MANILA, Philippines — When the cabin door on the chartered 747-700 jumbo jet at long last swung open at Ninoy Aquino International Airport following a 8,534-mile, the Rockets stepped out into the smog-filled sunshine and just might have wondered if they’d ever left home.
Dwight Howard, James Harden, Jeremy Lin and their teammates were immediately wrapped in the 87-degree heat and bear-hug humidity of what could have been another morning on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
That would be just as well to the coaches, athletic trainers and support staffs of the Rockets and Pacers teams that will play a pair of games this week in Manila and Taipei. For while the annual Global Games that dot the planet during the preseason schedule are part of the important growing business of the NBA, it is the business of those who handle the players to make sure all that surrounds these barrier-breaking stops in exotic locales is as close as possible to another night in an NBA city.
The phalanx of police officers, security personnel and airport workers that lined the tarmac to see the NBA stars disembark was enthusiastic, yet polite while wavering, jumping up and down and snapping photos with their smart phones. But the interactions with the public in this basketball-mad nation would wait for later as the Rockets boarded their team bus and headed straight to the new Mall of Asia Arena for an immediate practice before even checking into their hotel.
“It might sound crazy, but it actually felt really good to get out there and run up and down the floor and kind of clear out some of those clogged pipes after spending more than 20 hours on an airplane,” said Rockets forward Chandler Parsons.
That was exactly the intention of Rockets athletic trainer Keith Jones, who wanted to shake the players out their lethargy and begin to fight the effects of jet-lag right away.
“The old saying is that it takes you roughly one day to adjust for every time zone you go through,” Jones said. “We jumped ahead 13 hours, so there’s really no way that we’re going to catch up over here. The trip is only eight days long and we’ll be back at home while most of their bodies are trying to figure this out.
“What we want to do is keep them hydrated, fed properly and try to get them as close as possible to a normal sleeping schedule.”
Eddie Romero, executive chef at the Toyota Center, has made the trip and is monitoring the four meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late snack — served. No dairy, no heavy sauces. Mostly grilled fish, beef and chicken with vegetables, usually cooked in olive oil.
On their short trip to the practice arena, most of the Rockets got their first glimpse of this congested, chaotic capital city. It’s a population of 12 million where a crowded intersection of two six-lane thoroughfares often shares space with tattered laundry hanging from a rope line while a single file line of eight goats come out of some tall weeds and prance into traffic.
It’s a tropical climate where palm trees are found on virtually every block of downtown, sharing space with basketball hoops — some of regulation-sized fiberglass backboards, others nailed haphazardly to poles — around the turn of almost every corner.
“I was in Taiwan just a couple of weeks ago and so I know how crazy, from first-hand experience, those people can get about basketball,” Parsons said. “And from everybody I’ve talked to and the things I’ve heard about, the passion is even more intense here in the Philippines. So, yeah, it’s a little bit inconvenient to make a trip like this at a time when we need every day to build some chemistry and try to come together to challenge for a championship.
“But you know what? This is a special cultural experience. There people love our game, love our league. So the least we can do is suck it up and make the most of it. I’m sure by the time Thursday comes and we’re ready to play that first game over here, we’ll be ready. But right now, on this first day, I’m really just trying to stay hydrated, stay fed and stay awake until after the sun goes down. Because right now I’m out on my feet.”