How much money would you be willing to pay for a ticket to see a 51-year-old Dennis Rodman hoist up a dozen 3-pointers? What if Mitch Richmond, who appears to be pushing 260 on the scale at age 47, got tossed in the deal? Not convinced? What if we added two more members of the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dynasty, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, with Horace promising to wear his Croakies? There’s more if you’re not convinced — Jason Williams, one year out of retirement and not looking much different than he did six years ago, when he helped the Miami Heat win the 2006 NBA title, will bounce no-look passes off his elbow point in vintage White Chocolate fashion. To cap off the deal, a mere 19 years removed from his 1993 Sixth Man of the Year award, Cliff Robinson will come off the bench.
Would you drop eight bucks on the nosebleed seats to see this team play an exhibition against 10 former stars of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), whose bodies have thickened generously in their retirement? How about a shade above $20 for the next cheapest seats? Would you spend $120 on the “patron with meet-and-greet” courtside package?
This all sounds fairly affordable. But consider that this game, the PLDT All-Star Basketball Challenge, is being held at the Mall of Asia Arena in Metro Manila. One-third of the Philippines’ population of 100 million lives on $1.25 a day, and many millions more subsist on just slightly more than that. Of course, there are plenty of people in Manila who can afford mansions and BMWs and pricey tickets to see Scottie Pippen in the flesh (and Horace Grant looking fleshy). But no matter how much money one has to blow, these were steep prices for a basketball game, especially when you consider that on the same night Rodman & Co. were scheduled to play, a PBA playoff doubleheader was taking place on the other side of town, and tickets to see those meaningful games would cost a fraction of the price of watching Rodman do his Jimmer Fredette impersonation.
See where we’re headed with this? Yes, it’s an NBA offseason edition of Grantland’s Fate Worse Than Death series about unwatchable professional basketball games.
Events like this are nothing new to the Philippines, a country whose all-consuming passion for basketball outweighs its importance on the international basketball scene. When the NBA looks for an Asian locale to hold a couple games at the beginning of the regular season and preach the gospel of hoops, the Philippines is less of a priority than bigger markets like China. Besides, the NBA has less to gain by bringing its product to a country full of people who are already hooked on it.
So instead of real NBA basketball, the Philippines gets real retired NBA players whose bodies can hold up just well enough to trot through a glorified pickup game. For the fans, it’s their annual chance to see a retired NBA great like Scottie Pippen in person. And because seeing Rodman or Richmond or Robinson is such a rare opportunity, the organizers of these events bet that fans will decide to shell out their pesos and sit through some catastrophically bad basketball.
The first one of these events that I attended was Rodman’s 2006 “Bad Boy Tour,” which featured the Worm, a crew of second-tier NBA stars like Darryl Dawkins, Sidney Moncrief, Calvin “The Pocket Rocket” Murphy, and the van full of walkers and canes they required to get up and down the court. Before a game against the Philippine national team, local newspapers reported, the tour’s promoters had badly overextended themselves and had almost no chance of making back the money they had promised the players, let alone the cost of flying them around the world. The ticket prices were kept impossibly high in hopes that the take at the gate would help recoup costs, but that only convinced fans to stay away. When it was finally time for the Bad Boy Tour’s tip-off, the Araneta Coliseum was 75 percent empty. I wound up ignoring the lackadaisical, over-the-hill players on the court and paying more attention to the Coliseum vendors who were tasked to wander the barren aisles and sell copies of Rodman’s latest book, I Should Be Dead by Now.
The NBA tried to revive the format with more impressive names in 2009 and 2010. The first year they sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dominique Wilkins, Robert Horry, Tim Hardaway, and Vlade Divac. The following August it was Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Glen Rice, and Mitch Richmond. The league found that local fans were more than willing to pack a mall atrium to catch a glimpse of the former greats, but were once again unwilling to shell out big bucks to watch a non-competitive exhibition game between limping, lumbering foreign greats and bloated local legends. Last year, a telecommunications and utilities magnate named Manny V. Pangilinan broke the mold. He pounced on the opportunity caused by the NBA lockout to toss ungodly sums of money at Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, James Harden, Tyreke Evans, JaVale McGee, and Derrick Williams to play a pair of exhibition games in Manila. It was the first time prime NBA athletes had competed in the country since 1979, and the Araneta Coliseum was jammed with hysterical, ecstatic fans who will someday tell their grandchildren how they watched Kobe and Durant play in the Big Dome. The success of the event seemed to confirm the lessons of the Bad Boy Tour and the NBA legends games: Filipinos may sell their homes to see real NBA basketball, but they know the game too well to splurge on long-since-retired greats.
One year removed from Manila’s triumphant weekend of Kobe, however, the hucksters of the basketball world are back at their old tricks, rounding up Pippen, Grant, Rodman, and the others for another old-man junket through Asia. Only this year, the PLDT Challenge drew a decent crowd. Maybe it has to do with the Philippines’ growing economy. Maybe it’s because the Mall of Asia Arena is brand-new and sports “NBA-ready” features like luxury boxes and a 360-degree LED JumboTron. (In contrast, the Araneta Coliseum, the Philippines’ traditional home of basketball, is distinguished by a gorgeous red commemorative “Thrilla in Manila” banner and a Taco Bell in the concourse.) I think Pippen also has something to do with it. Pippen is one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but even more than that, I imagine that laying eyes on him would feel like being just one step away from Michael Jordan, who has never been to the Philippines.
But although several factors may have contributed to this event’s success, there is one reason I’m positive had nothing to do with it — the desire to watch a decent basketball game. Because like the Bad Boy tour and its other predecessors, this exhibition was a mess.
Three bad omens kick off Philippine sports channel AKTV’s coverage of the PLDT Challenge. First, the game is shown on five-day tape delay. It was played on a Wednesday night and aired the following Monday because more meaningful pro and college basketball games occupied the schedule. Next, analyst Quinito Henson notes that some of the reserves on the American team are in their 20s and 30s, so “you’ve got players who can still play the game of basketball” on tonight’s broadcast. When they flash the roster of Filipino legends, the outlook gets bleaker. Two of them, Nelson Asaytono and Noli Locsin, were nicknamed “the Bull” and “the Tank,” respectively, in their mid-1990s heyday, and nicknames like those often don’t translate into svelte physiques after retirement. Asaytono and Locsin were like mini-Barkleys in their day, combining serious bulk with astounding grace and agility. Unfortunately, they also aged like Barkley did — without discovering Weight Watchers. Less cubical in shape but still generously paunchy are the Philippine centers, E.J. Feihl, a 7-footer who can neither walk nor chew gum, and Marlou Aquino, a 6-foot-9 big man with a lovely scoring touch but the toughness of Shawn Bradley and the body language of Michael Olowokandi. Bong Hawkins is one of the most skilled and smartest forwards the PBA has ever seen, but even back in 1994 coaches said he couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. Jojo Lastimosa is one of the best in a fine tradition of explosive Filipino shooting guards, but when I visited him a couple years ago he was taking a break from pickup ball to recover from a nasty bit of gout.
Before tip-off, a sideline reporter snags a short interview with Pippen. “Scottie, what have you heard of the Philippine league?” she asks. “Well, I haven’t heard too much about it.” The moment was a flashback to the unintentional comedy bonanza at the press conference the day before the game, where Pippen & Co. strained to find polite answers to questions like “Besides the Philippines, what other countries have you guys been to?” and “I’m not a press but how is it when you arrive here, how do you feel that you are playing in this country where basketball is one of the popular sports?” Rodman, predictably, punctured the air of false ceremony when he was asked how he found the Philippines on this, his second trip to the country. “The same [as] when I left it,” he said. “You guys still look the same, so what the hell.”
As the starters got into position for the jump ball, my heart went out to Cliff Robinson, who was stuck on the bench with a second unit consisting of himself, Charoy Bentley, Chris Campbell, Victor Alexander, and Jeff Trepagnier, the track athlete who dunked a lot while playing for the same USC team as Brian Scalabrine. After a distinguished 18-year career in the NBA, this doesn’t exactly feel like walking into the sunset. The rest of the first quarter proves mildly entertaining, as Jason Williams comes out draining pull-up 3s and jumping over screens like someone who’s not far removed enough from his NBA career to really grasp how lousy these exhibition games are. The announcers are calling him “The White Chocolate,” which is the best.
Then, late in the first, there is one actually wonderful basketball moment, when Marlou Aquino executes a perfect kilikili shot. What in the world is that? Kilikili means “armpit” in Tagalog, and the kilikili shot is a post move indigenous to Philippine basketball. With his back to the basket, Aquino twisted his torso to face the hoop without pivoting and squaring his feet, then extended his arm underneath the armpit of his defender and flipped in a bank shot. It’s an extremely awkward shot that creates contact, often draws fouls, and takes advantage of the fundamental post defensive technique of standing straight with your arms up to contest a shot. Instead of shooting over those arms, the offensive player scoops the ball up under them. Aquino was probably the last prominent big man to master the shot, which has fallen out of fashion in the PBA, although it’s still a common move in pickup and playground basketball throughout the Philippines. It’s not that effective against Filipino defenders, who are used to guarding it, but against Americans, it often leaves players with a sour look on their faces, as if to say, “What the hell was that?” Which seems to be what Chris Campbell, the victim of Aquino’s kilikili shot, expressed right after it passed through the hoop, when he looked at his teammates, shook his head, and shrugged.
Not much happens between the kilikili shot and halftime. The announcers get a kick out of Horace Grant’s dogged adherence to Rec Specs–style goggles. I think if he didn’t wear them, people might feel cheated and accuse him of sending Harvey Grant in his stead. Color commentator Quinito Henson delivers a whopper of an understatement after Mitch Richmond buries a 3: “That has been there for the NBA All-Stars.” No kidding — they could set the over-under on contested 3-pointers in this game at 1, and you’d be a fool for taking the over.
The third quarter is all about Dennis Rodman going off from long distance. That is, if going off means attempting to attempt five 3-pointers but really only attempting three because he stepped on the line twice. Rodman, who played with his nose-, lip-, and earrings in and whose hair was dyed pumpkin-orange, connected on two of his long jumpers — the two in which he stepped on the 3-point line. The rest of the second half was dedicated to 40- and 50-year-old men, barrel-chested, pigeon-toed, and seriously gassed, moving gingerly up and down a basketball court and giving each other open 3-pointers. The NBA players, behind Williams, Richmond, and Pippen, made more 3s and built a comfortable enough lead to coast to a 112-93 victory.
In the last minute, Horace Grant put on a dribbling exhibition of awkward hip-wiggling and putting the ball through his legs twice and behind the back once. It was enough to earn an enthusiastic “Go Ho-race! Go Ho-race!” from the PA announcer, as well as a peep or two from the crowd. Then, during the final timeout, something strange and possibly uplifting happened: Rodman grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd: “This may be a weird time to do this, but I haven’t seen my father in 42 years, in 42 years, right? But he’s sitting right there. There he is.” When Rodman played in Manila in 2006, his father, who has lived in the Philippines for decades, came to the game and Rodman refused to acknowledge him — so this moment, with Rodman standing at midcourt, pointing to his dad, and uttering the words “my father” in anything but bitterness and contempt, is a step forward in whatever relationship Rodman wants to have with his father.
The story was picked up in the U.S. press, and it gave us an opportunity to crack jokes about Rodman’s father because he has fathered 29 kids by 16 mothers and his name is Philander and he runs a restaurant in Angeles City called Rodman’s Rainbow Obamaburger and he wears a red hat that says YES DENNIS RODMAN IS MY “SON.” He’s definitely a character, but I think Dennis Rodman was right when he wrote, in I Should Be Dead by Now, “People tell me he’s living in the Philippines and reportedly brags about having a couple of dozen children. What an asshole.”
After Rodman spoke with his father for a few minutes after the game, Philander told local reporters that it was “a dream come true.” Then he said, “If people stop and think, probably the best thing I did for Dennis was not being with him, ’cause maybe if I had been with him, I would’ve wanted him to play football.” Rodman the elder is straight-up rotten. He brags to writers that he “never takes free pussy” and can’t admit that he wronged his one famous son, even after Dennis took a half-step in the way of reconciliation. I’ve had the displeasure of sitting near men like Philander Rodman — crass, leathery sex-pats — on half-day bus and boat rides around the Philippines, and they make my skin crawl. They crow about their sexual prowess and boast that the only Tagalog terms they need to know are puwit, pek-pek, and pla-pla, which I can’t define in this space, but let’s say that they all refer to body parts you find below a woman’s waist. They remain either blissfully oblivious or grotesquely calculating about the fact that they have venue-shopped their way into a country where enough women live in poverty desperate enough to make sleeping with these men a useful survival tactic. When they’re white, they make me ashamed of my skin; when they’re American, they make me ashamed of my country. They’re repugnant.
Family strife is complicated and thorny and ugly, and I’ll never know what goes on inside either Dennis or Philander Rodman’s head, but based on what I do know, I don’t think Rodman’s father deserved what scant recognition his son gave him last week. If Dennis Rodman were one of Philander’s 28 other children and not a Hall of Fame basketball player, his father might not know his name, let alone wear a hat emblazoned with it. But if this father and son were to pick a basketball court anywhere in the world to share a halting and somewhat inscrutable moment of closure, it seems fitting that it would occur in the Philippines, where nearly everything — politics, religion, even TV soap operas — connects to basketball, even when it doesn’t quite make sense.