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Locals play a pickup game of basketball on the outskirts of the city of Dumaguete. Basketball is extremely popular throughout the Philippines and almost every neighborhood has a court of some kind. In rural locations like this, many residents can't afford basketball shoes and often make do with bare feet or rubber sandals instead.


Children play into the evening on a seaside basketball court in Dumaguete on the island of Negros in the Philippines. Basketball courts can be found in almost every community on the islands, ranging from high-quality gyms and sporting arenas to dirt and grass playing areas with rickety backboards and rusting rims mounted to standards made of scrap wood or trees.


A man inspects one of several fighting cocks tethered on a dirt basketball court in Dumaguete City on the island of Negros in the Philippines. Courts like this often double as a place to keep animals when no games are being played.


Players battle into the night at a seaside basketball court in Dumaguete. Filipinos developed a love for the game while the country was a colony of the United States.


Locals play a pickup game of basketball in bare feet and flip flops on a dirt court. For about 25% of the Filipino population living below the poverty line, basketball shoes are often an unaffordable luxury.


A bovine rests beside a dirt basketball court on the outskirts of Dumaguete. Games in rural areas are often interrupted by livestock that inadvertently stray onto courts.


A player tests his vertical leap on a makeshift hoop in the outskirts of Dumaguete, on the island of Negros in the Philippines.


A boy watches as his friends scrimmage on a basketball court in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Dumaguete.


Neighborhood residents play a pickup basketball game. Afternoon pickup games are a common sight throughout the Philippines.


Neighborhood residents use a worn basketball hoop in Dumaguete on the island of Negros in the Philippines.


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In the Philippines, basketball is the nation's pastime

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In the Philippines, basketball is the nation’s pastime

By Phil Prins

In a country where the average person stands less than 5-feet-5, there is worship for a game normally dominated by giants. While much of the world bows down before the altar of soccer, it’s basketball that brings out the Filipino congregation to play a game widely associated with larger-than-life figures such as Blake Griffin, LeBron James and Tim Duncan.

I should have realized it from the start. Shortly after arriving in the Philippines, I was looking for photo opportunities and stumbled sweating and bedraggled onto a pristine basketball court crammed amid a jumble of thatch huts lining a trash-strewn beach on the island of Palawan.  It seemed out of place, the only thing in the neighborhood made of cement and not falling apart.  It was there I witnessed the first of many basketball tournaments, which are common throughout the archipelago on any given weekend.

Spectators who come to these tournaments display an intensity that matches crowds from Staples Center, Madison Square Garden or the TD Garden, with the added spice of occasional post-game fights and stabbings between bitter rivals.

Apart from organized tournaments, pickup games are played daily across the Philippines on courts of wildly varying quality, from well-appointed gyms to ones made of grass or dirt with ramshackle backboards and rims mounted crookedly on standards made of scrap wood or conveniently located trees.

No need for fancy basketball shoes either. Bare feet and flip flops pound along next to knock-off Nikes and Adidas on concrete and earthen venues alike. In rural areas you also get the added fun of watching players dodge the stray grazing goat or light-footed chickens that wander into a game.

The YMCA introduced the game to Manila in 1898, after the Philippines was ceded to the United States by Spain following the Spanish-American War.  It’s interesting to note that Dr. James Naismith created basketball in Springfield, Mass., only seven years before, in 1891.

During the U.S. colonial period, basketball quickly spread across the islands. In 1975, the Philippines became the second country in the world to form a professional league. It’s called the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and presently is composed of 10 company-branded franchise teams.

Former NBA player Andray Blatche will play for the country's national basketball team

Former NBA Brooklyn Nets player Andray Blatche greets Filipino fans inside the Senate building in Pasay City, south of Manila. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Moreover, recent NBA-sponsored visits by superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have only fueled basketball fever, with these players getting treatment usually reserved for national heroes. Even the Congress of the Philippines has jumped on the bandwagon, recently passing a law to specifically allow NBA Brooklyn Nets center Andray Blatche, who stands at 6-11, to receive immediate Filipino citizenship and qualify for the Philippine National Team scheduled to compete in the FIBA World Cup this summer. At the very least, Blatche may raise the national height average by an inch or so.

No one seems able to pin down exactly why basketball has become so tightly woven into the Filipino cultural fabric. But go out any time from morning to night and you’ll see, hear and feel it. The sound of bare feet slapping on concrete, silhouettes of players at a seaside court set against a crimson-tinged sunset, shouts of encouragement from a fanatical crowd, children laughing as they chase each other up and down the sidelines, and the sweet swish of a worn rubber ball through a tattered net all are common sights and sounds.

When asked about the passion that Filipinos have for basketball despite their diminutive stature, Dennis Azcona, head basketball coach at Foundation University in Dumaguete City, puts it succinctly. “We don’t play by height,” he said.  “We play by heart.”

Phil Prins, 30, is an Iraq War veteran who joined Los Angeles Times staff photographer Luis Sinco for the South Pacific Photo Workshop in the Philippines last August. He is presently working as a newspaper editor, photojournalist and journalism instructor/advisor at Foundation University in Dumaguete City.

1 Comment

  1. October 2, 2015, 10:28 am

    Professional basketball tournaments run through most of the year. And then there are the smaller leagues including semi-professional, collegiate and university leagues and various school basketball leagues within and near metro Manila. The university league is the biggest and most popular in the country, and young, up-and-coming players aspire to join this league more than their local professional league.

    By: Konkon

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