Big omnibus update

Lots of stuff going on right now. First and foremost, PACIFIC RIMS IS OUT!!! In both the U.S. and in Manila, the book is in stores.
I've heard that it's pretty tough to find copies in stores in Manila. The publisher tells me that 500 copies were shipped to the Philippines, to be sold at selected branches of National Bookstore, Fully Booked and Powerbooks. A lot of friends have told me on Facebook and Twitter that they called stores and heard that they had sold out already. In a way, that's great news, but I want everyone who's interested in the book to be able to read it, so if you go to a bookstore in Manila and they're out of books, tell them to order more!

A word of practical advice, even though it hurts me to say so: If you're looking for the book, go to Makati. I'm a Katipunan man through and through, and the only thing I looked forward to about having to go to Makati during my time in Manila were the lunch specials in Little Tokyo and DVD shopping and Booksale at Makati Cinema Square. But I'll step down from my pedestal of QC pride to say that Makati and Taguig are the best bets for finding the book, because of the high concentration of classy bookstores and people with large disposable incomes in that area. 

If you go looking for it at SM Santa Mesa, don't be surprised if the woman at National gives you a "Sorry, not available."

I also found the book front and center in the sports section at the Union Square Barnes&Noble in New York, but a store employee stopped me from taking any pictures. I told her I wrote one of the books, and she didn't believe me and asked me to leave. I'm actually kind of proud that I don't look or carry myself like someone who writes books.

And now, the updates:

  • Tonight in NYC I'll be reading at the Varsity Letters sports readings series put on by Gelf Magazine. ESPN's Truehoop mentioned the event in its Bullets column. 
  • Bill Velasco wrote a lovely review of the book last week in the Philippine Star. I'm with you, Bill, that I might have liked to dial back some of the pop culture references. Not just because my Pinoy audience might not know the Cobra Kai dojo as well as my U.S. audience, but because it dates the writing. In 50 years (and I realize it's a bit presumptuous to say this will still be worth reading decades from now), unless they keep re-making The Karate Kid, none of us will remember what the Cobra Kai dojo is. Bill's parting words really make me proud: "It is a meticulous, immersive, touching read that will inspire gratitude from a people who have finally met someone who has sought to understand. And thankfully, gets it."
  • Interviews about Pacific Rims at The Awl and Sports Crackle Pop.
  • I wrote a piece for SLAM Online that touches on the history of Philippine basketball and argues that the country doesn't need to have an Olympic berth to prove to itself or the world that Philippine basketball is a vital part of the world hoops scene. I've written about the idea a bunch of times before, but I'm happy to proselytize for that cause.
  • Finally, David Arnott places me in great company -- David Halberstam (idol ko siya!) and Jack McCallum, authors of perhaps the two best "season with a team" hoops books -- in another fine review at his SB Nation blog, Rufus on Fire.

Over the years, I've come across some splendid Pinoy hoops videos on YouTube. Perhaps nothing tops that extended Yanni/Samboy clip, but there are a lot of honorable mentions out there, and I thought I'd start putting them up one by one.
The first installment is going to be this grainy but revealing footage of Kobe Bryant's first trip to Manila to promote his Adidas shoes in 1998. Kobe was a little over a week away from his 20th birthday at the time, and having been to a few of these NBA star visits in recent years, I tell you, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

In Kobe's two subsequent trips to Manila in 2007 and 2009, as well as during visit from other stars like Gilbert Arenas, Tracy MacGrady and even less popular players like Channing Frye and Jason Kapono, there was never a chance of them playing a semi-competitive game of three-on-three like Kobe does in this video. Arenas's tour was wildly successful, yet I don't think he shot more than a couple dozen shots between his mall show and an appearance with kids at a Gawad Kalinga site in Quezon City. 

Back in 1998, though, Kobe looked as hell bent on proving his dominance over smaller Philippine pros as he looks nowadays trying to solidify his legacy in the pantheon of the NBA's greatest players. I guess that's part of what makes him great -- like the story in Chris Ballard's Art of a Beautiful Game about the high school teammate Kobe used to torment after practices. No matter the competition, Kobe is going to try and rip the still beating heart out of his opponent's chest. That's also why he seems like a total dick in this video. Even when he's doing something totally cool that almost no other American pro would do -- an NBA star (in the making) playing a legit game of three-on-three in Megamall -- Kobe takes the streetball act of trying to embarrass his opponents a bit over the line. All things considered, however, it's still pretty awesome that he did this, and everyone who was around for it in 1998 remembers it.

But my favorite part of the video is the very beginning, when we see a few seconds of the security guards trying to push back the metal barriers, which seem about to cave in under the pressure of all the mob. It's an image that captures how passionate Filipino basketball fans are. Also, I like that a few of the people in the crowd are raising the roof. Danny Ildefonso fans, perhaps? Danny I did win Rookie of the Year in 1998.

Sev Sarmenta, sports journalist jack-of-all-trades and an important adviser to my research for Pacific Rims, got a review copy of the book this week and mentioned it in his column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Thanks, Sev!

Remember Rafe Bartholomew, the New Yorker who spent three years in the country, immersing himself in Philippine basketball?

Well, Rafe’s journey has been put in a book called “Pacific Rims” and is bound for release in June or early July.

Ariel Balatbat, Penguin Books regional sales manager for the Philippines and Guam, handed me an advance copy this week.

“Pacific Rims” takes you from the streets of Metro Manila to PBA locker rooms to lively UAAP games and hoop wars in Boracay.

The book proves Rafe’s theory about a unique basketball world here, undoubtedly influenced by America but governed by Filipino cultural rules and nuances.

Rafe took it all in and, based on his last e-mail, he can’t wait to come back for more Pinoy hoops.

Balatbat revealed that a Philippine launch is being planned for the book with Rafe, who now works for a magazine in New York, coming back to Manila for it.

Regional SPJ Award

Plenty of good news to go around today. I created a Facebook event page for my reading at Barnes&Noble on June 16 at 7 pm, and I found out that my profile of Nate Robinson for Seattle Weekly took second place in the Society of Professional Journalists' Western Washington chapter Excellence in Journalism Awards for best sports writing in an alternative newsweekly. I know that's about 75 qualifiers, but I'm proud to get any award. 

Chasing Nate Robinson around for a week at the height of his popularity, after winning the dunk contest with his Krypto-Nate stunt and running off a string of 30- and 40-point games, was a blast. My conversations with him were brief but fun. He truly can quote just about any film in the Will Ferrell ouvre on command. I'm sad the Knicks traded him this year, not because he was particularly vital to the team's long-term success, but just because he managed to keep having fun on the court despite all the misery the team kicked up. I'm glad he landed in Boston, where he probably won't get a lot of minutes throughout the rest of the Celtics' playoff run, but he might get a ring out of it, and maybe next year he'll play himself into somebody's rotation.

Enjoy the story and stay tuned for more info on Pacific Rims and writing about Philippine basketball. 

Quick basketball thought

When I wrote about Pinoy hoops for FreeDarko, I shaped the piece as a glossary of terms about the Philippine game. In response to my description of gulang, the crafty, clever, not-quite-dirty tricks of the trade that veteran players use to gain an edge on younger guys. A commenter then suggested that Rajon Rondo had "phenomenal gulang," which at the time struck me as perhaps a bit off because of Rondo's youth and the fact that some of his veteran moves are actually just straight-up dirty. There's something a little more artful to the hand- and finger-holding tactics used by PBA big men to yank their opponents out of plays. 

But in the NBA postseason, not only has Rondo been maybe the best player in the league, but he's also been showing off moves that look like he perfected them in some barangay liga in Mandaue City. I've been trying to think of the Philippine pro he reminds me most of, and it's been tough. He doesn't hang like the Samboy Lim/Bong Alvarez/Vergel Meneses/Cyrus Baguio breed of great finishers. But he's a blur on the court and some of his runners and floaters contain a hint of Cardona, sans all that spinning. Last night's double-clutch reverse layup (at around 2:20 of the above YouTube video), while certainly requiring serious hops, was especially amazing because of the amount of pektos, or spin, he put on it. It reminded me of Willie Miller and Noli Locsin, two guys who are much chubbier than Rondo but who can both use spins to make the backboard act like a funnel to the hoop. I even recall seeing Rondo throw in a couple sidesteps on the break against Cleveland. It's like he's the main character in a body swap movie with Jimwell Torion on a neverending hot streak, only Rondo isn't going cold for entire games or spending his nights in shabu dens. Or maybe, shabu, the Philippines' answer to meth, is the secret ingredient. How else can a player have that kind of speed and energy, combined with the focus to finish shots at the end of his drives. 

No, I don't think Rondo is on speedballs. I think he is a speedball. Rajon Rondo, human shabu; so Pinoy and he probably doesn't even know it. My favorite player to watch in the 2010 playoffs.

Pacific Rims book trailer

Politics Week will return soon. Here is the video book trailer for Pacific Rims, which -- as if I haven't already beaten you over the head enough with this information -- will be available in stores June 1 and is already available online for pre-order. The trailer is a 3-minute video of me talking about the book while various images of Pinoy hoops flash across the screen. My girlfriend says I look cute, so I can't complain.

Politics Week Part I: Juana Change

Politics Week probably should have started last week, for the run-up to the Philippine elections, which happened overnight here in the U.S. and will supposedly be decided in the next couple of days. Unfortunately, I was running around like a lunatic last week, so I'll have to settle for being a little late on this. To anyone who's followed my blog over the years, nothing new on that front. 
Now begins the post-election period, a time of arguably greater uncertainty this year than in other recent elections because of the Philippines' decision to implement automated elections for the first time this year. They won't be using the creepy touchscreen machines that no one trusts here in the States, but instead Scantron-style optical scan machines and bubble ballots reminiscent of college entrance exams. 

The problem is, few people in the Philippines trust these either, probably with good reason. News of glitches in the Philippines' intended electronic voting system had been trickling through newspaper articles and TV Patrol reports for months, and last week it started gushing like a fire hose. A mock election intended to demonstrate the machines' reliability revealed a suspicious error that converted the votes of the two leading candidates into votes for a far less popular candidate backed by the outgoing (hopefully) administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The national board of elections then announced it would replace the memory cards of more than 76,000 vote-scanning machines in the country in less than a week. This is madness, but I have to fight the temptation to call it unprecedented madness. In the heat of elections, it's easy to wonder if this is the craziest campaign season yet. So far, I've seen presidential candidate Manny Villar parade his mother around in the media so she can cry and blame them for being mean to her son; Dr. Evil, AKA Andal Ampatuan Jr., the man apparently most responsible for November's election-related massacre in Maguindanao randomly decided to endorse presidential front-runner Noynoy Aquino in an apparent scheme to tarnish the opposition candidate (I feel kind of sheepish calling Noynoy an "opposition" or "reformist" candidate, because I doubt he will be either as President, but even if he becomes elected and governs in a vegetative state, he'll be an improvement over Arroyo's craven regime); and, in local shenanigans, we have incumbent Manila City Councilor Ivy Varona, whose campaign leaflets tell you all you need to know about the "Charm ng Tondo." And I have no doubt that if I were in the country I would have seen dozens of other examples of election-related foolishness. 
Ivy Varona
So is this crazier than before? Probably not. During the last presidential election in 2004, the country got to hear the sitting President call an election official and make sure that she would maintain her lead in the elections, by hook or by crook. Now, Hello Garci is not much more than a played-out ringtone meme, which maybe shouldn't be surprising given the alphabet soup of corruption scandals the next six years of Arroyo rule gave the country -- Con-Ass, Cha-Cha, ZTE-NBN, ad nauseum.

So what does all of this amateur punditry have to do with my cup of tea, basketball? So much. Watch this video by activist-comedian Juana Change.

Like pretty much everything Juana Change creates, "Utang na loob" is polemical, but it's not far off from the truth. In the video, the local politician builds a basketball court for his constituents, they reward him with votes, and everyone goes home happy. That is, until catastrophe strikes -- in this case, Typhoon Ondoy -- and the the players are washed away in the flood. I don't think the video needs to conflate the issues of hoops-related patronage, illegal logging and deforestation, and disaster preparedness. The reality is usually simpler. All around Manila and in most of the provinces I visited, from Ilocos Norte to Antique to Surigao del Norte, I noticed public basketball courts that appeared far better equipped than local medical clinics and other vital infrastructure projects. The video's message, which I do agree with, is that politicians make the cynical calculation that a pair of glass backboards is enough to win the people's loyalty at the polls. That's a pretty cheap investment in the community, and in too many cases whatever funds remain get re-invested in the politician's business interests, which may not benefit too many people aside from the politician and his family. 

As much as I love basketball and found joy in stumbling into beautiful, roofed full courts in barangays all over the country, the Philippines has greater priorities. Some politicians -- say Freddie Webb, the former star point guard at Tanduay and Senator from 1992 to 1998 -- have an honest passion for basketball and see it as a way to improve people's lives. Webb once told me he built more basketball courts than any other politician in history, and I understood it as a good faith effort on his part, since basketball had been so instrumental in his life, the profession that made him a celebrity and put him in a position to become senator. He genuinely saw the game as a force of good in people's lives, and it was the stamp he wanted to leave on Philippine society. Of course, it was pretty good politics as well. The problem is that not only politicians with a special affection for the sport are using it; everyone is, so you end up with a nation that looks like a basketball Valhalla, but way too many people enjoying those pristine courts are undernourished, have worms, lack access to clean water, and so on. That reflects the power of Filipinos' passion for the game, but it also reflects the willingness of leaders to exploit their countrymen.

Some shameless buzz

Pacific Rims caught some pre-release attention from a handful of online sources over the past few days. All of it has been extremely flattering, and it's a cool feeling to find a blogger or journalist whose work I enjoy writing about my own work.

First up is a post at FireQuinito, which holds the title belt as the best Philippine sports blog. For any non-Filipino readers who are interested in boning up on the worlds of Pinoy basketball, boxing, mixed martial arts and their intersections with Philippine entertainment and politics, FireQuinito will give it to you in real time, with a sharp voice that American sports will find familiar and engaging. 

Jaemark Tordecilla, the author at FireQuinito, has been an important voice supporting my writing for more than a year, and whatever success Pacific Rims finds in the Philippines will be due in large part to him. From his preview:

Seriously though, this book was going to have to be written sooner or later, and I’m glad it’s Rafe who’s done it. Not only is he passionate about Philippine basketball, but he’s immersed so much of himself about everything Filipino that, through the book, he can serve as a smart, insightful tour guide into Philippine culture for anyone who picks up a copy.

Cristina Pastor, a NY-based editor at the Philippine News, a Fil-Am paper here in the states, has written a lovely preview of the book that contains a few small quotes from a galley copy of Pacific Rims I shared with her.

Take a young basketball junkie from New York, some generous grant from Fulbright, and a three-year sojourn in the Philippines, and whaddya get? A book on the history of Philippine basketball, probably a seminal, first of its kind, study.

“Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball,” is the product of Harper’s Magazine editor’s Rafe Bartholomew’s three years in the land many of us have long left and probably forgotten. Bartholomew, 27, brings back memories of warm and kindhearted Filipinos and the simple pleasures of drinking SanMig with tricycle drivers and walking the neighborhood to go to the post office. Except that in his case, Bartholomew carried a basketball most of the time. He played with whoever invited or dared him – and wherever they can find a clear spot with a hoop.

Finally, the blog Poor Man's Commish, which I've visited on and off for the past few years, previewed Pacific Rims and sparked a quick discussion on Twitter with some hoops blogosphere luminaries from places like Draft Express, HoopsHype and SLAM. From the PMC post:

Do you know how popular basketball is in the Philippines? We’ve had blogposts about three Dream League tournament MVPs ending up on the same roster in the PBA, but aside from references like that, do you really know how popular basketball is in “the PI”? Someone very qualified is here to give you the proper context.

His name is Rafe Bartholomew and he’s coming out with a book next month that talks about this very thing: “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball”.

Poor Man's Commish is the source for news about Asian American basketball. If you spend a few hours combing through his archives, you can find a ton of info about guys like Josh Urbiztondo and Ryan Reyes before they came to Manila and began their PBL/PBA careers. 

Thanks everyone for the kind words.

Notes on the name

And now, a flood of disclaimers.

I have some explaining to do about the name of my book. Not so much the first part of the title, "Pacific Rims." I've loved it since I thought of "Pacific Rim" sometime in July 2006, and I've loved it even more since a friend suggested to go with the plural "Rims" to emphasize the multitude of basketball courts dotting the Philippines. (This reminds me, I've always wanted to figure out a way to do some informal census of Philippine basketball courts. Counting barangay courts, municipal courts, homemade courts, half-courts, buko-tree courts, and everything else, is it possible that we'd be pushing six figures? On one hand, it sounds outlandish; on the other, 50,000 sounds like a pretty big underestimate. I bet you could get close to that in Manila.)

But I do owe some people explanations about my subtitle: "Beermen Balling in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball."
san mig jersey

For starters, I have to apologize to the Alaska Aces franchise for not only failing to include them in the title, but using their decades-long rival, the San Miguel Beermen, instead. I don't know if the Alaska brain trust of head coach Tim Cone, manager Joaqui Trillo and owner Fred Uytengsu have gotten around to looking at the title and witnessing my betrayal, but I'm sure when I see them next I will receive a playful mock-strangling. Only one active PBA team has more championships than Alaska -- San Miguel. During Alaska's mid-nineties glory days -- a period when the franchise dominated the PBA much like the Chicago Bulls ruled the NBA -- the road to many a championship went through San Miguel. There were other rivals, of course, like Shell and Ginebra and Purefoods, but the Beermen tend to loom large because of the team's history and status in the league. San Miguel is the league's only remaining pioneer franchise from the PBA's inaugural season in 1975. So many of the Philippines' all-time great players -- Ramon Fernandez, Samboy Lim, Allan Caidic and many, many more -- have played for the Beermen. And then there's Danding Cojuangco, the tycoon atop San Miguel Corporation, a sportsman, ambassador, political kingmaker, presidential almost-ran and former Marcos crony who has at times seemed like the prime mover behind all of Philippine basketball. The Eighties Northern Consolidated Cement team was his brainchild, and from it sprung modern Philippine basketball as we now know it: Ron Jacobs and his coaching disciples; stars like Samboy, Caidic, Hector Calma, Yves Dignadice and others, who became templates for today's great players; naturalized foreign players who arguably (and through no fault of their own) planted the seed in basketball minds that became the Fil-Sham scandal of the past decade. 

Now, Alaska is one of the PBA's marquee franchises, but like practically every other team in the league, it's hard to avoid the feeling that they're in San Miguel's shadow. It's hard to ignore the way trades and calls often favor the Beermen and their sister franchises, hence the common sentiment that the PBA is a "San Miguel league." When I spent the 2007 Fiesta Conference with Alaska to write Pacific Rims, the team felt so accomplished after winning a six-game semifinal dogfight over the Beermen that they couldn't take the Finals against Talk 'N Text seriously enough. They fell behind 2-1 and 3-2 in that series and nearly blew the season before coming together to win games six and seven to take the championship. 

So there's definitely an element of adding insult to injury with the title of Pacific Rims. I can imagine people at Alaska pulling their hair out, thinking, "This guy writes a book about Alaska and he calls it 'Beermen'!" It's a legitimate gripe, and I don't have any great excuse. My agent asked me to come up with a funny, alliterative subtitle, and Alaska didn't fit. I hope that the Aces will forgive me and find some satisfaction in the fact that so much of the book concerns them and their successful quest for a championship.
Celis book

The other issue I wanted to take up was the word "unlikely." Well, whether or not the role of basketball in Philippine society is unlikely depends on who you are and what you know about the country. When I first came to Manila in 2005, it seemed pretty unlikely to me. At face value, a country full of relatively short men and women who love basketball like their lives depend on it seems pretty fanciful. Like a national case of unrequited love. But as I learned, and as readers of Pacific Rims will eventually find out, basketball's monolithic status in Philippine life is anything but unlikely. American colonialists added the sport to the physical education curriculum of Philippine school in the early 1900s, making the country one of the first to really learn the game. You can trace this head start to the Philippines' unrivaled status as the basketball kings of Asia until the late 1960s and the country's very competitive showings in international competitions, especially the 1936 Olympics and 1954 World Championships. Success bred interest in the game, which led to more success, and as one generation rolled into another, basketball became associated with families, growing up, manhood and national pride and identity. To borrow a metaphor from Nick Joaquin, it became as Filipino as pandesal, the ubiquitous Pinoy bread that technically is Spanish. 

Just because the "Philippines' Love Affair with Basketball" seems unlikely to those of us who don't know that much about the country, that doesn't make it so. That is, of course, one of my goals with Pacific Rims -- to show people who might be unaware of basketball's deep roots in Philippine history that the game's presence in the country isn't as strange as it seems. And hopefully, by the end of the book, readers will be thinking to themselves that the eponymous "Love Affair" isn't so unlikely, but that it's fitting, and indeed, in many ways, inspiring.

A book is born

We're going live! This site will be my home on the web for at least the next couple years, and probably longer. I'll really miss Manila Vanilla, even though I've neglected it pretty consistently since moving back to New York. I'm hoping that the new site will mean a fresh start, filled with much more frequent blogging. And, since I've got a book coming out and I hope to attract some attention to it through this website, that means I'll be putting fresh content up a lot more often. It would probably be wise to keep my posts more general interest and avoid the 2,500-word posts on the inner workings of the Alaska Aces locker room or the brief odes to unsung Philippine pros like Donbel Belano and Topex Robinson, but I know already I won't be able to do that. So I'll just write about as many weird, ultra-specific things that come to mind and hope that people find it worth their time to read it. Pacific Rims

This morning, I picked up the first complete copy of Pacific Rims. I don't know if I can describe the feeling. I hate to resort to a sports metaphor, but I imagined it was like how Manny Pacquiao felt when he beat Oscar de la Hoya. "Holy shit I actually did it!" Or maybe "Akin na 'to!" -- "this is mine" in Tagalog -- although Pacquiao's inner monologue may be in Bisaya. And when I say "this," I mean just about everything I ever wanted. Of course, Pacquiao wasn't surprised when de la Hoya didn't come out for the ninth round. He must have known Oscar couldn't touch him since the opening bell. Likewise, I've known this day was coming for a long time, but now that it's here. Wow.

It's foolish to think that everyone who reads this blog or reads Pacific Rims will feel exactly that way, but I hope they feel something else I feel deep in my bones, and that's admiration, fascination and love for Philippine basketball. 


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