One of the downsides of blogging all official-like for SB Nation is that I get quite a few press releases e-mailed to me. PR-types just love to send anything tangentially sports-related to me and everyone else whose e-mail addresses they can get their hands on. Most of it is thoroughly ignorable, and when someone offered to send me a book on basketball in the Philippines, of all places, I was all ready to delete it unread. The book's complete title didn't help, as it bears the unwieldily name Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Phillippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. Heck, I drifted off halfway through reading that sentence.
I didn't delete that e-mail on first read, though. And a day or two later, I was looking at a couple of weeks devoid of reading material, so I responded and gave the PR folks' and address to send a copy to. You never know, after all. Filipino basketball might be diverting enough to pass a couple of hours.
I was wrong; this book was absolutely fascinating. The author is a guy any Carolina basketball fan would recognize, despite absolutely no connection to Chapel Hill. A kid born into and fully stepped in the game of basketball, one who dribbled since he could walk. The difference is, Rafe Bartholomew somehow convinced the Fulbright program to send him from New York City to the other side of the globe, because of a chapter he read in an Alexander Wolff book a decade earlier. Come hell or high water, he was going to experience Filipino basketball.
The Philippines is apparently the only country outside of the United States that doesn't put soccer at the top of their pantheon of sports. No, this country of people who rarely crack six feet instead have a basketball court on every flat surface, no matter how crude. Their professional league runs two seasons a year (it used to be three), only one of which allows players from outside of the country – one per team, and no taller than 6'6". And how those rules have been tweaked and twisted over time is a story onto itself. Bartholomew's book is framed around one such season, as he is given total access to the Alaska Aces. The Alaska in this case refers to the sponsoring Alaska Milk Corporation, and the team faces off against such opponents as the Talk N' Text Phone Pals and the Barangay Ginebra Gin-Kings. (Yes, it's like a Neal Stephenson book come to life.) Alaska is the PBA equivalent of the Chicago Bulls, a force in the '90s now trying to find their way back to a championship title after a long absence, and they've put together a good team around import Rosell Ellis and mercurial, slightly-unhinged native guard Willie Miller.
Interspersed between Barthlomew's courtside tale of the Aces season is, well, the rest of the Philippines. He hits the history of the sport and how it came to dominate the lives of a people, his own misadventures on the court in a small semipro tournament that's the battleground for a feud between two resort owners, the politicians who came out of hoops, the college game and the Duke-UNC rivalry of the country, and tiny courts built on the top of mountains. The man's love for the game and exuberance for country that's devoted to it exudes from every page, and the result is a book that's a great read throughout. I'm not sure I'd ever want to visit a Filipino basketball game – the descriptions of the crowds strikes fear in my heart – but I feel better knowing that they exist, that there's an entire country that feels the same way I do about a sport. This is the best sports book I've read in at least a couple of years; I can't recommend it enough.
And if you come back to read the next post, I'll explain what this all has to do with David Noel.