MANILA, Philippines — It was 2 1/2 hours before the historic first NBA tipoff in Southeast Asia when the Rockets’ team bus pulled up to the stage door entrance at Mall of Asia Arena and was greeted by a throng of several hundred Filipino fans.
This was the night that the NBA’s most rabid international following had waited more than six decades to see. The hope of catching a glimpse of the stars toting luggage was enough to create a noisy stir.
“Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!” came the chant from behind the barricade. Then it was followed by “Harden! Harden! Harden!”
James Harden, the All-Star guard, had already entered the tunnel and walked up the ramp when he suddenly made a U-turn and went back outside with his cell phone raised to takes videos of the fans with one hand while pumping a fist into the air with the other.
It was thought to be a prelude to the general craziness that would consume the atmosphere out on the court. But the emotional intensity and anticipated craziness never materialized from the crowd of roughly 20,000 that paid anywhere from $13 to just under $800 face value for tickets. An early evening downpour tied up traffic outside the arena. The game began with large blocks of empty seats.
In the end, it was not exactly the Thrilla in Manila.
The in-game atmosphere seemed to be more studying, nodding, learning and taking in the proficiency of the NBA teams than mass hysteria. The Filipino fans rarely came out of their seats. A glimpse throughout the building saw few hands full of snacks, drinks and beers as the fans focused on the event.
Omri Casspi led the Rockets with 17 points, Donatas Motiejunas had 16, while Harden and Chandler Parsons scored 15 points each as the Rockets went wire-to-wire for a 116-96 win. Dwight Howard had seven points, three rebounds and five fouls in 21 minutes. Paul George led the Pacers with 13 points.
There were plenty of red Jeremy Lin jerseys in the crowd, but no more than you’d see during a regular season game at Golden State or Portland. Lin came off the bench and generated the most energy from the fans, especially with a pair of strong drives in the fourth quarter. He finished with 14 points.
There were a number of Pacers fans in the crowd, but the loudest buzz for a member of the Indiana contingent came when team president Larry Bird was on the video screen sitting near mid-court.
The Pacers and Rockets were greeted warmly when both teams took the floor for and received a nice ovation when they were introduced. There were appreciative cheers for 3-pointers made by Paul George and C.J. Watson, shots blocked by Roy Hibbert and slick drives through the lane by Harden. The lines at the temporary NBA Stores set up on the mezzanine level were six and eight deep as fans gobbled up replica Pacers and Rockets jerseys. Most customers came through the cash register lines carrying plastic bags crammed full of merchandise.
“The Philippines has a population of 100 million or so, so they’re a very important part of our Southeast Asian strategy,” commissioner David Stern said during a pre-game press conference. “It is the most intense and robust and knowledgeable basketball market. I was going to say outside of the U.S., but it may lead the world. I’m not sure.”
However, the knowledgeable Filipino fans were far more polite than rabid or noisy, sounding more like an All-Star Game crowd, where the sound of the dribbling ball and the voices of Pacers coach Frank Vogel and the Rockets Kevin McHale could be heard echoing throughout the arena.
As if to prove that they have the attitude to match regular American fans, the crowd finally rose to its collective feet and let out a roar for giveaway promotions — NBA 2K posters and t-shirts — during a couple of second-quarter timeouts.
The controlled enthusiasm and overall politeness was in keeping with experiences by the two teams during the four days they’d spent in Manila. When George, Hibbert and George Hill of the Pacers and Parsons, Lin and other Rockets went out in public, the Filipino fans were excited and crowded round to get a look and snap photos, but also kept a respectful distance. There was none of the fear-for-your-life frenzy that marked the Rockets’ first visit to China with Yao Ming in 2004. Of course, the din should come Sunday when the teams make the hop across the South China Sea and Lin plays his first game in Taipei.