In Philippines, Passion For NBA Runs Deep

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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.

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Fans mob Paul George during his visit to a local basketball court in Pasay City in Manila.

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.

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Jeremy Lin (center) talks with reporters before the Rockets’ practice at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.

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

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Hundreds of fans turn out for a local basketball clinic as part of 2013 Global Games in Manilla, Philippines.

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.

77 Comments

  1. chonun says:

    Please play in Cebu City after the completion of SM Seaside City Arena. :D

  2. oelskie says:

    in a country whose love of basketball is as deep as the ocean…. it was really amazing to have an nba global game here… and yeah it features no less than two of the most exciting teams in the nba… go indiana… go rockets… tough am a heat fan

  3. Mathew Macasadia says:

    THIS ARTICLE PUT ME IN TEARS

  4. JCVS101 says:

    Basketball is the 2nd religion of the island. Jordan blazed the trail for the NBA in that part of the world. Imitation jerseys of the GOAT can be seen in the most far flung of areas.

  5. darko says:

    There’s a big Phillipino community in Israel, with a fine league of their own. On the playgrounds of Jerusalem, the styles of Phillipino players and Israelis mesh pretty well. I grew up in the midwest and live in NYC now, but for smart basketball with backdoors, give-and-gos, off ball picks &trapping D occurring spontaneously, those games were far and away the best &smartest I’ve played in. Ego-ball didn’t happen much. Every outside shot, cries of “Box out, Box out!” filled the air. . .

  6. Bryan says:

    We LOVE BASKETBALL that’s all. Thank you NBA for giving us like this, Hope next season there is a regular game here in Philippines!! Thank you again! Where Philippines love NBA.

  7. Rocky says:

    I am glad for my countrymen to witness some of the best NBA talents real time. I was awed to see some of the NBA’s finest playing outside of the US as I watched them visit the Raptors at the Air Canada Center in Toronto. Kudos to the NBA. Looks like theres’ no stopping going global now!!!

  8. Don Raul says:

    I remember starting collecting nba cards as young as 10 years old in 1990. Since then im already attached to nba, following updates and now im upgraded,.. Reviewing games how plays had been developed and reading coaches thinking during games.

  9. BahoPuwet says:

    @Fran Blinebury,
    Gr8 article, a fun read.
    Philippines is a basketball crazed country.
    However, to me, the BEST & the GREATEST NBA visit was 1971 or 72, it was comprised of:
    – The Big E (just won scoring & rebounding title the 2 preceding yrs);
    – ‘Black Jesus’ Earl The Pearl Monroe with his unforgettable spin moves which were unique & so special back then;
    – Geoff Petrie (raw & green at the time);
    – playing coach Elgin Baylor;
    – Gail Goodrich (who seemed totally disinterested playing against the locals)
    – Calvin Murphy (an unknown to most of us, including myself….. UNTIL he DUNKED during the game in traffic, all 5-9 of him);
    – the rest of the NBA’ers i can’t remember (can someone help???)
    – If i recall they played 3 games vs. the local national team or a group of all-stars (Jaworski, etc.)
    – that was the FIRST and the BIGGEST and to this day, older fans in the Philippines & abroad are talking about That EVENT.
    Thanks & Salamat.

  10. william says:

    galing tlga!!!

  11. chef chonoy says:

    thanks a lot mr. flineburry we truly appreciate this article.. god bless nba

  12. celentano says:

    filipinos>>>>>santeria>>>>>>miami cheat>>>>lol

  13. Oscar says:

    There’s a reason why the Philippines is considered the mecca of basketball in Asia…We live and breathe basketball….

  14. Nelson Cabrera says:

    Mabuhay ang mga Pilipino… I love this game… :-)

  15. DC says:

    How long ago we knew NBA? When I was a kid, we’d watch NBA broadcasts coming from Clark airbase via UHF since early 80s. We never missed the Celtics-Lakers-Sixers-Pistons Finals live. We recorded everything via betamax. NBA ALL Star games were also a never missed event. By the time the Jordan and Bulls came cable tv was already available…

  16. mj says:

    i been watching the nba since the magic larry rivalry so sad i never got the chance to meet larry in person…even tough i like the lakers i still have a lot of respect for the game of larry bird…

  17. Roy Sausa says:

    We dont care if we loose in soccer or volleybal in International competitions. But we are truly saddened if we loose in Basketball.

  18. Roy Sausa says:

    In Asia, only Filipinos plays very much like the NBA.

  19. Old Pinoy says:

    In 1954 the Philipines won bronze in FIBA World Championship in Brazil. The team was led by its center, Carlos Loyzaga. I grew up watching Loyzaga play and later coached. Basketball was already big in the Philippines even before MJ, Magic, Dr J, Bird etc. They (with help from TV, cable, satellite, the Internet) certainly made it bigger. David Stern’s push towards Asia was not the reason for this BBall craziness because we were already crazy since the 1950s. I remember, as boy growing up in the 1960s, our small town always had a basketball tournament for the annual town fiesta. It was not soccer, not baseball, not bicycle racing. Alas we are short people (Carlos Loyzaga was only a 6’3″ center) so today, the rest of the world don’t know much about how good we are at this tall man’s game.

  20. Raptor says:

    Hope 2014 – 2015 NBA brings any of the teams – NY, BRK, MIA, OKC, LAC, SAS.
    pre season is ok..hehehe..but I hope next year it is a bearing game.

    Support Team Pilipinas – 2014 FIBA World Cup

    Raptor

  21. Im better in playing basketball FYI

  22. nanz says:

    hmmmnnn, wow! to Mr. Fran Blinebury, a sudden change of tone huh,,,your previous article yesterday before this was a little bit insulting and way way out of the line for Manilenos and for Filipinos as a whole to take. Anyways, hope we should be responsible and sensible with what we write in our blogs next time.

  23. marvzky says:

    yeah right… basketball is in the blood of every Filipinos like me…bring it on…

  24. tad says:

    man if THE GOAT ever decides to visit the Philippines, all hell breaks loose! dang!

  25. taylor says:

    This is it! I Love this game Philippines loves NBA! I hope next year will be Miami vs Lakers.

  26. Jugular says:

    Yup we we’re born with a basketball ball

  27. heatguard#3 says:

    dala yu nala kening sm pampanga ren !!!! :D

  28. heatguard#3 says:

    love for the game in phil is cray !!!!

  29. BBALLNVSTPS says:

    You got it straight sir! Thanks! The NBA should be treated back! They should also see our local players in action so that they will see that we Filipinos have game and can ball we just lack height. They should see GINEBRA Games and La Salle Ateneo and San Beda Baste games!!! Hair-raising crowds!

  30. brio says:

    Michael Jordan is the best..that’s why basketball has so much love her in Philippines…It is Because of MICHAEL JORDAN…Not Kobe, Not Lebron……..

  31. brio says:

    Welcome to the Philippines NBA…bring Carmelo Next Year….

  32. Marc Pajo says:

    “Basketball Never Stops” That would be evident here. . . I’m a victim of Typhoon Sendong. We made shelter in our basketball court after the flood when our houses were half filled with mud… First had the court not our homes, cleaned… SO WE COULD PLAY!!!

  33. DIE HARD BULLS FAN says:

    for sure bandwagons will be there especially those lakers fans who tend to be rockets fans because of Harden and Howard ..just saying :) anyway welcome to the Philippines :)

  34. ed d. fajardo says:

    That’s the kind of people we are, folks! Only in the Philippines!

  35. TheAll-Star136 says:

    I’m proud to be a Filipino.
    DO MORE NBA PRESEASON GAMES IN THE PHILIPPINES!

  36. Sonny says:

    I used to wake up to watch a live Finals game back
    in the late 80’s. Now, NBA is live in town….WOW

  37. YEAH YEAH says:

    FILIPINO PRIDE! THANKS NBA!

  38. KC says:

    It’s Cuneta Astrodome, not Cuneto. Thanks! :-)

  39. Noy Noy says:

    I am Fiipino who lives in Sydney, I am jealous to the other filipinos right now who are experiencing the NBA in Manila Philippines. I wish NBA to tour in Australia to play couple of NBA pre season games.

  40. Jerol Crocko says:

    LAKERS NATION;,)

  41. Jesil Boy says:

    I hope the La Lakers will be coming too. Kobe the best.

  42. majaluki says:

    In Poland – we still love NBA ;)

  43. armydreamer says:

    yeah!! tell all our corrupt gov’t just play basketball not the resources of the Filipino people! I Really Loves This Game…wooohhoooo!!

  44. Chuck says:

    Saying Filipinos are basketball fans is an understatement. NBA players are idolized. Philippine b-ball pros are revered. Even neighborhood ballers in the barrios can become celebrities. Glad Mr. Blinebury wrote about what has been a fact for so many decades–Filipinos just love this game!

  45. Kamote says:

    Its just funny how Fran keeps his job LOL.LARRY BIRD!!!

  46. baller101 says:

    its so nice having the NBA finally hold an event here in the Philippines…Filipinos are indeed basketball crazy people…we love this game! i hope the NBA can stage more events for our country…thanks! \m/,

  47. Whintudz says:

    We love nba. We Filipinos thanks David stern to make this event posible…. Salamat!

  48. Cripple Rapist says:

    Philippines Is Asia’s Basketball Mecca…. I’m not claiming… Just Ask National Geographics about that… It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, Everyone knows how to ball…. Doesn’t matter if your good or not, All I know is everyone loves the game of Basketball…. from 5 year old boy to 65 year adult, Basketball is the most popular game in the Philippines…..

  49. Reach says:

    It’s for the love the game! I’m a Filipino-Canadian based out of Toronto, and I have to say no matter what country you go to, Filipinos know there basketball! I’m currently in 4 Fantasy Leagues, and this not only enhances our knowledge of each player but allows us to become true fans and followers of the NBA!

    TORONTO RAPTORS will be up and coming this year!

    pinoy pride
    Reach

  50. JAMES YAP says:

    NBA is always welcome here in the philippines.

  51. Darwin says:

    Nobody knows Jason caffey of Chicago bulls.. lol.. but anyways that’s how Filipino love basketball they know a lot of players even they are not star.. who knows fab melo here..lol

  52. tan thuan kee says:

    when will nba teams visit Malaysia? There are many nba fans here too. Btw I met Brooke Lopez recently at the Singapore comic con and got a few cards autographed

  53. basics says:

    basketball all the way..

  54. woooo! says:

    basketball is big here! i remember watching MJ on the tv beating the jazz when i was still 4 years old! it’s part of philippine culture indeed!

  55. astro says:

    it’s actually cuneta* astrodome

  56. FrankL2010 says:

    This article is a lot better now Mr. Blinebury, and to be honest I really did not like what you have written yesterday. Philippines is a basketball crazy nation and that runs in our blood even if we are now living abroad. Kudos!

  57. chris says:

    Long before the ankle breaker, cross-over, tear drops, lob, throw down etc…..Filipinos were already watching sky-hooks, finger layups, dunks, showtime, run TMC, etc of the old NBA. Its just fitting for Philippines to be acknowledge by the NBA (more that any other asian nation). We’re the only true blue basketball country in Asia (and perhaps the whole world outside USA),

  58. 70's kid says:

    I hope someday MJ will visit the country. oh man

    • :) says:

      wait for this december

      • Enteng says:

        I was born 1983, and the first thing I know about basketball is Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Everytime I tried to shoot everywhere, and dunk my small ball on wall or top of the door, I always say those guys names. Hahaha.

        If Michael will come to town, It would be much bigger than this I think. Even bigger than K O B E ^^. Love Kobe, but Michael is still my idol!

  59. FromFB says:

    I hope the commentators of the game was from Sports5 para pag-tira na Harden..
    “James Harden for THREEE…… BAAAAAANG!!! May kasama pang foul….” haha..:)

  60. Well said ... says:

    Well said mr blinebury. Thank you. mabuhay NBA, mabuhay Pilipinas!

  61. Erwin says:

    It’s funny how we’ve fallen so madly in love with a game we’re so ill suited for and one that we will never be among the best in the world at; perhaps if the Americans had introduced gymnastics or diving.

  62. hoopers says:

    Jordan AND cable brought the nba to me!!!

  63. king romano says:

    i am a filipino entrepreneur based in dubai but am testament to how true and pure our love for basketball and the nba is. i am excited for the fans in manila to see the teams and stars play. basketball is intertwined in philippine culture and the inspiration drawn from the nba and these games goes beyond sport. it gives kids focus on excellence and promotes the concept of team, which may otherwise not develop in most cases where the youth is lost in waywardness in a challenged life.

    the country may be advancing from its third-world status, but the love of basketball and the nba in the philippines is first-rate.

  64. B Radd says:

    OnE-LuV to Pampanga’s finest! Soooo… Glad the motherland can be recognized. I luv this article and can really relate!!! NBA lifer!!!

  65. larrie james remegio says:

    This article sent goosebumps all over my body. It is so overwhelming reading those compliments about our country. Thank you NBA..

  66. Tidz says:

    filipinos are true basketball fans.. even if a guy is an NBA bench warmer, people in the philippines might even know who he is

  67. Buangathisguy says:

    This is my first post at NBA.com ever!I signed in just to comment to this piece! Thank you Fan Blineburry for this feature. Even though your previous post was not so okay with me. :P

    Like all other young Filipinos, I feel in love with the Game of Basketball first before i ever had my first crush and girlfriend. We Pinoys have an unlikely love affair with Basketball. That is why,. I LOVE THIS GAME! ^^

  68. Lux says:

    Thanks NBA for letting this happen. Filipinos will never forget this event. We’re hoping for another NBA GLOBAL GAMES here in the Philippines.

  69. ron says:

    thanks

  70. lol says:

    they also have alot of heat bandwagoners

  71. Paparox says:

    Larry, your a legend mann…Thanks for visiting our place.NBA Rockssssssss..!!!

  72. Neil Patrick Tan says:

    yeah…hoops love in the Philippines is immeasurable…