MANILA, Philippines – It could have been the high-pitched busload of school kids that shrieked its giddy joy and approval as they passed by on the traffic circle while All-Stars Dwight Howard, James Harden and the rest of the Rockets were lining up for a team photo in front of the giant-sized steel globe outside the Mall of Asia.
It could have been the pulsing throng of photographers and well-wishers that swarmed and followed Hall of Fame legend Larry Bird’s every step, even two decades past his retirement, now just trying to find his way to a team bus in his current role as Pacers president of basketball operations.
But to truly get to the depth of the passion Filipinos possess for the NBA, one needed to look no further than the jubilant crowd inside the Cuneto Astrodome. The cozy gym in the Pasay City section of Manila, which regularly hosts neighborhood rec league play, was interrupted during an afternoon “drop-in” visit by George Hill, Paul George and Jalen Rose.
A young bespectacled fellow was standing almost slack-jawed at courtside.
“Oh man, I’ve been following George Hill since his days at IUPUI,” said 24-year-old Lorenzo Hortaleza. “The San Antonio Spurs have been my favorite team since 1999 and I was excited when they drafted him a few years ago. I was disappointed at first when they traded him to Indiana, but now it gives me a reason to be a fan of the Pacers, too.
That half a world away somebody actually had taken notice of a player from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis would be generally regarded as surprise. That is, anywhere but in the basketball-mad nation of the Philippines where the game is as much a staple as lumpia and pancit.
Love of basketball woven into everyday life
When the Rockets traveled less than a decade ago to Beijing and Shanghai to play a pair of preseason games against the Kings, it was mostly an acknowledgement and celebratory homecoming for 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming. As the same time, the league was making a foothold in the China market, where the first live broadcast of an NBA game had been the 1994 Finals between Houston and New York.
However, long before it became fashionable to pull on NBA shirts, jackets and assorted merchandise in China and the rest of Asia, the NBA had an established passionate following in the Philippines that frankly outstrips the rest of the world — even as commissioner David Stern continues to plant the NBA’s marketing flag in every far corner of the planet.
This year’s Global Games are part of the largest schedule of international games with 12 teams playing 10 games in 10 cities in seven countries. The league is playing games for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Bilboa, Spain and Manchester, England. But here in Manila, the wait has been the longest and the interest runs deeper than the Marianas Trench.
The raw numbers don’t lie. NBA.com gets more page views and the league’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter has more “likes” and “follows” from the Philippines than any country outside the United States. The Facebook page of the two-time defending champion Heat has more “likes” from Manila than from Miami, in part due to the Filipino roots of coach Erik Spoelstra.
But the level of interest in the game is about far more than just one favorite son. The sport that was reportedly introduced by American missionaries more than a century ago has been an integral part of the sports fabric of the Philippines since the 1930s.
“The only reason I know a little about that is because I have a neighbor who’s Filipino and he’s often asked me to sign things for him to send back here to friends and relatives,” said Pacers forward David West. “Even then, it’s one thing to think that somebody has a group that follows the NBA. It’s entirely different to hear the numbers about the support we get from the Philippines. It’s staggering. It’s humbling. It gives these games that we’re going to be playing here a little bit more weight, even tough it’s preseason. These people have waited a long, long time to see something like this, to have us here. It’s important that we honor their commitment to us.”
The league has been sending emissaries here since 1975 when Knicks legend Walt Frazier headed up a team of NBA players. Eight members of the 1979 Washington Bullets championship team visited, Shaquille O’Neal led a dunking delegation in 1997 and in 2011 it was an All-Star collection that included Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Harden.
Even though Thursday’s game (7:30 AM ET, NBA TV) does not count in the regular-season standings, it is a significant step of progress and recognition for what has long been the league’s hotbed of international interest.
“This means everything to us,” said Glenn Agranzamendez, 35, who plays regularly in the games at the Cuneta Astrodome. “This is a country that loves sports. We love boxing, Manny Pacquiao. But basketball is by far the most popular sport, the favorite of the country. You should have seen what it was like here when we had the Asian Championship in Manila this summer.”
The Philippines posted a 7-2 record overall, lost to Iran in the finals and qualified for a spot in the FIBA World Championship in 2014.
“It was craziness,” Agranzamendez said. “It was like bedlam everywhere. This place is crazy about basketball.”
It is a place where basketball goals — regulation size or makeshift backboards — can be found around almost every corner. It’s also where, as Rafe Bartholomew noted in his book, Pacific Rims: Beerman Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair With Basketball, your average street game can find amazing moves made often in bare feet or sandals by a population where the average height is 5-foot-5.
There is a devoted following of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), which plays assorted competitions virtually year-round.
Manila is a city where basketball is ubiquitous. The dozens of players ranging from four years old to their forties who took part in shooting games with Hill, George and Rose on Tuesday wore an assortment of jerseys that represented the Rockets, Nuggets, Nets, Lakers, Bulls and even one throwback Sonics number.
Fans more than just star-watchers
When a group of Rockets players went cruising through the Mall of Asia on a sightseeing expedition Monday night, they were recognized and followed immediately. Of course, it probably didn’t help that Donatas Motiejunas wore a Rockets practice shirt.
“Yeah, he kind of gave us away,” said Jeremy Lin, who had tried to go incognito with a ball cap pulled down over his face. “We gave him a little grief about that.”
It is a far cry from 1988 when Rockets coach Kevin McHale was a member of the Celtics team that played in the first preseason international game, the McDonald’s Cup, held in Spain.
“Yeah, we did the first global trip and I don’t think anybody at that time ever envisioned coming one day over to the Philippines or going to Taiwan and how huge the NBA would become globally,” McHale said. “I think it’s great for the game. I think our guys get exposed to a whole new culture. It’s something that a lot of guys, if they didn’t take a trip here with the Houston Rockets or Indiana Pacers, in their whole lives would never get to this part of the world. I think it’s good. I’m amazed at where the NBA has grown from the fall of 1980 when I entered the league as a rookie.
“When we were in Spain, whatever year that was, I was real surprised that there were fans there that had Celtics jerseys and the kind of knowledge they had about us. They weren’t just wearing the shirts. They were fan-fans.
“Hey, I got in the league in the fall of 1980 and in my first time to play in The Finals (1981) it was taped delayed and my parents couldn’t even watch it how. So I’m thinking, ‘How in the hell could those people in Spain watch it and know who we are?’
“One thing that surprised me was the amount of Celtics jerseys and stuff that followed us around. Look, maybe at the time there were really only 500 Celtic fans in all of Spain and it just so happened they all came out at once to see us. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, to see this stuff now, to see the reception we’re getting halfway around the world in the Philippines, wow, it makes you shake your head. Somebody’s doing something right.”
Since the days of Yao as the symbolic tall bridge across the Pacific to a burgeoning Asian market, the NBA has held more than 125 international events in 27 different countries and 67 cities. The league has 125,000 retail locations in 100 countries and a commercial presence on every continent except Antarctica.
Now, decades after the average Filipino sports fan engaged in the classic Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird rivalry and debate, the NBA has finally come to Manila for the most practical of business reasons — the shiny Mall of Asia Arena that opened in 2012. All around the world, the Global Games are tipping off in far-flung cities with NBA-caliber arenas, complete with luxury suites. Ticket prices for the Rockets and Pacers run as high as $700 for the best seats, a price that is well beyond the means of most of the citizens. Yet, the game will be sold out.
It is quite one thing for a bus load of school kids to recognize stars such as Howard, Harden and Lin. But stand outside the team bus as the players disembark for practice and listen to one nearby arena worker who has nudged a companion.
“Look, that’s Patrick Beverley,” he said.
The NBA passion here truly runs deep.