself is an import from the United States, but was eagerly adopted by Filipinos and in its local version became a deeply embedded part of popular culture.
In the context of communication studies, communication in this book as detailed by the author took all the forms from interpersonal to mass, in his effort to glean information about the topic.
The author used participant observation and interpersonal communication through conversation, which took the forms of small talk and in-depth interviews to gather data. His eventual output was this ethnographic study wherein he describes the nature of those being studied in writing. He focused his study on a community, selecting from within it knowledgeable informants such as sportswriters Sev Sarmenta and Bill Velasco; the coaches, players, and support staff of the Alaska Aces; and people whom he met on his travels that in his opinion could provide him with relevant information. For the success of ethnographic studies, up-close interaction is crucial in addition to observation; the author performed the latter thoroughly and conscientiously, resulting in this unique study of an interesting cultural phenomenon.
Concepts and Issues
The concepts that emerged from this study reinforced the theory of social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) which considers how social phenomena develop in social contexts. Key to this theory is the idea that people in a society ascribe values to an object or phenomenon which intrinsically does not possess these values.
From a communication viewpoint, it may be said that people within a social group, through their patterns of interaction, develop symbolic meanings which in turn are disseminated, reinforced, and reshaped in further interactions. In this book, for instance, Philippine society has, through the years, conferred cult status upon basketball to such a degree that in the cultural context, its players, coaches, and so on achieve celebrity status that may even propel some of them to the height of the social power structure, as in the case of player-coach Robert Jaworski, who later was elected a senator.
A significant factor that influences a group’s meanings and symbols is relationships. Evident in the narrative is the importance these relationships take within the collective consciousness of the Filipino. For instance, the relationships the author observed between team owner and players, coaches and players, players and fans, and so on, were clearly delineated and nurtured. He marveled at how deep the level of interaction was between the Filipino players and fans, something he felt would be impossible to achieve within the context of American basketball.
Other dominant concepts that arose in the research concerned the following:
- Proxemics – Anthropologist Edward T. Hall studied the measurable distances people kept between themselves in their interactions. He observed how some cultures allowed for closer distances (Eastern-Asian cultures in general) while others (Western-European) kept the distances farther. In the author’s recounting of the differences he observed between the Alaska team’s Filipino players, the Filipino-American players who grew up in the United States, and the lone American import, he noticed how Filipinos are more disposed towards touching each other and are comfortable doing so, whereas Fil-Ams and Americans tend to keep distance from each other and observe a greater degree of private space.
- Class differences – in dialectics and phenomenon of power and its structures, the researcher observed how people of all socio-economic backgrounds enjoy basketball, but based on social stratifications, their experiences of the sport were markedly different. Those of lower socio-economic status played on makeshift or barangay courts. The latter may be well-appointed – as the author remarks, some barangay courts are better than New York city public courts – but whether a barangay court is well-appointed or not depends on the political agendas of the barangay and local government officials. Those belonging to the elite of society play on school courts, some of which are so expensive that at one university, the hardwood was imported from a court played upon by NBA players.
- Sexual and gender identity – In the unano-bading basketball games the author observed in the provinces, he was at first disgusted by what he perceived as a demeaning and humiliating activity. But upon his interviewing the people concerned, he was surprised to find that in fact the unano and bading players considered themselves performers, were glad of the opportunity to work, and in fact can be seen as themselves having power over their audiences in the reactions they can elicit from spectators through their performances. This realization shook the author’s pre-conceived notions, also another proof that identities and values are constructed by society.
- Racial biases – the treatment of black and white people by Filipinos carries distinct negative connotations for dark-skinned people, a preference that refers back to our colonial past.
- Celebrity culture in the Philippines – media has such a big effect on Philippine culture that the author was mistaken many times for a basketball player; he was thus adulated and fawned over to such a degree that would not have been the case in the USA.
- Filipino cultural values – Obvious in the narrative were the instances of accommodative behavior which is a value in Philippine culture. This showed in the way the author was, as a white man, treated better than locals in some venues. Norms (which can be defined as “our way of doing things”) that the author observed were the tacit collusions to achieve common goals, as seen in the way PBA teams cheat on the way they take the height measures of imports, and in how the officiating of the teams went when they played in Boracay to accommodate a powerful local politician. Also noticed was the norm of using humor as a coping mechanism, shown in the way Willy Miller always cracks jokes, and in the attitude of the Fil-ams and imports being more serious than the Filipino team members during practice and actual games.
In this book the author communicates the universality of sport, specifically basketball, as a phenomenon. It is an activity that may be enjoyed across cultures, despite differences in culture; talent does not reside in class, it may come from anyone anywhere, especially with Filipino- style basketball being largely a learn-as-you-go thing. It is a noble message, perhaps one that he did not set out to transmit at first, but in time, in the course of his researches, emerged as a significant and dominant theme.
His objective, whether or not he may be aware of it, is to bridge the gap and forge greater understanding among aficionados of the sport. The book explores the cultural boundaries of communication, going beyond linguistic bounds to the heart of culture, and the heart and soul of Filipino basketball. ***
Photo of Rafe Bartholomew from here.