EXCERPT: Playing with the Big Boys

AntolihaoAn excerpt from Playing with the Big Boys: Basketball, American Imperialism, and Subaltern Discourse in the Philippines by Lou Antolihao (May 2015). 

Tatangkad din ako! (I will grow taller!) was the trademark catchphrase in a series of television advertisements promoting Growee, a popular children’s multivitamin in the Philippines. As the product’s name suggests, the ads enticed consumers by touting the brand’s unique formula, which the company promised would enhance the physical growth of young kids. For the tv commercial’s debut in 2006, basketball was the subject of the ad’s upbeat video montage. Designed as an mtv-style hip-hop music video, the television spot showed five youngsters sporting NBA jerseys and other basketball-inspired fashion accessories doing a song-and-dance performance. The kids were shown performing different basketball tricks and even exhibiting a rare skill among Filipino basketball players: dunking the ball. By creatively stitching together different elements of contemporary youth culture (mtv, hip-hop, and basketball), the commercial became one of the most popular in the country; the ad’s jingle evolved into a trendy children’s song and in a short time the advertising slogan itself became an everyday adage.

The evolution of Tatangkad din ako! from a marketing catch- phrase to a familiar saying reflects some of the most interesting aspects of Philippine society. For one, it highlights the Filipinos’ obsession with “getting tall,” as shown by the popularity of growth-enhancement formulas that, aside from their use in supplements, are also added to milk, sandwich spreads, sausages, and other food products. Having above-average height is valued in most societies for its various practical and perceived advantages; however, the Growee commercial reveals that Filipinos’ preoccupation with growing tall is intimately associated with their other obsession: the sport of basketball.

Furthermore, Tatangkad din ako! illustrates the relationship between sports and subalternity that serves as the central theme of this book. The entangled history of these two phenomena goes back over a hundred years, when the advent of modernity significantly altered the dynamics of colonialism. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Western empires discovered the efficacy of spreading modern sports as a means to “bind” their colonial subjects “more firmly, and more happily to their rule.”1 They helped introduce new beliefs, practices, social behaviors, and moral standards and encouraged a conformity that helped the colonizers maintain control over their colonies.2 Sports took on the role that the earlier introduction of Western religions, languages, and other cultural practices occupied in building a channel of communication between the colonizers and their colonies. For instance, the sports of cricket in India and pelota in many South American countries are just some of the legacies of the British and Spanish empires; these sports remained popular in the empires’ former colonial territories even long after independence.

The United States, which emerged as the new colonial power after the 1898 Spanish-American War, recognized the pedagogical significance of sports and employed it in its undertaking to “Americanize” the Filipinos. In his seminal work The Athletic Crusade, Gerald Gems noted how the United States introduced physical education and sports to fulfill the “‘white man’s burden’; [the] moral imperative to bring civilization, technology, and a particular brand of the Christian religion (Protestantism) to those deemed to be lower on the Social Darwinism ladder.”3 Early in the colonial period there were a number of notable pieces written on the success of sports in achieving these goals.4 The most notable of these was authored by U.S. general Franklin Bell who, as provost marshal of Manila, noted that sports, particularly baseball, “had done more to civilize Filipinos than anything else.”5 As a result sports were increasingly encouraged, particularly through the public school system that was established by the colonial government.

As sport continued to attract a strong following among the local population, it eventually evolved into an important venue for the fragmented Filipino society to come together and forge closer ties. Victory in international competitions, particularly in basketball, was celebrated as a source of national pride and promoted as a platform to gain international recognition. Most notably the Philippine basketball team’s successful participation at the 1936 Berlin Olympics became a rallying point in the “coming of age” of the emerging nation. The Philippine team’s fifth-place finish became a subject of controversy because their 4-1 win-loss record was better than those of fourth-place Poland (1-2), third-place Mexico (3-2) and even second-place Canada (3-1). The Philippines even defeated the Mexican team in their encounter, coming from behind to win by a 32–30 score. It was later discovered that a loophole in the bracketing system resulted in the questionable ranking. Since it was the first time that basketball was played at the Olympics the problem was largely brushed aside, although the loophole was later corrected for subsequent Olympic Games.6 Nevertheless, the controversy heightened the significance of the event from a hitherto unremarkable fifth-place finish to a nationalist narrative depicting a subaltern victory that was stolen by Western “conspirators.” This timely event happened during a crucial period two years after the ratification of the Philippine Independence Act,7 when the country acquired self-governing power as a commonwealth state.

Eighteen years later a third-place finish at the FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) World Basketball Championship8 in 1954 cemented basketball’s position as the Philippines’ most popular pastime. Some people capitalized on popular nationalist sentiments by using the Philippine team’s victory to show that, despite their physical disadvantage, small Filipino players could make their mark in the game of giants. Moreover as the Philippines emerged as an independent country after the Second World War, one observer noted how the sport remained one of the “key components of an evolving national culture, one no longer imposed by the United States but searching for an identity that might unify the multitude of island peoples.”9 No longer a foreign game, basketball became an important channel for gaining international recognition and a timely symbol of the new nation-state.

After reaching a high point with the 1954 FIBA World Championship, Philippine basketball continued its run for another two decades. Notably it bagged the top honors four times in eight Asian Basketball Championships between 1960 and 1975, missing the top-three ranking only once. The Philippines also won four consecutive Asian Games basketball championships from 1951 to 1962. At the Olympics the country was not able to get into the medal column, but it continued to qualify for the Games until 1972 and for the FIBA World Championship until 1978.10

Since the 1970s, however, the performance of the Philippine Men’s National Basketball Team has declined and the squad has failed to regain its status as one of the world’s top basketball-playing nations. The country has not qualified for the Olympics after 1972 and since 1986, only qualified for the recent 2014 FIBAWorld Cup (formerly the World Championships). The Filipinos’ gutsy play during the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain enabled them to hold stronger teams to a 5-point winning average and despite a 1-4 win/loss record, caught the adulation of many Filipino basketball fans around the world. Given their woeful record, however, many are still skeptical about the long-term prospect of the national team, especially given the fact that its best player (Andray Blatche) is a borderline NBA player who was only conferred Filipino citizenship about three months before the FIBA World Cup. Days later news about Blatche’s ineligibility to play for the 2014 Asian Games due to falling short of the three-year residency rule for naturalized citizens, dampened the high spirit of Filipino fans who were hopeful to regain the Asian Games basketball crown the team last won in 1962. Without Blatche, the Philippines, yet again, suffered a major setback by finishing seventh—the country’s worst finish ever in the history of the Asian Games basketball.

Over the past four decades, fans have expressed their frustration over the national team’s inability to win the regional tournament’s basketball championship, which the Philippines dominated in its early years. Initially, the professionalization of the country’s premier basketball league in 1975 barred the top Filipino players from participating in many international meets due to a rule that excluded professionals from FIBA-sanctioned competitions.11 In more recent years, the significant improvement of other teams, particularly China, has made the regional tournaments more competitive. On top of these factors, however, many have been quick to point to the possible correlation between the Philippines’ basketball debacles and the larger economic and political crisis that has hampered the nation’s growth since the ascension of the U.S.-backed Marcos authoritarian regime in the 1960s. There is a general perception that the rampant corruption and overall political instability during that period penetrated almost every aspect of Philippine society, an issue that continues to plague the country today.

1. Guha, Corner of a Foreign Field, 50.
2. See Appadurai, “Playing with Modernity”; Kline, “Culture, Politics, and Baseball”; Mangan, Cultural Bond; Mills, Subaltern Sports; and Stoddard, “Sport, Cultural Imperialism, and Colonial Response.”
3. Gems, Athletic Crusade, 2.
4. Barrows, Decade of American Government; Jones, “Athletics Helping the Filipino”; and O’Reilly, “Filipinos Made Great Progress” were some of the notable publications in the early twentieth century that mentioned the importance of sports in the American colonial project.
5. Seymour, Baseball, 234– 35. Also see Gems, Athletic Crusade, 49.
6. Afable, Philippine Sports Greats.
7. More popularly known as the Tydings-McDuffi e Act, the Philippine Independence Act established the Commonwealth of the Philippines, a ten-year transitional government in preparation for full Philippine independence and sovereignty. Under this arrangement, the Filipinos were able to enact their own constitution and elect executive and legislative officials. Foreign policy and military affairs were the responsibility of the United States, and certain legislation required the approval of the American president. See Go and Foster, American Colonial State.
8. The International Basketball Federation is an umbrella association of national organizations that serves as the highest governing body for international basketball competitions. It was originally known through
its French name of the Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur (hence FIBA). As part of its eff ort to expand and include professional players in international competitions, it dropped the word “Amateur” from its offi cial name in 1989 but retained the initialism; the “ba” now represents the fi rst two letters of “basketball.” The World Basketball Championship (renamed the FIBA World Cup in 2010), which started in 1950, is an international basketball competition contested by the men’s national teams of the members of FIBA.
9. Gems, Athletic Crusade, 66.
10. In 1985 the Philippines won the FIBA Asia Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and qualified for the FIBA World Championship held in Madrid, Spain. However, due to the political crisis that culminated in the 1986 People Power Revolution, the country did not participate in the tournaments. Before 2014, the last year the country actually played in the FIBA World Championships was 1978, when it hosted the prestigious event in Manila. After more than thirty years, the Philippines returned to one of basketball’s most prominent tournaments when it earned a spot in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain after placing second in the FIBA Asia Championships.
11. This sanction was removed in 1990, allowing for the participation of professional players in the Olympics and World Championship.