For the many NBA players and coaches who have participated in the league’s outreach programs through the years, there’s a familiar feel to many of their global stops. The players are recognizable to the locals, exotic in some ways, but mostly they’re simply famous. There’s little to distinguish the oohs and aahs a Kevin Durant might hear from those triggered by a Kardashian.
Except, it seems, in the Philippines.
“When we bring players or legends or coaches over to the Philippines, we often prep them that they’re not going to get ‘What did you eat for breakfast?’ questions,” said Scott Levy, senior vice president and managing director of NBA Asia. “They’re going to get ‘Why did you take out LeBron James in the third quarter with an eight-point lead when momentum was shifting against your team?’ It’s incredibly detailed, incredibly knowledgeable, and people there follow the entire league.”
The rabid interest in basketball and the NBA in particular spilled over earlier this week with the news that the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers will play a preseason game Oct. 10 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Manila. Announced by commissioner David Stern on the arena’s Jumbotron, the event will be one of eight October games staged in six different countries, none with a more intense NBA following than this nation of 92 million in the western Pacific Ocean.
The Rockets-Pacers visit will be the first sanctioned NBA game in the Philippines since 1979, when the Washington Bullets traveled there to face a team of national All-Stars. But the Philippines Basketball Association predated that event by several years and the sport, Levy said, has roots there dating to the late 19th Century.
The NBA’s popularity rivals that of native boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. More Facebook “likes “and Twitter “follows” of the league and its participants come from the Philippines than from any other nation outside the U.S. Thirty games are available on free and cable TV each week there, with League Pass and an NBA.com Web site specific to that country both available. Billboards and buses tout the game.
“You really get a feel for it when you go into the country,” said Levy, who has worked with the NBA’s international division since 1996 and been based in Hong Kong since 2009. “I mean, there’s a basketball hoop in every corner, everywhere throughout the country. And often those hoops are made of plywood and wire rims.
“There are some great photos of kids playing during the floods and they’re waist-deep in water. They’re playing in flip-flops, they’re playing on dirt courts. There’s no community that I’ve seen — and I’ve traveled extensively around the country — that doesn’t have a court. And I’ve never seen a court unused.”
Through its Basketball Without Borders program and other outreach efforts, the NBA is familiar with the sort of poverty and deprivation that make attendance at one of its games — including the upcoming one — strictly a dream for many Filipinos. The league hadn’t returned to stage a game in 34 years because, until the MOA Arena opened in May, the facilities were inadequate.
But Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who is half-Filipino (his mother is frpom San Pablo, Laguna), has traveled to his homeland in each of the past four offseasons. Last summer, he brough the Larry O’Brien trophy with him, celebrating Miami’s championship with the fans, many of whom now are fans of the Heat.
“It staggers our players how popular the NBA is here, 10,000 miles away,” Spoelstra said during his 2012 visit.
And last week, of the October exhibition, the Heat coach said: “It’s awesome. The country will probably celebrate every single month until that game. The two teams that will be going there I think will have a great experience because the fans are incredible.”
Numerous NBA players past and present have visited the country and, Levy said, been stunned by the reception. Among them: Brook Lopez, Gary Payton, Chris Webber, Mitch Richmond, Robert Horry, Glen Rice, Dominique Wilkins and Luc Longley. “They all have the same reaction,” Levy said. “They never understood the awareness. They come over and expect they’ll be known, but they never anticipated how well they’d be known, how they’d be recognized on the street, how long the lines would be to get an autograph or take a photo.”
The best-known NBA export to play in the PBA probably was Billy Ray Bates, a 6-foot-4 guard best remembered for his three seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers in the early 1980s. “He’s an incredible hero there,” Levy said. “There are guys like Donnell Harvey, guys who had a cup of coffee in the NBA and are there now. They [allow] imports in the PBA, so there are guys who played in the D League.”
As far as players there coming to play in the NBA? No one yet. But Japeth Aguilar, a 6-foot-9 forward, attracted the attention of some NBA scouts and got a training camp invite for the Santa Cruz Warriors. And even without getting into the basketball analytics of Filipino basketball, Levy said the math looks favorable.
“With the number of people who play the game in the country,” he said, “in a country of nearly 100 million people, you would think there would be some talent coming out of there that would be NBA-ready.”