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Basketball Remains a Huge Part of Philippines Culture

A Filipino street kid imitates a Michael Jordan slam dunk as they play their own kind of basketball at a back street in Manila.

Basketball is the second most popular sport in the world behind football (soccer). The U.S.-born sport is especially popular in Asia, where many fans enjoy following the professional National Basketball Association played in the United States. But basketball has become woven into the cultural fabric of one country where the overall lack of height does not interfere with the love of the game.

Residents of the Philippines are passionate about basketball. "They play on dirt courts and people will build their own baskets, strapping or nailing four two-by-fours (two inch by four inch pieces of wood) to a coconut tree and then making their own rim," said author Rafe Bartholomew who lived in the Philippines between 2005 and 2008 on a U.S. Fulbright grant. Bartholomew has chronicled basketball in the Pacific island nation in a new book, Pacific Rims: Beerman Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.

Bartholomew says basketball has been a part of the Philippines culture for the past century. He said "We think of it as our sport here. And I think it is surprising to a lot of Americans that the Philippines also considers basketball their sport. And that the history of basketball in the Philippines is nearly as long as the history of basketball in America. The American colonial government of the Philippines made basketball part of the public school curriculum in 1910."

From the 1910s to the early 1930s, the Philippines dominated the Far Eastern Games basketball tournament winning 9 of 10 basketball championships. In the 1950s, the Philippine team was among the best basketball teams in the world after winning two consecutive Asian Games basketball gold medals in 1951 and 1954. Professional basketball has been played in the country for the past 40 years.

The average Filipino height is not considered tall, standing at about one meter, 67 centimeters. National Basketball Association players tower by comparison with an average height of slightly more than two meters. Bartholomew says the lack of height has not deterred the local population for enjoying the sport. He says quite the opposite has happened on the court: "The sort of twisting, spinning double clutch layup made at sort of an angle that looks impossible, spun off the backboard, those kind of shots have supplanted the dunk there as sort of the move that shows grace and skill and power and gets all of the 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs.'"

Basketball has become so much a part of the culture in the Philippines that Bartholomew says it has taken meaning throughout life. Bartholomew said "Basketball is sort of a right of passage, especially for young men in the Philippines. As they get older and older, they use basketball to symbolize the steps in maturation from boy to man."

And he says when Filipino males grow older, they use the sport in later life: "A handful have become senators. A lot have become mayors, vice-mayors and city councilors. In turn, basketball because it is so adored in the country, is used by politicians to sort of curry favor with voters."

Beyond politics, Bartholomew says basketball in the Philippines permeates daily life: "You see basketball used to sell everything from vitamin syrup that is supposed to make kids grow taller and be basketball players to margarine that also somehow purports to make people taller. Basketball gets pimped out for a lot of different causes."

One of the beneficiaries is the professional Philippine Basketball Association, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.