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Kobe Takes Manila; NBA Not Invited

How the Philippines became the first stop on NBA players' lockout tour

Rich men treat themselves on their birthdays. They buy a fancy watch or Cuban cigars or a top-of-the-line set of golf clubs. Some go all-out and purchase a Porsche or Range Rover. And then there are men who dare to dream far larger dreams, like Filipino tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan. MVP, as he’s known in Manila, turned 65 in July and celebrated by hiring nine NBA players to fly to the Philippines for a series of exhibition games. Pangilinan shared this gift with 20,000 ticket-buying fans and a television audience of millions of viewers. In doing so, Pangilinan probably put himself on the shortlist of people who might one day join martyred patriots Jose Rizal and Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino as one of the national heroes of this basketball-loving archipelago.

There is no way to overstate the nation’s passion for hoops. The United States introduced the sport more than 100 years ago, when the Philippine Islands were a U.S. territory. Over the ensuing generations, basketball has crossed over from colonial import to a game most Filipinos consider essentially Pinoy.1 It’s hard to imagine another country where basketball is followed and practiced as broadly as it is in the Philippines, where half the men you pass on city streets and provincial roads wear basketball jerseys, where kids are named, “Garnett,” “Iverson,” or “Kobe”, where there are so many public basketball courts that people mistakenly believe that law mandates every local government build a basketball court in its central plaza, along with the town hall and Catholic church.

It’s understandable, then, that in the words of sportscaster Mico Halili, Filipinos reacted with a “mixture of orgasmic delight and disbelief” when the local media began reporting that Pangilinan and his MVP Sports Foundation were planning to bring over marquee names such as Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul and have them play in (somewhat) competitive games. For the vast majority of the Philippines’ 90-plus million people who could never afford to fly to the States and attend a regular-season NBA game, it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The lineup MVP had announced was the kind of team one could only see at an NBA All-Star game or major international event. Over the years, Manila has seen its share of NBA players traveling to the Philippines for exhibitions. Walt Frazier led an NBA selection against Philippine pros in 1975. Then, in 1979, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and the Washington Bullets played in Manila. As late as 1997, an in-career Shaquille O’Neal brought the touring “Team Shaq” to town for a game that’s mostly remembered for when Shaq lifted 5-foot-7 point guard Johnny Abarrientos and allowed him to dunk. None of those games, however, could rival the extravaganza MVP planned to throw. Kobe, Durant, Rose and Paul would be joined by Derek Fisher, Tyreke Evans, James Harden, JaVale McGee and 2011 no. 2 pick Derrick Williams. That combination of budding stars, decorated veterans, and one of the 10 best players in NBA history had never been seen before in the Philippines, or just about anywhere else in the world.

Basketball fans in Manila are used to hearing wild, NBA-themed rumors. Back in the 1990s, a handful of NBA franchises supposedly considered hiring the Spud Webb-sized Johnny Abarrientos. In 2008, the Red Bull franchise announced it was negotiating to hire 44-year-old Karl Malone as its import in the coming PBA season, a report that lasted all of a week until a Utah reporter caught up with the Mailman, who shot down the rumor. Earlier this year, Pangilinan himself was rumored to be a potential buyer of the Sacramento Kings. That much was true — MVP hasn’t hid his ambition to own an NBA team, and he looked into purchasing a majority stake in the Kings — but a deal never came close to being made. Nonetheless, local journalists reported the story as if the team were already MVP’s, suggesting it was only a matter of time before the Sacramento bench was stacked with Filipino players. Experience has taught Pinoy fans to be skeptical when they hear news of their far-out basketball fantasies coming to life.

In recent years, the events that have come through might have been even more disappointing than the rumors that fizzled. Dennis Rodman’s “Bad Boy” tour arrived in 2006 with middle-aged “legends” such as Darryl Dawkins, Calvin Murphy, and Sidney Moncrief and played in an almost empty Araneta Coliseum. Last year, the NBA sponsored an exhibition headlined by Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Glen Rice, and Mitch Richmond in various stages of post-career bloat. Again, the crowd at Araneta Coliseum looked small enough to fit into a midsize municipal cockfight ring and was notable only for 47-year-old ex-PBA player Allan Caidic’s dropping 54 points on uncontested 3-pointers and layups.

Given this history, hoops-obsessed Filipinos had to reserve some doubt when MVP announced the Ultimate All-Star Weekend would be held on July 23 and 24. “Fans had to hold something back, if only to protect themselves from massive disappointment,” Halili said. “I had to see them on the Araneta hardcourt before I could believe it.”

Kevin Durant
What did it take to bring four top-tier NBA superstars, three of its more talented young players, a sage old vet, and the second pick in this year’s draft to Manila? “A lot of things had to go right,” said Chot Reyes, who coaches the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, one of two PBA teams owned by Pangilinan. Reyes, a former coach of the Philippine national team, was one of the event’s primary organizers. He created a list of NBA players to target and served as spokesman with the Philippine media.

The idea first came up in late May, Reyes said, when he traveled to Sacramento with Pangilinan to explore the possibility of making an offer to buy the Kings. MVP’s group was working with East-West Private Holdings, a Cincinnati-based company that, according to CEO Patty Scott, aims to “serve as a bridge” between Asian companies looking to expand in the United States and vice versa.

After investigating the Sacramento opportunity, Pangilinan and Reyes began discussing other opportunities. When the option of bringing over NBA players came up, Reyes said he was skeptical. “Kobe, Dwight Howard — all these guys have been to the Philippines,” Reyes said. “They come in, wave to the crowd for 30 minutes, do a 15-minute clinic, wave goodbye. Then they’ll go to some Nike store, then go to some orphanage. There’s no impact.” The way to do it, Reyes argued, was to bring a team of young players — “not divas” — who would actually play and put on a show in Manila. Bryant’s first trip to Manila, in 1998, is one of the NBA visits Filipinos remember most fondly for precisely that reason. The 19-year-old Kobe, coming off his second NBA season, seemed completely unconcerned with acting like a star. He goofed and showed off in a 3-on-3 game and even donned a barong tagalog and learned the tinikling, a Philippine cultural dance that kind of resembles double-dutch played with bamboo sticks.

Reyes and Pangilinan’s plan sat on the back burner until June 30, when commissioner David Stern announced the start of the NBA lockout. The players began exploring their overseas opportunities, not just to make an extra buck but to show team owners and the NBA brass that they could earn money outside of the league. “When the lockout was announced,” Reyes said, “We said, ‘This is it &#8212 this is the sign.'” Reyes gave East-West a list of the players he wanted, starting with Rose, Durant, and Blake Griffin, and Scott and Espaldon started calling agents to check the players’ interest, availability, and what it would take to bring them to Manila for a weekend.

Some of the players and agents were skeptical when East-West first contacted them. They wondered if the organizers could arrange for the players’ travel and hotel accommodations in three weeks’ time; they wondered if the athletes’ schedules would conflict or if the promoters would be able to book the Araneta Coliseum on days when college and PBA teams in Manila already had games scheduled; most of all, they wondered if the offer was legit. To convince them, Scott and Espaldon gave a short bio of Pangilinan to every target player and his handlers. “We wanted to make it credible going in,” Scott said. “We told them, ‘We don’t want to waste anyone’s time. We don’t have time to waste. But we’re legit.'”

How legit? Manny V. Pangilinan’s business interests include major utilities that provide large swaths of the Philippines with landline and cellular telephone service, water, electricity, real estate, and highways. He’s a monocle short of being Mr. Monopoly. These businesses and others controlled by Pangilinan fall under the umbrella of First Pacific Company, the international investment firm majority-owned by the Salim Group, an ethnic-Chinese Indonesian conglomerate that traces its fortune back to cozy business relationships with the Suharto dictatorship. MVP, as managing director and CEO of First Pacific, invests that fortune and helps it multiply. Since he is not the direct owner of the businesses he runs, Pangilinan’s net worth is lower than that of other Filipino tycoons, but he controls and spends enough money to be considered on par with the country’s handful of billionaires.

East-West reported back to Pangilinan and Reyes with the players’ demands and a ballpark figure for the project’s entire budget, including first-class travel, hotel bookings for a delegation that Scott pegged at around 30 people, 24-hour security, insurance, and the players’ talent fees. Scott and Reyes both declined to reveal the exact amount, but Reyes admitted it was “very, very expensive.” He has also disputed the Sports Illustrated report that Bryant, Durant, and Rose were paid more than $400,000 each for the weekend.

With a budget in mind, Pangilinan convened a meeting of the executives of his group of companies to present his plan. The board approved, but added one additional requirement: To ensure that the Ultimate All-Star Weekend would be a “blockbuster,” Reyes said, the board insisted on signing a superstar. They wanted Kobe Bryant. East-West got in touch with Bryant, who was touring China for Nike. Kobe, it turned out, was willing to play, but his fee, plus the cost of flying his entourage to Manila by private charter, kicked the overall budget into another level of the stratosphere, according to Reyes. “We really had to think long and hard about that,” he said, “but in our organization, when we decide to do something we will think long and hard for maybe one hour or two hours and then say, ‘Come on, let’s get it done.'”

Once they signed Kobe, everything started coming together. “Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant were iffy at that point,” Reyes added, “but I think when Kobe signed, they signed as well.” Durant, who returned from his own China tour on July 16, was unwilling at first to fly back to Asia in just a week’s time. Then he heard about the lineup MVP and Reyes had put together and became the last player to confirm, just two days before the first game.

To ensure a packed house, the organizers deliberately kept ticket prices low. Courtside seats were sold at the box office for $129 and general admission tickets for about $8. (At the Rodman and NBA Legends events in years past, prices were roughly double those amounts.) It worked. Tickets to both games sold out in a matter of hours and were being resold online for almost $500. “This wasn’t about making money,” Scott said. “It was about MVP’s legacy and giving Filipinos a basketball event they’ve always dreamed of.”

Reyes agreed, but also explained how taking a loss against the bottom line could end up benefiting Pangilinan’s business empire: “Peso-wise, we’re in the red. We can’t hide that. But can you imagine the Smart logo plastered on Kobe’s chest for two hours on prime-time TV? Pictures going all over the world — Smart All-Stars? In the end, in terms of goodwill, actual product mileage and the media values generated, I think we came out well.”

When the players finally arrived in Manila, they weren’t quite prepared for the Beatlemania level of adulation that awaited them in the Philippines. After landing at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they walked through a gauntlet of hundreds of screaming, clapping, picture-taking fans. “Shock and awe” was the only way to describe the players’ response to their reception in the terminal, Scott said.

The games went off as planned. Kobe served as the player/coach of the Smart All-Stars. Thanks to the lockout, the NBA wasn’t mentioned in TV broadcasts and its logo didn’t appear on anything the players wore. Before the first game against a group of all-stars from the Philippine pro league, reigning PBA most valuable player James Yap addressed the crowd in Tagalog: “We know that all of them are our idols, so I hope you’ll cheer for us, too.”

The crowd didn’t listen and spent most of the first game chanting “M-V-P” at Derrick Rose and “Ko-be! Ko-be!” The PBA players didn’t seem to mind, as they were too awestruck by sharing the court with the likes of Bryant and Paul. When the NBA players started dunking during the pregame warm-ups, Reyes, who coached the PBA squad, had to remind his players to stop gawking and run their own layup lines. JaVale McGee, who is sometimes criticized for treating NBA games as if they’re exhibitions, was clearly in his element. In the game’s signature sequence, he dribbled coast to coast and threw down a one-handed baseline dunk, then ran back on defense to block a PBA player’s layup attempt into the crowd, and then laid down on the 3-point line because he promised his Twitter followers that he’d plank during the game. After the 131-105 Smart All-Star win, PBA guard Larry Fonacier tried to describe the experience of running the court next to the best athletes in the world. “Parang kalaban namin Transformers,” he told Halili, or, “It’s like we were playing against Transformers.”

The second game, held the following afternoon against the Smart Gilas Philippine National Team, which Pangilinan’s company also sponsors, was more serious. Gilas’ no-nonsense Serbian coach, Rajko Toroman, vowed to make the NBA stars angry, and his team, by challenging shots, fouling instead of giving up some dunks, and running plays, almost succeeded. Before the fourth quarter, when a courtside reporter asked Chris Paul how the second game differed from the first, Paul answered: “Ah man, it’s a lot more intense. This team is prepared. They’re running plays.” Paul’s team was winning by 19 points at the time, but the Philippine team briefly cut the lead to single digits in the last five minutes, and by doing so won the approval of the crowd and the moral victory of a nine-point loss.

After the game, the NBA players hung around to take pictures with Manny Pacquiao, who arrived a few minutes into the fourth quarter. They chucked their sneakers into the rafters and signed jerseys and soaked up as much adulation as they could before heading to the locker room and, soon thereafter, to the airport.

Before Pangilinan and East-West pulled the weekend off, Filipinos were saying, “Akala namin imposible, akala namin panaginip,” Reyes said. “We thought it was impossible, we thought it was a dream.” Now, they’re asking, “What’s next?”

Rafe Bartholomew is an editor at Grantland and author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. On Twitter, he is @rafeboogs.

Previously from Rafe Bartholomew:
M/F/K with A Tribe Called Quest
The YouTube Highlights NBA Draft
A review of Classic Cavs: The Fifty Greatest Wins in Cleveland Cavaliers History

Filed Under: Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Movies, NBA, People, Sports, Ted