For Filipinos, it's the top game after politics


YOU ARE DRIVING THROUGH Roxas Boulevard, one of Manila's main thoroughfares, when traffic comes to a standstill. Your heart sinks as the reason for the gridlock suddenly becomes clear: there is a championship game in progress at the Cuneta Astrodome, just up the road. So you might as well sit back and tune into the game on the radio, because you are not going anywhere for the next two hours.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, if you're a typical Filipino, you wouldn't even be driving around; you would either be at the game or at home watching it on TV. Welcome to the Philippines, the basketball-crazy country where Michael Jordan's game was a national sport long before the world had heard of him. The local league, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), dates back to 1975 (under a slightly different guise) -- two decades before most other professional organizations in Asia were formed.

In Manila, it is said, the year is marked by the political and PBA seasons -- a pointer to the place those fields hold in Filipino life. Indeed, they are often intertwined. Sen. Freddie Webb is a former basketball player, as is Joey Marquez, mayor of Parañaque, a city within Metro Manila. Robert Jaworski, an immensely successful player-coach whose nicknames range from "The Big J" to "The Legend," is regularly mentioned as a potential senatorial candidate. Jaworski has denied any political ambitions, but he would probably have few problems getting votes if his inclination ran that way.

As in politics, television plays a big part in basketball. Vintage Enterprises, which holds the PBA TV franchise, has brought local league games into Filipino homes for the past 16 years. Vice president Ronnie Nathanielz credits his company with raising the popularity of basketball to unprecedented levels. "We tried something different from the usual blow-by-blow accounts," he says. "We started analyzing the games and injected human interest by profiling the players." Of course, more "human interest" would be generated if the player were handsome and headline-making -- court heartthrob Alvin Patrimonio, for instance, once dated former presidential daughter Kris Aquino.

According to Nathanielz, every Filipino male aged between 13 and 29 watches PBA games. Elmer Yanga, manager of the Pop Cola team, is even more generous in his estimate. He says 80% of Filipinos over six watch basketball on TV, which adds up to 48 million people.

But you don't have to resort to figures to gauge the popularity of basketball in the Philippines. Just go to any back street and you're likely to discover that a full-size court has been painted in the middle. This can make driving through a slow and tricky process when a neighborhood tournament is being held. But don't bother to complain to the local congressman -- he probably set up the court as a vote-getting ploy in the first place. And the municipal authorities? They're likely to be too busy watching a PBA game.-- By Wilhelmina Paras