Filipino Heritage Month: Basketball is more than just a game

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The game was tied at eight apiece. My team was on a roll after giving up the first five points of the game. Jake Pacios stood at the point after we managed a defensive stop at the other end. Our point guard dished to Jake. For a fleeting moment, he saw an opening to pass the ball to me. The moment passed. Jake took a shot from beyond the arc…and down it went! Just like that, Jake won us our first game in a best of two.

Dr. Bonnie Henry’s most recent easing of pandemic restrictions allowed outdoor sports like pickup basketball to resume again. As a result, every Monday and Wednesday, the Columbia Valley Basketball League meets at the Mount Nelson Athletic Park courts. Anyone can play, and there is no charge.

This article is the first in a multipart series exploring the role basketball places in the Columbia Valley’s Filipino community. For the month of June, Canadians are celebrating Filipino Heritage Month. What better way to explore the roots of Filipino culture than to examine it through the lens of basketball? Basketball to Filipinos is hockey to Canadians, Football to Americans, soccer to Brazilians. Yes, basketball is that much a part of Filipino culture. Why, you may ask? This article aims to answer that question.

Some things unite a nation. For some, it’s culture. For others, sports. In the Philippines, the sport most unifying without question is basketball. “It’s often described as a religion,” said Carlo Roy Singson in a June 2019 New York Times article. Carlo is the managing director of NBA Philippines. In the Philippines, basketball transcends age, gender, social class and generations. “It’s absolutely huge,” confirmed my Filipino teammate Jake Pacios.

Visit the Philippines, and you will find that basketball is everywhere – played anytime, anywhere, with anybody and in any form. When I was travelling through the Philippines in May of 2014, there wasn’t a single television that didn’t broadcast the NBA playoffs.

From the courts in schools to public courts and hoops found on every street corner, you can see or hear it: a ball being dribbled, players calling for a pass, the sound of a swoosh. Like anywhere, Filipinos play basketball to socialize. And if they are not playing, they are either watching a professional basketball game, or they’re talking about it with friends and even strangers.

Before we started our game, Jake Pacios was in a lively discussion with another teammate about the thrilling first-round NBA playoff series between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets. “Did you see [Damian] Lillard’s shot?” remarked Jake. “Insane!”

Basketball is more than a sport in the Philippines. It’s also a commercial phenomenon. Billboards, print advertisements and television ads all over the country feature the sport. But how did it get this way?

The roots of Filipino basketball began when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. A large facet of the introduction of the game was Christian missionaries, who were part of the YMCA.

The game’s inventor, a Canadian by the name of James Naismith, conceived of the sport at what was then known as the International YMCA. Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1910, the American colonial government made basketball a part of the physical education curriculum in all Filipino schools. The Philippines was one of the world’s first nations to play basketball.

Of the 105 million Filipinos, nearly forty million of those play or have played the game. Reports suggest over eighty percent of the urban population claim to be basketball fans, with almost half of those being avid fans.

Professional basketball tournaments run through most of the year. And then there are the smaller leagues, including semi-professional, collegiate and university leagues and various school basketball leagues within and near Metro Manila. According to a research report released by Nike, the university league is the biggest and most popular in the country, and young, up-and-coming players aspire to join this league more than their local professional league.

“Casual leagues also abound,” the report noted. “Organized by an office building’s management, pulling together tenants and companies to participate in tournaments and even inter-office tournaments. There are also inter-district tournaments, senior tournaments as well as friendlies and shootout games.”

There you have it. In the Philippines, basketball is everywhere. And for Filipino Canadians like Jake Pacios, playing weeknight pickup games abroad undoubtedly serves as connective tissue to back home.

James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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