They say basketball is a religion in the Philippines, and the devotees are never without their prayers, many of them praying to win. Victory, however, is not the only plea heard by the gods of basketball.
Players with teammates notorious for not showing up pray that they have enough bodies before jump ball so that they avoid losing by default. Those made to bear with insouciance ask the gods for resourceful, diligent, and responsible teammates, who will not make paying their share for the cost of uniform and league fees a burden for the team.
And while some pray with the team’s welfare in mind, some pray for selfish ends; a good shooting night for ‘pogi’ points, the player of the game award, and one or more romantic interests present in the audience, and yes, to having aforementioned wishes granted, please.
Among fans, there is a supplication for good weather, from those living in communities without the luxury of a covered court. Where electricity is unreliable and brownouts inevitable, the prayer takes the tone of bargaining: we will endure fanning ourselves to sleep in hot, humid darkness, just let the basketball game finish first.
That’s the barangay basketball landscape for you, in the province or the city; oftentimes spartan and subject to the limitations of inadequate resources, but always enough to be competitive and entertaining. If turning pro and playing in the PBA or abroad is the summit, this is what happens at the foot of the mountain, especially during the liga season: summer and Christmas break.
Repurposed plywood backboard painted with the same thin coat of paint as the one used on the court’s potholed concrete floor. Early birds get to have the few available seats, but the fans don’t mind watching the game on their feet, from tipoff to final buzzer. Sometimes, there isn’t enough light on the court, but players who are used to playing in near-dark conditions find the bottom of the net just fine.
Everything is makeshift and everyone will make do. Here, where basketball fans gather to be entertained by their kin, by their neighbors and friends, or by strangers, who are just as passionate about basketball. Here, where the best barangay basketball players are venerated.
Most of the players here learned basketball through their peers and persistence. They probably grew up chasing after the loose ball during shootaround so they can get shots in when the game or the players are idle, before they scamper away at the sight of older basketball players or the referee asking them to leave the court. These kids will frequent places where there is a hoop—no matter the size, no matter the condition. Skins and shirts doesn’t just mean someone is playing without a top; the exposed skin also includes the sole of the feet for those choosing to play barefoot, because flip-flops are slippery and not sturdy enough for kids playing basketball morning, afternoon, and night. They will practice and attend tryouts and will join local neighborhood basketball tournaments and they will progress through different divisions, from mosquito division, where only a handful know how to shoot and dribble, all the way to senior division which is the main event and the reason fans come to watch.
And even then, despite the loud cheering, the personal career best, the game-winning moments—very, very few of these amateurs will be scouted. It is a rarity for someone here to be invited to try out for collegiate basketball, and smaller still are the chances of turning pro or wearing the national colors.
An unfortunate reality: there are so many talented Filipino basketball players and a lot of them go unnoticed in a country populated by basketball citizens.
It does not help that there are people, who stopped caring. I, for one, haven’t watched a PBA game in years. So it came as a surprise when I noticed I had been watching local basketball action for hours. Not PBA. Not MPBL. Not collegiate basketball. Not Gilas.
One video was viewed 135,000 times. The next one I watched? Viewed 383,000 times. A one-month-old video already had 909K views. Wow.
This is not the summit, but this is how barangay basketball players start climbing to the top, on the back of basketball citizens with cellphones and good quality video cameras and the commitment to showcasing what they see in their corner of the world.
Basketball is a shared, collective experience, but the actual games we see differ—isolated, exclusive, and local. Not anymore.
These barangay basketball videos on the internet will elevate the appreciation for barangay basketball, and eventually, the quality of ‘paliga’ and the status of talented amateur basketball players, who weren’t given the chance to be seen on TV.
Many will still remain amateur. But more basketball players will become appreciated by more people, enjoying the same level of popularity previously enjoyed by a select few only. A humble consolation for those relentless in the pursuit of their hoop passion even if bereft of resources, connections, formal training, and opportunities.
Basketball is a religion in the Philippines, and the real proof of devotion is Filipino basketball citizens relying not just on prayers alone, but on action, which, according to many, speaks louder than words, even words said as a prayer.