This Hoops Hotbed Is Set to Take Off
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The next Yao Ming is rising, and might take this Southeast Asian nation with him.
By Pallabi Munsi
- With 7-foot-2 Kai Sotto joining the G League, the Philippines is anticipating its first homegrown NBA player.
- The country’s love affair with basketball dates back to the start of the 20th century, when it was an American colony.
- Experts believe Sotto’s rise could propel the island country to new basketball heights.
Sports writer Rafe Bartholomew had read about the Philippines’ obsession with basketball: matches held on street corners, hoops made with any readily available materials and games played in flip-flops. Yet when he landed in Manila to find out more, he was still unprepared.
“It was a nationwide tale of unrequited love,” Bartholomew writes in Pacific Rim: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair With Basketball. “Forty million short men obsessed with basketball — they might as well have been a nation of blind art historians.”
That love is now set to grow even stronger.
In the United States, the news that Kai Sotto, the 65th-ranked player in the high school class of 2020, would be joining the NBA’s G League caused barely a ripple. In the Philippines, it has set off a frenzy as the 7-foot-2 18-year-old moves one step closer to becoming the first Philippines-born player in the NBA.
Kai is special, for the game and our country. So we all are rooting for him and wish him well.
Butch Antonio, director of operations, the Philippines national basketball association
“It’s not every day that you have a 7-foot Filipino,” says Butch Antonio, director of operations for Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, the island country’s national basketball association. “Kai is special, for the game and our country. So we all are rooting for him and wish him well.”
The odds are good that Sotto won’t be the last Filipino in the NBA: This basketball-mad country dominates Southeast Asian competitions, and the NBA has more social media fans here — including 4 million on Facebook alone — than any other country except the U.S. The NBA’s Philippines program has reached 2 million people across 190 municipalities since its 2007 launch. The country’s national team is No. 31 in the world in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rankings — the highest in the region, and behind only Iran, China and South Korea in all of Asia.
If Sotto emerges as their Yao Ming — the Chinese player whose NBA success propelled the sport’s popularity in his country — the Philippines’ ambitions could truly take off. “Basketball is not just a sport in the Philippines. It is a religion,” says Antonio.
Basketball was introduced in the Filipino public school system as a women’s sport in 1910 by American colonialists. “The sight of women participating in sports, especially on actively competing teams, was a rarity at that time,” writes Singapore-based sociologist Lou Antolihao in Playing With the Big Boys. The Catholic Church considered the bloomers worn by female players as inappropriate and women’s basketball faced a backlash. Men, of course, continued to play: They won the first Far Eastern Championship Games, in 1913, and finished fifth in their Olympic debut, in 1936 — the best result of an Asian basketball team in the Olympics so far.
Now, as Sotto appears poised to lift off, FIBA is counting on the Philippines to drive a broader expansion of the sport across Southeast Asia. The organization has plans to establish club competitions in both West Asia and East Asia, says Hagop Khajirian, FIBA’s executive director for Asia. At a time when its relations with China are uneasy, the NBA could benefit from a strengthened relationship with the Philippines.
The Philippines’ success in basketball relies on another factor besides the quality of its players. Antonio says NBA players are often taken aback when they visit the Philippines and people on the street want to discuss game details with them. That’s part of what’s special about the Philippines, Bartholomew says: Here, it’s “the players’ responsibility to show gratitude to the average Filipino.”
Sotto can do that by making it to the NBA. “From the looks of it, fingers crossed, we will get there,” says Antonio.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY AuthorContact Pallabi Munsi