netw3rk: Clearest memories of my last visit to the Philippines, age 10:
My cousins catching a huge rat in a cage with a handle on top. Possum-size rat. They submerged the cage in an oil drum filled with water, and, using a stopwatch, set about determining how long the rat could hold its breath before expiring. Thirty seconds? Nope. Pull it up, reset. One minute? Nope. Pull it, reset. Two minutes? Pull it up. Are you kidding me? The rat was then dubbed “Mark Spitz” (a reference I wouldn’t get until years later), and a cinder block was dropped on its head, splashing bright red rat blood and brains all over the street.
An insect biting my left hand, causing it to swell so it looked like a mango with little fingers sticking out. I remember worrying that if I bent my fingers, my hand would pop.
My cousin Eric’s comic-book collection, which helped fill the void normally occupied by the entirely unhealthy (i.e., totally normal red-blooded American-kid level) amount of television I was used to watching. Eric had his collection bound by title, so from across the room it resembled a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, except that the gold lettering on the spine read “Uncanny X-Men 100-150” instead of “J-K-L.”
My grandfather sitting in a chair on the porch all day, pulling blood-bloated fleas off the dog, burning them with his cigarette, and dropping the corpses into a cup.
My aunt sending me and my cousin — who was a couple years older than I was — to buy cigarettes from the cart at the end of the compound. After buying the cigarettes, my cousin turned to me and said, “Do you smoke?” I was like, “No, I’m 10 years old,” and she proceeded to smoke one of the cigarettes with a Don Draper–ish nonchalance that completely blew my mind.
Not being allowed to leave the compound. Soldiers and police on the street with M16s. No electricity for most of the day. No hot water. No toilet paper. Being scared of my grandfather’s huge, Spanish-style house, with bullet holes from World War II in the walls. A crippling inability to speak the language, feeling disconnected from the culture, from the members of my family. Being bored, hot, and covered in insect bites.
I hate stories of self-discovery. “What Walking the Appalachian Trail Taught Me About Basketball.” “How the Death of My Childhood Friend Blah Blah Blah.” That kind of thing really annoys me, no matter how well written or informative. And as time has gone on, I’ve realized the reason it annoys me is less that the construction itself is a cheat — that mining personal experiences for a piece is a way to avoid actually entertaining someone with writing — than that I just don’t have comfortable access to that kind of self-awareness. I don’t like thinking about what the saddest movie I’ve ever seen is, for example, so the psychic bravery involved in writing about a real personal loss or meaningful experience or existential wound is terrifying.
Anyway, there comes a time in a person’s life when they, in taking stock of where they’re going, want to know more about from whence they came. That is the least lame way I am capable of writing that. So, this is a story of self-discovery. Sorry.
If I’m being honest, the whole thing was something of a scam; I never expected anyone to say yes to this trip. I haven’t been writing that long. And, of all the things having to do with writing that I don’t do well, I would rank pitching ideas right near the top. But, man, did I kill this pitch.
See, in October 2013, the Indiana Pacers were going to play the Houston Rockets in Manila, at the SM Mall of Asia, the third-largest mall in the Philippines. The first NBA game in a country crazy for basketball. The country where my parents came from. My idea was for Grantland to send me, a Filipino American guy who can’t speak Tagalog and hasn’t visited the country in 20 years, and Rafe Bartholomew, a white guy who speaks the language fluently, goes back once a year, and literally wrote the book on basketball in the Philippines, to cover the game and its cultural impact. Knowing my target, I believe I used the words “Reverse 48 Hrs.” in my email.
To my stunned amazement, they said yes. That’s when the fear set in.
Rafe Bartholomew: I have a rat story, too. Sometime in 2006, after I’d been living in Metro Manila for the better part of a year, I sat down for breakfast on the ground floor of the two-bedroom town house I shared with an American grad student. I turned on the NBA playoffs, mixed a bit of powdered milk, and poured a bowl of Honey Stars cereal. Two bites in, I saw a flash of movement to my right, and then I heard a thud. When I looked down and saw a motionless rat six inches from my bare foot, I squealed and spat a comet of milky breakfast stars across the table.
The rat was lying on its side with a tiny crimson brushstroke of blood near its head. I assumed the two-story fall had been fatal, so I reached down to pick up the rodent by its tail. To this day, I’m grateful I stopped myself. Before you start grabbing this rat, I thought, maybe you should make sure it’s dead. So I stood up and stomped my foot right next to its head, and it did the one thing I hoped it wouldn’t do. It woke up.
I probably should have dropped a cinder block on it like netw3rk’s cousins. It certainly would have taken me less time to mop the splatter than the 90 minutes I spent chasing the rat with a broom. I propped the front door open and tried to scare the little sucker toward freedom. Problem was, this vermin didn’t have no scare in it. Every time I cornered it, the rat didn’t run away. It leapt forward and hissed, and I backpedaled all the way to the opposite wall. When the rat finally found the door, it wasn’t because of anything I did — it just seemed to get bored and scurry off. When I peeked outside to make sure it was gone, I saw my neighbors, gathered on their stoops and porches, wheezing with laughter at the sight of a clueless American dealing with a household pest. For the next two years, that rat was a running joke in my neighborhood, a story that came up at every community potluck dinner or karaoke jam or basketball tournament.
That’s the thing about the time I spent in the Philippines. A bunch of pretty bad things happened while I lived there. I took shelter in a dank, powerless mall while Typhoon Milenyo tore down billboards, uprooted trees, and flipped trucks onto their sides. I got bronchial pneumonia and sweated out two interminable nights hooked up to IV fluids in a provincial hospital with no potable water. I spent the better part of two months with a nasty hookworm infection. Yet somehow, every minor misfortune turned into a great joke or a better story: falling rats, reading by flashlight during the typhoon, turning down sponge baths from my elderly nurse, carrying around a small war chest of toilet paper during my symbiosis with the worm. It may sound crazy after rattling off a list like that, but I loved living in the Philippines, and I adored the country’s deep passion for basketball more than anything else. So as soon as I read “Reverse 48 Hrs.” in netw3rk’s email, I started to pack.
netw3rk: In a weird twist of fate, my Uncle Rolly was in the States, staying with one of his sons in New Jersey. So before flying out, I visited him to make arrangements to stay at his house in Parañaque City. By “arrangements,” I mean I showed him a YouTube video of Rafe doing an interview in Tagalog, and he graciously allowed me stay in his home. Oh, and he also put his driver, Abner, at my disposal.
From an American perspective, domestic help is something reserved for the wealthy. In the Philippines — a country with such vast income inequality that people much smarter than me consider it an oligarchy — live-in servants and on-call personal drivers are the norm, even for middle-class families. Heck, upper-class families have full-blown private armies. I could text Abner from wherever, at whatever time, and ask him to take me anywhere, and he would. In addition to that, it soon became clear he was under express orders from my family to, as I put it to Rafe, “not let me die.”
Rafe: Drivers. I’d never had one, and always considered them one of the great double-edged swords for Americans in Manila. On one hand, you get to have a chauffeur. What kind of fool refuses that kind of luxury? On the other, you should understand that your driver — when provided by a family friend or a generous cousin or a thoughtful employer — is essentially a spy.
You are not paying him. He does not answer to you. He takes orders from your boss or your grandfather or your college buddy’s mom, and they are likely instructing him to keep you out of trouble. That sounds reasonable, but it often gets taken to overcautious extremes, and your driver will likely steer you away from the vibrant and irreverent chaos of Manila street life. This is a favorite old trick of teams in the Philippine Basketball Association, which hire American import players to reinforce local lineups and use drivers to keep tabs on their investments. If the driver reports back that Lee Benson or Billy Ray Bates or Damian Cantrell polished off a case of San Mig Light before heading to a nightclub the night before a game, and then the player’s jump shot starts falling short in the third quarter, his team may conclude that its $25,000-a-month import is wasting his vital energy away from the basketball court, and may start scouting replacements.
Abner’s role with me and netw3rk was different, of course. He wasn’t an informant so much as a babysitter. His mission was to prevent us from getting mugged or being exposed to unpleasant — OK, heinous — urban ailments like leptospirosis, a bacterial infection often contracted by getting stuck shin-deep in Manila floodwater mixed with rat urine. A noble endeavor, except that in avoiding the pickpockets and the animal pee — things we’d be unlikely to encounter during one week in Manila, anyway — we’d also be missing the old men who would randomly offer us shots of brandy on the sidewalk, the impromptu games of 3-on-3 played on hoops nailed to the walls of alleys, and the vendors of sugary bananacue sticks who would ask who our favorite basketball players were and then reply, “Mine is Jesus Christ!”
I didn’t want to miss out on those experiences because I was trapped in a dinged-up Astro van. Abner was a decent, honest, and likable man, but if he wanted to prevent us from encountering the gritty side of Manila, we’d just have to bring the bedlam to him. A cockfight was as good a place to start as any.
netw3rk: If there’s such a thing as a national pastime — other than basketball — in the Philippines, it’s cockfighting. The sport predates the nation and, in fact, predates any inkling of national identity. When, in 1521, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan blundered into the chain of islands that would eventually be called the Philippines, he had a Venetian scholar onboard named Antonio Pigafetta. One entry in Pigafetta’s journal reads: “They have large and very tame cocks, which they do not eat because of a certain veneration they have for them. Sometimes they make them fight with one another and each one puts up a certain amount on his cock and the prize goes to him whose cock is the victor.”
Fast-forward 492 years. After 15 minutes in the van, we reached the end of a street, and the narrow road opened into a grass and dirt field about the size of a small soccer pitch. At the edge of the field sat a squat, industrial-looking building with its back to the Marikina River, like a grim and ancient grain mill. Welcome to Pasig Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Cockpit Arena.1
Rafe discovered the place and scouted it a couple days before I arrived in the country, and two details made the location a great choice: first, the “Square Garden” modifier, because we’re a couple of New York natives. Haters can snipe all they want about “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and “The Mecca” just being branding. They’re right, but standing there in the heat and humidity of Metro Manila, 8,000-odd miles from New York City, I thought it was fair to call the branding effective. Second, PSG is right off East Concepcion Street, and my last name is Concepcion, so I pretty much had to go.
“Hopefully no one gets shot,” Rafe said as we walked through the entrance. He was worried the mix of testosterone, gambling, alcohol, and bloodshed that prevails at cockfights might spur some unplanned violence.
“Well,” I said, “the sign at the ticket booth says that people have to check their guns.”
Rafe: How many pesos would you wager on a rooster named Amar’e? What about a rooster named Amar’engani? Would that be a one-legged fighting cock that hops in place while its opponent pecks it to shreds? One thing is for sure: If a bird named Metta World Peace ever lines up to fight in Pasig Square Garden, I will bet my life savings on him.
To be honest, I don’t know a great deal about cockfighting. I’d had several experiences with the sport, called sabong in Tagalog, mainly because I lived in the country for several years and cockfights were a part of everyday life. I once noticed a sabong emporium called the Cockhouse in the basement food court of a Manila mall, and I couldn’t resist rifling through its selection of cockfight anthology DVDs. I had stumbled across small cockfights while visiting rural areas of the Philippines — circles of men throwing wads of money at each other and shouting obscenities around a bloodstained patch of dirt. I had even been hired as a ringer on a basketball team sponsored by the main cockfighting organization on a tiny resort island called Boracay.
But despite my regular brushes with sabong, any real understanding eluded me. My perception of cockfighting was rooted in Nathanael West’s bloodcurdling description of a match in the novel The Day of the Locust. The passage, in which a breeder named Miguel and his champion bird, Jujutala, brutalize a larger, less game rooster handled by a dwarf, horrified me. It may have scared me away from gamecocks for good:
When the dwarf gathered the red up, its neck had begun to droop and it was a mass of blood and matted feathers. The little man moaned over the bird, then set to work. He spit into its gaping beak and took the comb between his lips and sucked the blood back into it. The red began to regain its fury, but not its strength. Its beak closed and its neck straightened. The dwarf smoothed and shaped its plumage. He could do nothing to help the broken wing or the dangling leg.
netw3rk: Ahhhh, and the names of the birds! The cocks fighting to the death while we were at PSG had some interesting monikers. Snookie Warrior. El Pat. Saint Tomas de Villanueva. Thing is, after, I’d say, the third bout, I stopped wanting to know what their names were, because I was getting pretty bummed out by the sight of once-living roosters reduced to motionless heaps of bloody feathers.
Rafe: Sorry to jump in, but the bout sheet clearly shows that the first cock’s name is the plural “Snookie Warriors,” that “El Pat …” comes equipped with an unexplained ellipsis (which to me feels ominous), and that you neglected to mention “Ngaw Ngaw,” whose name means “empty talk” in Tagalog.
netw3rk: The bouts shook out like so: The owners entered the ring carrying the combatants, quickly joined by two more handlers carrying what are best described as fluffer birds. The role of this second pair of birds was to arouse aggressiveness in the competitors, and this was accomplished by allowing the competing gamecocks to freely peck at the chests of the fluffer birds and by holding the birds face-to-face, then backing them off, then pushing them close again.
After this ritual, bets were called for by men called kristos, who get their name from the arms-outstretched messianic pose they strike while soliciting wagers. Whatever the name’s roots in Roman crucifixion techniques, these kristos posed in a manner that looked more like someone trying to convince a far-off, half-deaf dog to come to heel — arm thrust high, hand manically beckoning. While waving in the bets, the kristos let out a cacophonous riot of yelling consisting of the words meron (meaning “have”) and wala (meaning “none”). What these words indicated to the prospective gamblers, I could not tell you. While the kristos waved and yelled, gamblers in the crowd signaled their bets through a series of hand and finger gestures. Three fingers pointing up meant 3,000 pesos (roughly $67). Three fingers pointing down meant 300. Or did fingers down mean the higher amount? Whatever it was, I made sure to keep my hands low. Like, tying-my-shoes low. Amazingly, the kristos operated solely from memory, remembering each bet made by each individual.
Rafe: Aside from the fluffers, some traditional methods of stoking a rooster’s bloodlust include blowing cigarette smoke in its face and sliding chili peppers up its butt. Those words they were yelling corresponded to the two separate combatants — each stood on his side of the cockpit under a sign that read either “meron” or “wala.” So when the kristos were shouting MERONMERONMERONMERON! they were taking bets on that specific cock. Three fingers up actually meant 30 pesos, which is worth less than $1 and would probably get you laughed out of the building. Three fingers down was 3,000 pesos, and it was shocking how many wagers that size or larger were being tossed around, given that the minimum wage in Metro Manila is a shade more than $10 per day. No wonder the kristos remember every bet — certain gamblers are risking a week’s earnings or more on a single cockfight. If the trainee kristo mishandles a wager, he’ll have to explain himself to some very unhappy bettor who may or may not have checked his firearm at the door.
netw3rk: Once the roosters’ blood was up, the owners of the competing cocks released their birds and the fight was on. Most fights we saw that night lasted no more than two minutes: A whirl of motion, feathers flying into the air and sinking to the sand, and at some point, a killing blow was landed. The referee then picked up both birds by the scruff of their feathers and dropped them onto the sand three times. The bird that could still move won. The other one went to the kitchen in the lobby, where it was plucked, cleaned, and cooked.
Rafe: Like netw3rk, I was mostly bewildered by Pasig Square Garden. If Metro Manila is a world I feel comfortable and familiar with, then the cockpit was a world unto itself, with customs, language, and rituals I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Tarpaulin signs hung from the walls outside the arena, advertising gamecock supplements I never imagined anyone could need: Nevron antistress tablets for your roosters, or Staminex, a multivitamin bird-food additive that sounded like a brand of male-enhancement pill. And nothing was more confusing than the violence — first blur, then blood. The contemptible side of cockfighting is easier to understand in descriptions like West’s, which lay out the savagery blow by blow. Confronted with real-life, real-time bloodshed, I could barely recognize it. That is, until a defeated cock’s handler was dragging it facedown by its foot across the dirt floor.
netw3rk: Dinosaurs once ruled this planet. Ruled without rival for hundreds of millions of years. Now their progeny fight to the death in tawdry arenas for the amusement of some up-jumped mammals with thumbs and decent-size brains. Hopefully the robots will treat us better.
netw3rk: The next morning, I was awoken at 5 a.m. by roosters crowing throughout the neighborhood. We gamble on their deaths, and their revenge is never letting us sleep in. On the schedule for the day: Rafe had us going to a taping of the longest-running daytime variety show on Philippine television, Eat Bulaga! — featuring the adora-bad interview stylings of an 8-year-old girl named Ryzza Mae. Every member of my family responded with unbridled excitement when told I was going to see the show.
Rafe: There’s no easy translation of “Eat Bulaga!” in English, but some brave Wikipedia editor took a stab at it and came up with “Lunchtime Surprise!” This is accurate and slightly terrifying.
netw3rk: Rafe informed me there was a good chance we’d get called onstage, because Rafe is a tall, good-looking white dude who speaks Tagalog, with some pretty significant local fame, and I was … well, I was there with him. So I felt nervous that my life rule never to be GIF’d doing something ridiculous might very well be in jeopardy.
Regardless, I texted Abner and we set off from my uncle’s house. From the Manila Skyway, the city — really 16 cities, all under the rubric of Metro Manila — came into view, and I began to get an inkling of its scale, like the hump of a whale rising under dark water. Rafe likes to compare the constituent cities that make up Metro Manila to the boroughs of New York City, not so much in terms of an overarching cultural character (though that kind of works — Makati City is the metropolis’s financial center, for example, and its Ayala Avenue is nicknamed “The Wall Street of the Philippines”), but because of how both New York and Manila are cities made up of smaller, separate urban areas with their own administrative structures. Slums, apartment buildings, skyscrapers stretch in every direction, fading back into smog and gray clouds. We were moving quickly through the streets, and then, a downpour, sudden like a child’s tantrum, drove the mopeds and motorcycles to shelter under the overpasses, where they huddled in masses of helmets and billowing rain slickers. We were running late now. “Filipino time,” Abner said to me, chuckling.
Abner and I met Rafe in front of the TV studio, a four-story white building that looked like a converted movie theater on top of a strip mall. You get used to seeing armed security guards wherever you go in Manila. Every business in any decent neighborhood has armed security out front, from 7-Elevens and McDonald’s to banks and shopping malls. Starched white military-style shirt, blue pants, a pistol on the hip, and a Remington pump shotgun on a leather strap around their necks — they’re everywhere. Usually they just look in your backpack, but this being television, security was tighter: After searching our bags at the front door, the guards made us stand on a raised platform so they could give us a full pat-down. And that’s where I ran into a problem.
I was not expecting the studio to be no shoes, no service. Luckily, Rafe had a pair of dress shoes in his bag. Unluckily, he’s about nine inches taller than I am. I told Abner we’d be out in a few hours and followed Rafe into the studio, walking like a kid wearing scuba flippers at the public pool. A production assistant led us to our seats, right in front of the stage. We slid into our spots, I turned around, and there was Abner. I couldn’t get into the studio wearing flip-flops; he could get in without a ticket. “That was a power move,” Rafe said, impressed.
Rafe: Ryzza Mae Dizon is between 3 and 4 feet tall and spherical in shape, with the physique of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. She is 8 years old, but she looks like she’s 3. In interviews, Ryzza Mae’s mother has explained that her daughter inherited her short stature from her grandmother, who is 4 feet tall; she also claims to have eaten cigarette butts while pregnant with Ryzza Mae, and she kinda-sorta suggested that may have had some impact on her daughter’s height. Ryzza Mae projects a combination of uncanny and adorable that has enraptured audiences during her relatively brief run on Philippine television. A dance sequence in one of her pre–Eat Bulaga! appearances on a rival variety show — in which Ryzza Mae, dressed in a pink tutu-tankini with yellow butterfly wings, looks like she could be auditioning for the under-10 Philippine twerk team — manages to be wildly inappropriate, painfully precious, and genuinely funny. It’s hard to look away from Ryzza Mae, and I guess that’s why she’s a star.
netw3rk: Sometime after Ryzza Mae’s program, and before the adult hosts of Eat Bulaga! gave a lucky fan three sacks of rice, 300 bottles of Coca-Cola, 40,000 pesos, and a motor scooter, the in-studio producers pulled Rafe onstage, just as predicted, for a hip-hop segment titled “Flip Eat.” His role was to join the on-camera hype crowd in various displays of arm-gyrating exhortations one would associate with an impromptu cypher in a park or public-school hallway, as various local rap groups battled it out. They tried to get me to go down there, too, but — much to Abner’s disappointment — I declined because ain’t no way I was going on TV in front of millions of people wearing shoes the size of two-by-fours.
Can a person draw conclusions about a foreign culture from that culture’s daytime television? I imagine it’s like walking into a strange family’s kitchen and trying to learn something meaningful about them from the smell wafting out of a pot on the stove. I bet I’d only need, say, 30 minutes of Good Morning Third Reich to know the Nazis were awful. But could someone claim to know anything about America from three hours of daytime programming? Probably not. Can I claim to have learned anything meaningful about Philippine culture by watching Ryzza Mae interview a PBA player, his wife, and their 4-year-old daughter? Or from watching Abner perform Ryzza Mae’s herky-jerky signature line dance? I’m not sure.
If I learned anything from Eat Bulaga!, it was this: Tagalog is very nearly the perfect non-English rap language. Get past the alienness, the strangeness of seeing Asian dudes rapping in a strange language peppered with black American street-slang appropriations. Tagalog is a language full of multisyllabic drumrolls and words ending with vowel sounds — it’s staccato, and lots of words and idioms naturally rhyme.
Rafe, telegenically bopping to the beats, looked up from the stage toward Abner and me in the audience. I threw up the Roc-A-Fella diamond sign and laughed.
Rafe: So, two amateur rap groups did compete on the show, and I did attempt to serve as the oversize white Spliff Star to the Flip Eat Mode Squad, but I don’t know if I’d call what was happening onstage a battle. Since the Philippines begins celebrating Christmas in September and it was already October, the crews were asked to write yuletide Tagalog raps, which a panel of judges would then grade them on.
This is how I wound up bouncing to the beat with my hands in the air while a quintet of teenagers rhymed:
Santa Claus, Santa Claus, may Facebook ka ba?
(Santa Claus, Santa Claus, do you have Facebook?)
Kung meron, ano’ng email mo para ma-i-add kita?
(If so, what’s your email so I can add you?)
Santa Claus, Santa Claus, may Instagram ka ba?
(Santa Claus, Santa Claus, do you have Instagram?)
Ano’ng Twitter mo para ma-follow ka at ma-hashtag kita?
(What’s your Twitter so I can follow you and hashtag you?)
I was doing pretty well, keeping my energy up, shuttling back and forth between stabbing the air with hip-hop hand gestures and swaying to the music. I understood I was onstage for one reason: that at some point during the performance, the camera would get a close-up of me, and the TV audience would get the twofold thrill of “Amerikano on Eat Bulaga!” and “White guy dancing!” When that moment came, I wanted to appear engaged, since few things look worse than an unhappy, stationary foreigner dragooned into a fake dance party.
For a while I was feeling it. But then another Eat Bulaga! host, Isabelle Daza, a model and actress, and the daughter of a former Miss Universe, spotted me from her corner of the stage. She flashed a quick, baffled smile — full of pity — as if she had just seen the world’s saddest clown. When one of the more beautiful women in a nation of 98 million people doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry for you, it’s hard to keep dancing.
But these little rituals of mass humiliation mean something in the Philippines. Just about everybody ends up doing a little shimmy for the enjoyment of others at social functions. This applies to the most powerful people in the country — politicians are expected to perform karaoke and line up for the electric slide at campaign stops. It’s unfortunate these policymakers often don’t face the same expectations to solve the country’s problems, but the song-and-dance is a way for elites to show they don’t consider themselves above anyone else. If Manny Pacquiao is down to sing “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, then who am I to refuse when Eat Bulaga! asks me to dance to the Santa Claus social-media jammy-jam?
netw3rk: Wednesday morning marked the start of the NBA portion of the trip: media availability for the Rockets and the Pacers at the Mall of Asia Arena, NBA Cares events, and, later that evening, the welcome gala at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza hotel.
Morning began with more accusatory rooster crows and the steadily growing rumble and belch of tricycle-taxis sputtering past the house. I got in a 30-minute run before the heat became too oppressive, which was not nearly enough to work off three straight mornings of rice, eggs, and pork for breakfast. To clarify, three straight mornings of delicious rice, eggs, and pork for breakfast. If I were going to be here longer than a week, I think I would discover several new types of diabetes.
Abner had me at the MOA Arena by 11:30. I hate official media rooms, mostly because they highlight the totality of my inexperience. People in there were working so hard, were so incredibly prepared. It was like the math-class scene from Better Off Dead … where the teacher asks to see the homework assignment and everyone starts unfurling reams of dot-matrix printouts while John Cusack’s character pulls a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket with “DO HOMEWORK” written on it. I decided to text Rafe before I spiraled into full-blown depression.
ME: You here? Im in the media work room
RAFE: Yeah but Im on the other side of the arena and dont really care about getting there
I started to get paranoid that Rafe was avoiding me.
Rafe: I am just spoiled. I’ve been part of the Philippine basketball scene since 2007, when I spent a season embedded with the PBA’s Alaska Aces. Over the years, I got used to a level of access to superstar players, coaching luminaries, and local hoops legends that just doesn’t exist in American pro sports. The day before the NBA events, I took netw3rk to see the last few minutes of practice for the San Mig Coffee Mixers franchise. The team was preparing for Game 1 of the PBA finals, and to get into the gym, all we had to do was ride an elevator to the third floor of a building and push open the door. We greeted team officials Johnny Abarrientos and Alvin Patrimonio, two ’90s icons who could be reasonably called the best point guard and power forward, respectively, in Philippine basketball history. Johnny was rushing out the door, so he handed me a Tupperware bin containing his post-practice team meal, a Chinese-Filipino dish of fried fish in black bean sauce.
Can you imagine appearing at the Indiana Pacers practice facility, wandering in unannounced, and then having Larry Bird hold out his bag of Lay’s potato chips and say, “I bet you can’t eat just one”? If you can, you probably should ditch those dreams, because the Pacers were on the MOA Arena floor when I arrived Wednesday, and word spread fast that Larry Legend would prefer if fans and members of the media didn’t approach him.
I get it: This is the NBA — and this was standard operating procedure, exactly the professional but impersonal way I’d expect things to run if I visited a shootaround in Indianapolis. Still, it was disheartening. One of the remarkable aspects of professional basketball in the Philippines is its openness. PBA teams are owned by many of the richest and most powerful people in the country, yet the league maintains an old-school, family atmosphere. It wasn’t just me and netw3rk who were allowed into the San Mig practice the previous day — a rotating cast of die-hard fans show up at the gym for every session. Many of them have been doing so for years, or even decades. It’s not uncommon for fans to have players’ cell phone numbers and to trade text-message niceties from time to time; and sometimes teams will celebrate the birthdays of their most devoted fans, with players bringing cake or the noodle dish pancit — a birthday superstition, because long noodles mean long life — for team supporters.
I was never naive enough to believe the NBA could be this way, but seeing the league bring its buttoned-up product to the Philippines, I worried that both the NBA and its Filipino fans were missing out on an intimacy that’s at the heart of Philippine basketball.
netw3rk: To me, the media availability event was a window into just how geeked up about the NBA the country was. One reporter addressed Larry Bird as “Mr. Legend” and then proceeded to ramble for a minute about how awesome Larry was, before eventually finding his way to a question about what it was like to be awesome. Another told Kiki Vandeweghe he loved how Kiki could get 20 points while sleeping before asking a question about the relative differences between players of his era and the players of today. The general vibe was something like an NBA version of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with Bird, Roy Hibbert, and Dwight Howard stepping through the screen instead of Jeff Daniels.
How did I manage to miss that this country was so basketball crazy when I was here as a kid? If there was an overriding theme to this trip for me, it was a creeping sense of inadequacy, not only due to occasionally feeling as if I could not be any more foreign while visiting my parents’ homeland, but also because I found myself deposited in the midst of an NBA-centric media feeding frenzy, and I wasn’t even sure I counted as a member of the media. Watching everyone, starstruck or not, diligently going about asking questions, recording segments, and rolling cables, I realized that even if I didn’t know what I was doing, I should try to look like I did. So, I figured, time to act like an actual sportswriter and try to interview some people.
That went like this: I asked Kiki Vandeweghe a question about the make and model of sneaker he wore back in his playing days, and I asked Chris Copeland whether he would drop “40, 50, or 60” on the Knicks in his first regular-season game against them (Chris Copeland plays about six minutes a game). Oh, and I yelled, “BROOKLYN!” at Lance Stephenson and he nodded his head in approval. I’m like Grantland’s version of Luke Russert.
Rafe: Rather than using the media availability session for something relevant to today’s NBA, like, say, asking Luis Scola for headband recommendations, I wound up reminiscing about the 1980s PBA with Andy Thompson, vice-president of development for NBA Entertainment. Thompson, brother of Mychal and uncle of Klay, played as an import in the Philippines in 1986, and he seemed to relish the chance to unspool tales from his season with the Tanduay Rhum Makers. He recalled having a poor start, scoring only eight points in the first half of his first game in the country, back in an era when imports were expected to post Chamberlainian lines somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 points and 20 rebounds per game. At halftime, Thompson said, Tanduay’s other import, Rob Williams, pulled him aside and offered some advice: “There are two ways to get cut out here — shooting too much or shooting too little. I suggest you get some shots up in the second half.”
We went on like this, dropping names like Michael Hackett and Francois Wise, Ramon Fernandez and Turo Valenzona — names that mean next to nothing to American basketball fans but evoke glassy-eyed awe for many in the Philippines. Before I knew it, we were being asked to leave the arena floor. The Pacers were beginning their closed practice, which meant media had to vamoose. Hair care with Luis would have to wait.
netw3rk: On our way out of the arena, a van filled with Vandeweghe and a handful of NBA employees pulled up and offered us a lift to the Rockets’ NBA Cares event at Aurora Quezon Elementary School in the nearby Malate neighborhood. Somehow, despite our driver’s startlingly poor knowledge of the local streets, we pulled into the school’s courtyard — past the eerie greeting THIS IS A CHILD FRIENDLY SCHOOL — before the rest of the NBA delegation. The 500 or so kids crammed into the quad were in full lather, erupting in cheers as our vehicle pulled into the parking lot. From outside the van, I could hear a voice over a PA announcing us as the Houston Rockets. More cheers.
We got out, and some kids rushed Rafe since he was the only male over 6 feet who wasn’t 50 years old. I slipped through the crowd and found a good vantage point from on top of a planter on the left side of the court just as the Rockets arrived — well, two Rockets: Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Canaan — to Bieberesque pandemonium.
I was standing on that planter taking notes, watching the clamoring of hundreds of kids in school whites screaming, jostling for a good angle, when a couple of girls came up and asked me for a scrap of paper from my notebook so they could get autographs. Everyone who seemed remotely like a basketball player or person of note was being asked for their signature — team representatives, Rafe, NBA executives, Chandler Parsons’s father. Basically, if you didn’t look like you were from there, those kids wanted your autograph. And, apparently, the only source of paper there, in the courtyard of a school, was my notebook. The word spread fast: That guy over there has paper, and, if you ask him, he’ll give you some. Small groups of schoolkids, alternately pleading, demanding, and cajoling me for “Papel, papel, po.”
Rafe: I had been wondering which ultra-hip student was ripping pages from his Moleskine and handing them to the unruly swarm of preteens surrounding me. The situation made a lot more sense when I spotted netw3rk on the far side of the courtyard.
The damage, however, had already been done. It was my inclination to sign a few slips of paper. The problem was, as soon as I would begin to write, a dozen other students would thrust their hands out and try to jam their paper between my pen and the sheet I was signing. It was maddening, and I pleaded with them in English and Tagalog to form a line, to wait patiently, to just chill out, all to no avail. Then I did what I should have done in the first place, which was put my pen away and urge the kids to watch Parsons and Canaan lead drills while Clyde Drexler stood on the sideline, speaking into a microphone about hard work and dedication.
This kinda worked. A group of girls pointed to Parsons and asked if we were related. No, I told them, but he is a famous basketball player in the NBA. “Sabihin mo sa kanya na pogi siya” — Tell him he’s handsome. But even Parsons, in all his magnificence, was having trouble maintaining order with the kids at his shooting station. “Get your own rebound, then pass to the next player in line,” he told a group of students while demonstrating what he wanted them to do. When the first boy took his shot, he got his own rebound, dribbled to another spot, and shot again, and Parsons could only shrug.
After a massive group photo op with Parsons, Canaan, and a mob of students, the players headed to their van, with about 700 kids and school administrators chasing them, jumping up and down, screeching, waving good-bye. Netw3rk and I bumped into Jojo Lastimosa, one of the best shooting guards in PBA history, who had led the clinic along with Parsons and Canaan. He nodded at the crowd, knowing that as soon as the vehicle with the NBA players disappeared, the kids would come sprinting back to us. “OK,” Jojo said. “I’m gonna hide.”
netw3rk: We set out on foot down Taft Avenue, named for the rotund 27th president of the United States and first American governor-general of the Philippines, in search of a jeepney to take us back to the Sofitel. This was something I’d wanted to do since I arrived in Manila: walk the streets, not just of my family’s gated neighborhood, not as a tourist, but as a person who at least looked like he belonged there. I could have been any citizen of Manila, coming home from work, maybe going out to eat. Anyone seeing us might even have thought I was Rafe’s guide.
Within a few minutes, the pervasive cloud of diesel exhaust had me reaching for my inhaler. We passed De La Salle University and college kids who looked and dressed like college kids anywhere. Hipster hegemony. Skinny jeans and gingham shirts. Neon Nikes and snapbacks. On a shelf of concrete forming the base of a tree box, a young man lay on his side on a bed of cardboard, cradling an infant. We passed a rumpled middle-aged Caucasian dude, and Rafe turned to me and said, “That’s me in 30 years.”
Rafe: Later on at the Sofitel, netw3rk and I attended the NBA’s official welcome reception. The party was held in a tent about the size of a football field on the lawn behind the hotel, and almost as soon as we walked in, I again saw Lastimosa, the retired PBA player who had been at the elementary school. “What’s gonna happen?” I asked, and Jojo said: “After a while, they’re gonna bring the players out and make them stand onstage for 10 minutes. Then we go home.”
Across the room I saw Atoy Co, another local shooting guard even more legendary than Lastimosa. Co, nicknamed “The Fortune Cookie,” had played for the Crispa Redmanizers, one of two teams that dominated the first decade of PBA basketball, starting in 1975. Co also participated in a 1979 Manila exhibition game between the Washington Bullets and a selection of local all-stars. Before Rockets-Pacers, that game had been the last time an NBA team played on Philippine soil. (A group of NBA stars including Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant played a pair of exhibitions in July 2011, but that occurred during the lockout and was organized without the league’s approval.) I had been trying to reach Co all week to ask him about that 34-year-old game.
News accounts of the Bullets’ visit are sparse. We know that Washington brought Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Kevin Porter out for the game, that the Bullets won 133-123, and that afterward, coach Dick Motta said: “Good big men will surely beat good little men.” Besides that, the only notable story to emerge was a reported fistfight between 6-foot-11 Dave Corzine and “The Fortune Cookie” Co, who stands 10 inches shorter and who didn’t look like much of a fighter back in the ’70s, when he wore his hair in a Beatles-inspired bowl cut.
I wanted to know what had really happened. Before coming to Manila, I had managed to contact Corzine, who laughed at the fight story and told me over the phone: “I have no recollection of that whatsoever.” I believed him — it seemed reasonable that a man who played 891 career NBA games might forget a goodwill scrimmage from almost 35 years ago. So I emailed Bob Dandridge, who runs the Bullets alumni group, to ask about the Manila game, and he sent back a one-sentence reply: “The team went to China.”
If anyone remembered the details, I figured, it had to be Co. To the NBA guys, perhaps the game had been little more than a sideshow, but to the locals it must have been the experience of a lifetime. I had played pickup ball with Co and interviewed him in the past, so I felt comfortable approaching him and making small talk: Are you still playing in Coach Ronnie’s open run? How do you like the transition from local politics to college coaching? Then I asked about the Bullets game.
“I played in that game?” he asked, surprised. “I thought it was Ramon Fernandez.”
“Yes, but it says in the newspapers that you also played. You almost had a fight with Dave Corzine, the Washington center. Do you remember?”
“Sorry, no,” Co said. “But I’m glad I’m still alive if I fought a 7-footer.”
So there you have it: An NBA team played in Manila a little over 34 years ago, and many of the guys on the court that night can’t remember anything about it. I imagine the league was hoping that Rockets-Pacers at the Mall of Asia Arena would better stand the test of time.
netw3rk: Stepping behind the curtain of any mass-media entertainment package is always a trip. If you’ve ever sat in the studio audience of a TV show or toured a movie studio, you know what I’m talking about. Lights, stagecraft, and cameras add a slick sheen of unreality to the images that end up on whichever screen we use to view things these days. But when you’re there, in person, observing the frayed stitches on the lining of a chair and coffee stains on the rug, and shivering in overpowering air-conditioning, you realize an arena is just a place where lots of regular people come to work every day in the shadows of a few very tall, very famous people.
David Stern’s press conference was scheduled for five. Small wrinkle, it was 4:55 and the bodybuilder-looking security-for-hire guys wouldn’t let anyone out of the tunnel leading to the media room. Like, anyone anyone. A beefy Eastern Conference scout who looked vaguely like Brian Dennehy was stopped cold, the bouncers completely unmoved by the laminated credential and several pieces of official looking documentation he pulled from a battered manila envelope. Eventually, Rafe ran into some high-level NBA muckety-muck he knew, and with a wave of the official’s august hand, we all went through.
Rafe’s status as The Philippines Basketball Guy got us bumped up to the front row of Stern’s presser and Rafe the honor of asking the first question.
Rafe: “Say what?”
That’s how I remember answering the NBA communications staffer when he asked if I’d like to pose the first question to then-Commissioner Stern. He frowned and and held up his hand, signaling us to wait. He walked to the corner of the room and whispered into his boss’s ear, something along the lines of, “I don’t think he has a question.”
Then he came back to us: “Do you think you’ll be able to come up with a question?” I suspect they were so keen on having me go first because they were worried about some of the alternatives. The “Mr. Legend” TV journalist from the Bird presser was probably in that room somewhere. So was an eccentric tabloid reporter who’s known in the Philippine basketball scene for skipping through the aisles during PBA games while recording his own play-by-play on a clunky cassette recorder and compulsively sniffing his watch. Compared with the competition, an underprepared American might have been the safest choice.
I did end up going first, and I asked Stern how the Philippines fit into the NBA’s global vision, since there wasn’t much the NBA could do to promote the sport in a country that already adored it, and because the Philippines wasn’t an economic powerhouse like some other countries where the NBA has focused on growing the game, most notably China. Stern’s answer, and the way he discussed the Philippines throughout the press conference, impressed me. He described the Philippines as a tentpole nation for Southeast Asian hoops, a sympathetic audience where the league could test programs like development camps and local TV deals and NBA-themed eateries. If these endeavors proved successful in the Philippines, the league might try to duplicate them in Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand. It sounded as if Stern saw the Philippines as a basketball petri dish — just bring the game, the NBA brand, and a light capital investment, then see what grows.
netw3rk: The game itself was a blowout, 116-96, Rockets. Houston looked fresher, quicker to the ball, and led the entire way. Kevin McHale, eager to use the preseason to experiment with lineups, pulled Jeremy Lin and Donatas Motiejunas from the starting lineup in favor of Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones. Motiejunas — who usually reminds me of a Mobile Suit Gundam piloted by a drunk child — responded nicely, coming off the bench with 16 points, three rebounds, and a block. Anytime you see that type of line from him, you know the Rockets had a good game. Lin looked decent, but Beverley’s play was stronger and he seemed a steadier hand on the wheel. Rafe’s mortal enemy, Chandler Parsons, had 15 points, each basket causing Rafe’s fists to coil with rage.
More interesting than the game was the attendance in the arena. The lower bowl and upper bowls were packed, but large swaths of empty seats were visible in the middle sections. Excitement was high: Noontime shows had segments promoting the game. There were commercials and front-page stories. Jeepneys plastered with Pacers and Rockets logos could be found trolling the streets around the Mall of Asia. So what went wrong? Seats in the lower bowl were selling for 32,000 pesos, about $730, a huge sum here. The next pricing tier came in at 27,000 pesos, about $600, or more than a month’s salary for a call-center worker. The top of the arena came in at 8,400 pesos (roughly $200) and 4,200 pesos (roughly $100). So, unsurprisingly, the second pricing level, which translated to the middle section of the arena, was sparsely filled.
Rafe: I hadn’t realized Chandler Parsons was my mortal enemy until I spent the days leading up to the Pacers’ preseason game reading dozens of headlines about his steamy date with local starlet KC Concepcion. Care to know what that steamy date consisted of? Dinner in a group of about eight people, mini golf, and wearing a floppy fur hat at an “ice bar” where the room temperature is kept below freezing. This was the dominant media story line heading into the game.
The real shock came when Concepcion attended the game on Thursday and revealed she had never seen a live basketball game before. This would be like Miss America admitting she had never tasted a hamburger. A revered actress like Concepcion, who was raised in this hoops-devoted nation, had never seen a live game? It hurts to think about it. I’m blaming Chandler Parsons.
At the beginning of the third quarter, I headed to Starbucks for a jolt of caffeine before a second half that promised lots of rest for Dwight Howard and plenty of touches for Motiejunas. Along the way, I passed one of the partly empty sections of the arena. The game was a reported sellout, but perhaps scalpers got left holding the bag on pricey seats they’d bought in bulk and hadn’t been able to resell. Several legitimate ticket holders might also have been stuck somewhere on flooded highways, since a powerful rainstorm blew through Manila before the game and stopped traffic for hours on some major roads.
Still, it was hard to not feel deflated over so-so attendance for an NBA preseason game. MOA Arena would be packed to the rafters and absolutely deafening two days later, when the University of Santo Tomas and De La Salle University battled through overtime for the country’s most prestigious college championship. 2013 already went into the history books as a banner year for Philippine basketball when the country was selected to host the FIBA Asia Championships and the national team finished in second place, qualifying for this year’s World Cup. 2013 was already the year LeBron James made his first visit to Manila and Renaldo Balkman choked a teammate during a PBA game. (Whoops, scratch that last one from the list of proud achievements.) By the time the NBA preseason rolled around, Rockets-Pacers was the cherry on top of the gravy poured over the icing on top of the sweetest cake Filipino basketball fans had tasted in decades.
netw3rk: After the game, Rafe and I met with my cousin Eileen at a blues bar by Manila Bay called the Roadhouse. The place looked like it could’ve been transported whole from any mall in America. A motorcycle chassis hung from the wall alongside electric guitars and posters of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and a host of other drive-time rock-radio luminaries. The in-house band was playing a pretty damn credible version of “Come Together.” Rafe and Eileen took pity on me and conversed only in English. We chatted about the game, Rafe’s upcoming National Geographic series, how our trip had gone so far. The band launched into “Farther Up the Road,” and I thought the guitar player was actually quite good as I blinked at the lights across the bay in Cavite. I gazed into the blackness of the open sea, beyond where Admiral George Dewey routed the decrepit Spanish fleet some 115 years ago, starting a relationship that has spanned America’s first taste of jungle warfare, first stab at nation building, World War II, a shared love of basketball, and three people chatting in English over burgers and fries while a band played live blues.
Rafe: After the Roadhouse, we loaded into the van for one last slog through Manila traffic. Abner, of course, was waiting. It was 1:30 a.m., yet the streets remained choked with jeepneys and buses and pedicabs. Vendors wandered the gridlock selling cigarettes and sampaguita flowers and feather dusters. I intended for Abner to drop me off somewhere nearby, where I could catch a cab back to my place on the north side of the city. Instead, I fell asleep and didn’t open my eyes until we were making a U-turn on Katipunan Avenue, steps away from where I was staying. I griped at Abner for going so far out of everyone’s way, knowing all along he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Then I hopped onto the sidewalk and watched the van rumble away, back toward Pasay.
netw3rk: It was going on three in the morning, but Abner and Eileen had one more stop planned before I went home and packed for my flight the next morning: my grandfather’s old compound in Pasay City. It looked tiny, more an alley than the street I remembered. One of my aunts still lives there with my cousins, and we picked her up to go to a family function before taking me to the airport. My grandfather’s place was back somewhere at the end of the compound, out of sight through the darkness and clutter of cars, trikes, and new buildings — newer than my memories, anyway. Back there was where basically every memory I have of this country was born. Since my grandparents passed, one of my uncles took over management of the compound and cut up the houses into multiple units, and what was once a private family dwelling now resembles something like a public street. This has caused some friction within our family, but I don’t really want to know more than that.
The outlying rain bands of Typhoon Santi, just beginning to come ashore in the north of the country, were dumping a hard downpour on the city, making a sound like a drumroll pounding on the top of my umbrella and the roof of Abner’s van. It seemed like a bad storm to me, and I was worried my flight might be delayed, but my cousins brushed it off. “You’ll make it,” they said. My aunt Linda walked into the beam of the van’s headlights, which sliced through the dark and the rain. I asked if I could see the house.
She didn’t want me to; she said it would make me sad.
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. netw3rk is a Grantland contributor and coauthor of We’ll Always Have Linsanity. Illustrations by Jungyeon Roh (first and third) and Damien Weighill (second).