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Books | Sports

May 30, 2010

Filipino Hoop Dreams

When he spent three years in the Philippines, writer Rafe Bartholomew found a basketball-mad nation in which the sport is deeply enmeshed in culture and politics.

Justin Adler

Rafe Bartholomew weaves his way through the bustling Filipino restaurant Café 81 in New York's East Village. His fair skin, blonde hair, and 10-inch height advantage over every other restaurant patron leave him with no chance at blending in. Yet Bartholomew is at home in Café 81, as he seems to have found the perfect balance between his youth, spent in Lower Manhattan; and the Philippines, his adopted home for three years.

Rafe Bartholomew. Photo by Lauren Manalang.
"Basketball appeared to be a unifying force in a country that is divided linguistically and regionally."

Rafe Bartholomew. Photo by Lauren Manalang.

He greets every employee in fluent Tagalog as they greet him with a handshake and a hug. Within 30 seconds of sitting down, Red Horse Malt Liquor—traditional Filipino beer—is placed in front of him.

Bartholomew takes a sip and then starts to explain to me his transition from basketball fiend to Fulbright scholar to author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair With Basketball. The book is a comprehensive study that covers every imaginable component of the Philippines' vibrant basketball culture.

"Basketball appeared to be a unifying force in a country that is divided linguistically, regionally, and in so many other ways," Bartholomew says. "Basketball was a very rare common ground for people. It was an incredible way to learn about Filipino identity and history."

After receiving his bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, Bartholomew grappled with the same dilemma that many college graduates face. "If I couldn't figure out something [else to do], I was going to have to get a job and I knew I did not want to do that," Bartholomew says. After talking to a career advisor, Bartholomew decided he would apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study basketball in the Philippines.

"The biggest challenge for my application was convincing a Fulbright board this was serious enough," says Bartholomew, who first learned of the Philippines' passion for basketball in Alexander Wolff's Big Game, Small World.

Bartholomew got the Fulbright and arrived in the Philippines, where he found a hoops-addicted culture that surpassed his own expectations. From the moment his plane landed, people seemed to be boxing each other out at the luggage carousel much like Dwight Howard positions himself for a rebound. As Bartholomew traveled to Quezon City, where he planned to live, he noticed that almost every jeepney—a kind of minivan used for public transit—was decorated with a tribute to basketball.

"There were basketball courts everywhere," Bartholomew recalls. "One time I rode on the back of a motorcycle up the side of a volcano on this narrow dirt road, and when I got to the top there was a gorgeous concrete court with glass backboards and breakaway rims. I still have no idea how they got it up there."

Pacific Rims tackles many of the sport's dark sides, such the plethora of local courts built by government officials who used basketball to win the public's favor and distract from their corrupt practices.

The Philippine Basketball Association, the local equivalent of the NBA, also isn't immune to nefarious conduct, as it owes much of its popularity to the notorious former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos.

During Marcos's rule, on Filipino TV the non-sports programming generally was "very milquetoast, almost vapid entertainment to keep people's minds off martial law and the other excesses of the Marcos regime," Bartholomew says. "There were only a few stations, and basketball played on one of them three times a week. When it was on, most sets were tuned to the PBA."

In his three years studying the game's important role in the Philippines, Bartholomew became well-known within many local basketball circles, as he traveled with the PBA's Alaska Aces and played pickup ball nearly every day with anyone willing to play with him.

Bartholomew also stumbled into small-time television fame after his role on the show Bakekang: He played a racist who sleeps with the show's main character before kicking her out of his bed and calling her an "ugly Jungle Book bitch."

"When people noticed me, they were pretty excited—high-fives, hugs, smiles. I posed for a lot of cellphone pictures with people's families and children," says Bartholomew, who also appeared on the game show Wowowee. "When it was in response to Bakekang, I felt a little awkward to be holding babies and putting my arm around people's kids, since my character was such a repulsive guy."

Today, back in New York, Bartholomew works as an assistant editor for Harper's Magazine and fills in occasionally as a bartender at McSorley's, where his father has bartended for the past 38 years. As he chews through a plate of crispy pata—deep-fried pig knuckle—he speaks of the pride he takes in his current full-time job, and the excitement from his occasional work at McSorley's. But he also anticipates returning to the Philippines in July to promote his book. And his basketball-crazed second home also figures in his long-term plans.

"I'd love to go back and do something less related to my current career," Bartholomew says, "whether it be teaching at an international school, guiding backpackers to beautiful spots in Southern Leyte, or acting in a soap opera. And I'll find a way to write no matter what I'm doing to make a living."

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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