pop goes the world: b-ball and the bigger picture

I wrote a review of this book in 2010 for a PhD class and posted it in its full form on the blog here.

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  13 September 2012, Thursday

B-ball and the Bigger Picture

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

This is the standard safety warning on vehicle side mirrors, cautioning drivers who might be misled about the proximity of things around them on the road.

We could borrow this phrase to mean that people immersed in a certain culture might not be aware or take for granted certain nuances of detail in its usage, practice, and tradition that are glaring or obvious to foreigners.

In other words, to learn more about ourselves, it is also useful to find out what others think about us or how they perceive us.

Take writer Rafe Bartholomew’s basketball memoir “Pacific Rims” (2010).  A player and enthusiast of the game, Bartholomew (a Medill Journalism graduate) obtained a Fulbright grant to study basketball in the Philippines for one year. He ended up staying for three.

Rafe Bartholomew. Image here.

He played wherever he could, joining pickup games with kanto tambays in makeshift courts 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 triumphs and defeats until the exhilarating denouement of the season.

Bartholomew recounts his researches at the Ateneo de Manila University 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 and became so embedded in the country’s psyche that it is nearly inextricable – so the author says – from its politics and other social elements.

A game on a barangay basketball court. Image here.

Evident in Bartholomew’s narrative is the importance of relationships within the collective consciousness of the Filipino. The relationships he observed between team owner and players, coaches and players, players and fans, and so on, were clearly delineated and nurtured. The depth of the level of interaction between the Filipino players and fans, he said, is something he felt would be impossible to achieve within the context of American basketball.

Bartholomew also noted differences between the Alaska team’s Filipino players, the Filipino-American players who grew up in the United States, and the lone American import with regard to personal space. 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, even in the context of social activities such as chatting and male-bonding rituals such as roughhousing.

Bartholomew perceived that 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 barangayand 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.

This image by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images was used as the cover for the book Pacific Rims. Image here. 

He also described the unano versus bading (yes, they are billed that way) exhibit games in the provinces. At first he was 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  players considered themselves performers, were glad of the opportunity to work, and can be seen as themselves having power over their audiences in the reactions they can elicit from spectators through their performances.

There are quite a few more cultural points that he observed, some of them norms related to racial biases, the celebrity culture, accommodative behavior, use of humor as a coping mechanism, and tacit collusion to achieve common goals, but I won’t preempt your enjoyment of the book.

I’ll end by saying that in this first-ever book-length work by a foreigner on Philippine basketball, Bartholomew confirms the universality of sport as a phenomenon. It is an activity that may be enjoyed across cultures, all around the world; and talent may come from anyone anywhere, especially with Filipino-style basketball being largely learn-as-you-go.

These insights are relevant now that it is the height of the UAAP season. The games are so popular that tickets often go for high prices, more so when old school rivalries come into play at Ateneo vs. La Salle games. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook carry play-by-plays and score updates. School-themed merchandise fill stores so that fans can wear their pride colors. 

Competition is fierce at the 2012 UAAP games. Image here.

But in general our perception of all this is matter-of-fact. Such a response to a phenomenon speaks volumes about our society, in what it is we take for granted and others see as an uncommon or unusual thing.

As Bartholomew’s book explores the cross-cultural boundaries of communication, it also shows us that reflected in the mirror is one of things that makes up the heart and soul of the Filipino. *** 

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