Words and photos by Rafe Bartholomew
On this side of the Pacific, if you aren’t Filipino or you’ve never been to the Philippines, chances are your knowledge of the Southeast Asian nation is limited to some combination of these oft-repeated semi-truths: Manny Pacquiao—Philippine congressman and the world’s best prize fighter—is Taz incarnate, a whirlwind of footwork and bolo punches, who overwhelms every purportedly tough customer his promoters place in front of him; if your American behind wanders into certain parts of the Southern Philippines, there’s a chance you might spend the next several months with your wrists bound behind your back while your family raises ransom money; and finally, former First Lady Imelda Marcos had a thousands-deep shoe collection that makes her a precursor to the modern sneakerhead.
One thing you probably have not heard about the Philippines is that its citizens nurse the world’s most flagrant “Basketball Jones.” That if 20 million people lay their heads in Metro Manila and its surrounding environs, probably ten million of them are, like the Cheech and Chong hero Tyrone Shoelaces, having visions of going one-on-one against the world, dribbling with their tongues and shooting hook shots with their eyebrows.
Hoops have been a part of Philippine sporting culture since 1910, when the American colonial government made basketball part of the phys-ed curriculum in the archipelago’s newly established public school system. The Philippines is the only Asian nation to have medaled in a major international tournament, earning bronze in the 1954 FIBA World Championships. The domestic league, the Philippine Basketball Association, is one of the oldest in the world, second only to the NBA.
Trophies and associations only tell half the story of basketball’s grip on the Philippines. You begin to understand how deeply ingrained the sport is when you see its stamp in all kinds of unexpected places. Indeed, it’s hard to find a nook or cranny of Philippine society that basketball hasn’t wormed itself into. Here are just a couple examples from pop music.
The staple basketball shoe in the Philippines isn’t Hyperdunks or even Philippine knockoffs of K-Mart’s discount Protege kicks, but flip-flops. The word tsinelas, borrowed from the Spanish chinela for “slipper,” has worked its way into Tagalog and the other major Philippine languages to refer to the thong sandals worn by Manileños and probinsyanos alike. Whether men drive jeepneys through diesel-choked streets or ride water buffaloes on bucolic rice fields, chances are they do so while sporting flip-flops. And when the work day ends, these men find themselves at a basketball court, getting ready to put their flimsy rubber slippers to the ultimate test.
What’s astounding to Western eyes is how Filipino players maneuver in their tsinelas. They sprint, juke, change directions, stop on a dime, and showcase Spud Webb-type hops. The few times I tried to play in flip-flops I was too consumed by visions of buckled ankles, knees swollen like buttermilk squashes, and compound fractures to pay attention to the game. I was petrified, and just about every non-Filipino I knew in Manila—from casual players with small college experience like myself to former D-1 stars who reinforced local pro teams—evinced wonder at the locals’ ability to ball in basically bare feet, and sometimes in actually bare feet. It’s not far-fetched to say that if the PBA All-Stars challenged the NBA All-Stars to a tsinelas match, LeBron and company would be toast.
That’s where the song “Air Tsinelas” comes in. The 1994 half-Tagalog, half-English track by the Manila rap duo Legit Misfitz is an anthem to Philippine street basketball. A standard-issue boom-bap drumline and a horn sample that sounds like something Pete Rock left on the cutting-room floor probably prevent “Air Tsinelas” from being a hip-hop classic, but the subject matter and the MCs’ enthusiasm makes me think of this as the Philippine answer to “My Adidas.” Rappers Dash and Jhego spend most of the track comparing their tsinela-clad skills to the games of local hoops legends: “Blastin’ past your ass like Benjie Paras” and “Doin’ elegant shots like El Presidente,” the latter a reference to Ramon Fernandez, the premier center of his generation, and his signature move, a practically un-blockable teardrop in the lane. Then they get to the hook:
Patas sa Adidas, ang aming tsinelas
Patas sa Puma, ang aming tsinelas
Patas sa Nike, ang aming tsinelas
Sa aming tsinelas, hindi nadudulas
Our tsinelas are as good as Adidas
Our tsinelas are as good as Puma
Our tsinelas are as good as Nike
In our tsinelas, we don’t slip
That’s no exaggeration. Anyone who’s played a pick-up game in Manila has seen guys who ball as well in bare or barely covered feet as they do in Jordans. They don’t slip. No image encapsulates the Philippine passion for hoops as perfectly as the kid skying for a layup in his flip-flops. “Forget sneakers. Forget hardwood. Hell, forget cement. Give me a ball and a rim and I got this.”
Gary Granada’s Ginebra Ballads
If you go to a lot of PBA games, you start to notice a pattern in the crowd. When teams like the Powerade Tigers and Air21 Express play, the arena is only half-full. Sometimes, when squads without huge followings play each other in the 4:45 PM opening game of a Wednesday doubleheader, you might be one of only 500 or so people in the 15,000-capacity Araneta Coliseum. It feels pretty deflating—watching a pro basketball game surrounded by empty seats, listening to the sound of each dribble echo in the rafters and the blistering rants of a drunk who bought a 50-peso (about one dollar) seat so he could get out of the rain. You start to wonder if this country is really such a basketball hotbed.
Then you go to a Ginebra game and all doubts are laid to rest. Long before the Ginebra Kings, a franchise owned by one of the Philippines’ most popular and inexpensive brands of gin (in some roadside general stores it’s sold in one-shot plastic pouches for less than a quarter), take the court, the arena is packed. Ginebra fans will not only cram into the seats, but also the stairways, the vestibules where the hallways open up into the stands, and—if it’s a provincial game taking place in a smaller gym—the windowsills. A few years ago, when Air21 was preparing to face Ginebra in the Finals, Air21’s coach described the upcoming series as them “against the Philippines.”
What makes an entire basketball-loving country favor one team so heavily? Not to discount the import of a cheap snort of liquor, but it ain’t the gin. For the better part of three decades, Ginebra has stood for a philosophy, the “never say die” ethos the team absorbed from Robert “The Big J” Jaworski, Philippine basketball’s brightest star. The 6’1’’ player-coach kept himself on the active roster and checked himself in for crunch time minutes until he left the team in 1998, when he was 52 years old, and even then he didn’t officially retire; he merely took a leave of absence to focus on his duties as a newly elected Senator. His charisma was without limits. With fans, he was gracious and humble, staying for hours after nearly every game and practice to sign autographs and pose for pictures. On the court he was a bastard in the best way, never backing down from any challenge and egging on his teammates to heed the crowd’s “Gee-neh-bra!” chant and go after the win like feral dogs snarling over a leftover scrap of pork fat. Jaworski wasn’t above planting an elbow in an opponent’s chest or instructing one of his players to ram a knee into another guy’s thigh, but he knew how to pick his moments, so that even when he was dirty, the crowd was on his side. Throughout his career, Jaworski implored, cajoled, and intimidated relatively untalented Ginebra rosters to near-championship seasons. The Philippine masses identified with these scrappy underdogs and loved them as much for their near misses as for their few titles.
Now, more than ten years after Jaworski left the team, Ginebra is one of the PBA’s glamour teams, stocked with high-priced talent. It’s nothing like the longshot teams of old, but the fans remain. Out of habit, out of loyalty…because of Jaworski.
Somehow, an alt-rock crooner named Gary Granada became the voice of Ginebra. In the mid-’90s, during the height of Jaworski and the “never say die” Ginebra team’s fame, Granada recorded “Pag Nananalo ang Ginebra” and “Pag Natatalo ang Ginebra” (“When Ginebra Wins” and “When Ginebra Loses”), about the joy and heartbreak of being a Ginebra fan. Every few years he rereleases the song using the same music and melody and reworking the lyrics around a new roster. Somehow these hokey ditties have become theme music for one of Philippine basketball’s most rabid fan bases, a group once known for peppering the court with coins and AAA batteries when a referee ticked them off. Here’s the chorus from one of Granada’s renditions (the loose translation is mine):
Pagbigyan nyo na ako
Paminsan minsan lang ito
Gumaan ang nabibigatang puso
Pagbigyan nyo na ako
Kahit na kahit na paano
Sumaya nang bahagya itong mundo
Please indulge me
I’m only like this once in a while
My burdened heart is lifted
Please indulge me
This world feels slightly happier
Gary Granada is singing about one team, but he might as well be singing about basketball in general and the role it plays in the lives of so many Filipinos.