Book Review: Pacific Rims, the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball

What happens when a scholar, writer, and NYC pick-up basketball fanatic makes his way to the Philippines because he's heard that hoops are vital to the island nation's culture?

Rafe Bartholomew's Pacific Rims is many things: an entertaining personal journey, a detailed look at basketball in Filipino culture, and a behind-the-scenes look at the insanity that is the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the second-oldest pro basketball league on the planet.

Bartholomew actually received a Fulbright grant to research basketball in the Philippines. While he is a very skilled writer, he is also a 6'3" basketball junkie who boldly seeks out pickup games everywhere he goes. Soon after arriving in Manila, he played on the streets, in neighborhood gyms, and on improvised courts with homemade backboards.

But he takes it a necessary step further, embedding himself into the Alaska Aces of the PBA. The PBA is fascinating on its own, with teams named after sponsors' products (PhonePals, Redmanizers), crafty and cantankerous coaches and players, up-close fans, and height restrictions for "imports."

Being of an academic bent, Bartholomew digs into the history of Basketball in the Philippines, driven by the riddle of why this nation with an average male height of 5'5" is so obsessed with a sport associated with giants. While there is no simple answer, it's clear that Filipinos adopted the game early, placing fifth in the sport at the 1936 Olympics and dominating in Asian competitions for decades.

In local pickup games on indoor courts or improvised hoops on streets, he participates in a different style of basketball. Making tricky, twisting layups is a point of pride among the local men and boys. Bartholomew is surprised when players almost a foot shorter score over him with unusual shots, often made with their backs to him. It's also standard for street players to make their impossible moves in flip-flops.

He finds basketball is everywhere, all the time. Even the poorest, most remote neighborhoods have some kind of formal basketball facility, which Bartholomew links to the patronage politics that dominate the country. Building courts with their names on them seems to help politicians get re-elected.

In each community, the basketball courts may also serve other functions, becoming a place for festivals, funerals, and even drying the rice harvest in small rural towns.

But there are also improvised courts everywhere. Players make backboards from old car hoods or discarded pieces of wood and metal, then hook them onto fences, poles, or trees. Dirt courts in the provinces might have nets made of plant fibers.

The author also gets direct experience in small-time Filipino basketball, getting hired to play in a tournament on a resort island. The two rival resort owners behind the competition use underhanded means to influence the outcome. Another detour takes us inside the world of splashy provincial exhibition games between dwarfs and male-to-female crossdressers.

The book spotlights the high-wire act of the PBA's imports -- foreign players brought in for part of the season. These players can succeed by putting up huge scoring numbers but can also get branded a "lemon" and replaced immediately if all that scoring doesn't translate to winning.

The PBA conducts a strange ritual of measuring the imports. These players must be under the season's height limit, sometimes as low as 6'5" and as high as 7". But something as finite as a player's height is open to interpretation in a league driven by the whims of wealthy owners.

Attaching himself to the Alaska Aces, Bartholomew follows the arc of what turns out to be an unlikely championship season, with the team facing elimination in the playoffs. Perched inside the team, he shares some of the finer points of PBA ball, like diskarte (flashy moves to get around bigger players) and gulang (sneaky fouls the vets know how to get away with).

Pacific Rims focuses on the struggle of Alaska's veteran import, American Rosell Ellis. He has carved out a niche with overseas teams after going undrafted and blackballed in the U.S. for attacking a referee. Now towards the end of a lucrative career, one thing has eluded him: a championship in an international league. It will take more than just his on-court skills to will his shaky team to the top.

Bartholomew also sketches a menagerie of colorful PBA characters, including:

  • Alaska's American coach, Tim Cone, a self-taught Triangle offense devotee
  • Red Bull's authoritarian coach, also a politician, Yeng Guiao
  • Alaska's coach-frustrating, always-joking star Willie Miller
  • The Ace's ancient "practice referee," basketball lifer Mang Tom
  • Legendary PBA star, politician, and terrible actor Robert Jaworski
  • The GOAT of imports, talented but hard-drinking NBA washout Billy Ray Bates

The book reaches almost anthropological levels, scrutinizing the relationships between local players and their teammates and roster rivals: the imports and a newer group, Filipino-American players. Bartholomew reveals vast differences between these groups, including language, diet, relationships with the fanbase, and personal space issues. Some players and fans view the "Fil-Ams" as aloof and mayabang (snobbish).

What happens off the court is vital because the PBA fans have incredible access to the players. With all the teams playing out of Manila, "fans couldn't base their loyalty on regional pride, so feeling a personal connection with the players became crucial," writes Bartholomew. As a result, fans constantly recognize players and interact with them in daily life and in the stands.

Pacific Rims is a unique and somewhat overlooked basketball book that illustrates Filipino hoops and its surprising stature in the country. While its scope is authoritative, it's also an entertaining read.

An American's book about Filipino basketball may require a grain of salt. But Bartholomew dives into the culture face first. He plays pickup ball, visits remote provinces, savors local delicacies most foreigners won't try, and gleefully engages with the joking culture inside the Alaska team, where being the butt of embarrassing pranks is the only way to acceptance.

While Pacific Rims was published several years ago (2010), some things never change. Former NBA player Andrew Nicholson (Magic, Wizards, Nets), the PBA's leading scorer in 2022, was declared a lemon and sent home after four games in which he averaged 38 points.

This FanPost is a submission from a member of the mighty Golden State of Mind community. While we're all here to throw up that W, these words do not necessarily reflect the views of the GSoM Crew. Still, chances are the preceding post is Unstoppable Baby!