Filipino basketball legends hold court

Expatriates come out in force at Al Shabab club to see their basketball heroes in action, writes John McAuley.

Philippine fans try to get pictures and autographs of JoJo Lastimosa.
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On a sweaty evening in Al Mamzar, the Al Shabab club, hiding in the shadow beneath their floodlit football stadium, trembles with excitement.
Agitated fans swamp the entrance, the soundtrack of incessant chatter playing over the hum of anticipation from inside. Homemade placards find rest on the shoulders of an army who, on this balmy night in downtown Dubai, have transformed a modest sports club into Little Manila.
Football, usually the game of choice in these parts, has given way to basketball.
The main hall throbs to contemporary American pop music, and an excited public announcer works tirelessly at whipping the crowd into frenzy. Flags drape the near-full stands, bearing enthusiastic greetings to stars from a generation past.
On court, the Dubai All-Stars team wait patiently as Filipinos, young and old, line the entrance to the hall.
"And here he comes," shouts the PA, "the Big J . the Living Legend of Filipino basketball. the former senator of the Philippines . Robert 'Jawo' Jaworski!!"
The hall erupts. From the changing room emerges Jaworski, the Baguio City-born former point guard and coach, ex-politician, occasional movie star and, apparently, fifth Beatle. In the Philippines, it is the Fab Five who reign supreme.
Now 66, the adulation for Jaworski has yet to diminish. The court flickers as a torrent of camera flashes explodes, shirts are offered for signatures and unsuspecting children are thrust forward for a handshake or a kiss.
The commotion continues as the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA) Legends are introduced, names such as Alvin Patrimonio, the four-time MVP, and Jojo Lastimosa, winner of 10 PBA championships.
They have made the trip to Dubai to take part in a charity match organised by the Philippine Expat Basketball Club. It seems the UAE has lent the majority of its estimated 600,000-strong Filipino community for the night.
"As soon as I found out they were coming I had to be here," says Dennis Lopez, a department store assistant who, despite earning Dh3,000 per month, took court-side, Dh100 seats for each of his five family members.
"I watched these guys growing up, adored them and spent every night trying to copy them in the street in Quezon [City]. I wasn't as good as them, though."
Few are. Patrimonio leads around the world the PBA's 25 Greatest Players of All-Time, a tour that visits North America, Europe and New Zealand, and anywhere in between.
"When I was in high school Patrimonio was the man, he was so popular," says Maria Mercado, a Dubai nurse, as her voices creaks after four quarters of continual encouragement. "He could score, rebound, pass the ball - everything.
"He was like the Michael Jordan of the Philippines. One hundred per cent, every single person in the Philippines knows Alvin Patrimonio."
Basketball has retained a firm place in Filipino pop culture since the United States first introduced the country, then under its colonial rule, to the sport at the turn of the 20th century.
By the time the Treaty of Manila granted the Republic of the Philippines independence in 1946, the island's national basketball team had contested the Olympic Games and become the greatest power in east Asia.
Gold medals at four successive Asian Games through the 1950s and 1960s cemented the Philippines as the continent's preeminent player and, in 1975, prompted the formation of its professional league.
Consisting of 10 company-branded teams, the PBA is the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world after north America's NBA. It currently occupies a prime-time slot on television; Filipino expats scattered round the globe catch coverage of their national heroes via a TV network based in California.
The NBA enjoys a fervent following in the Philippines, too: Game 5 of this year's NBA finals topped the morning ratings with 22.1 per cent of viewers. The Philippines go cock-a-hoop for shooting hoops.
Jaworski, who represented the Philippines and then coached their first all-professional basketball team to the 1990 Asian Games, credits the craze, predictably, to their American links.
"You have to understand that we were under American rule for quite some time and, while we had our independence in 1946, the cultural ties remain very, very close," he says. "That's why basketball is so important to us.
"The Americans gave us basketball, a beautiful sport that favours brain as well as brawn, and we have accepted it into our hearts. The following of the NBA is huge there, helped by the fact we've had all their stars - Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Elvin Hayes - come play in the Philippines.
"And remember, Eric Spoelstra is half Filipino. He's one of us."
Spoelstra is the coach of the NBA-champion Miami Heat.
Basketball's accessibly to millions of the country's impoverished has ensured its popularity.
The average annual income in the Philippines was recently recorded at US$5,800 (Dh21,300) per year, less than a third of the average for world wage-earners, according to a 2012 report by the UN International Labour Organisation.
"Basketball gives them something to strive for; a way out of poverty," says Lastimosa, the Legends centre who carved a hugely successful career at the Alaska Aces. "It's pretty much like in the States. A lot of guys live in the ghetto and the only way for them to get out is to be successful in sports." A career in the PBA could mean $15,000-a-month in salary and national recognition, he says.
He added: "We are not a rich country and basketball is easy for us to get the game going. The Americans brought basketball, but they also brought baseball. However, baseball's an expensive sport - you need a glove, a bat, a mask and a ball, whereas basketball is made possible with only a ball, a hoop and a tree.
"Everybody plays it; you see it throughout the Philippines. If a neighbourhood has a court, everyone converges on it; they are drawn to it. It serves a social function, too, where friends and family meet up and swap stories."
Lastimosa has featured for the Legends in front of 20,000 fans in San Francisco, 5,000 basketball enthusiasts in London and even 600 committed spectators in Auckland, yet it is an experience last month that he ranks among his best.
"We took on Manny Pacquiao's team in his home city in front of 1,500 people," he says, wide-eyed. "It was riot, people literally spilled over onto the court.
"When Manny boxes everything stops, but when basketball is on you can see it's still the main passion, like football in England, because everyone plays it."
Judging by the turnout in Al Shabab, every UAE-based Filipino agrees. "Basketball is the No 1 sport in our country and that's why Filipinos bring it with them to UAE," says Jun Paule, coach of the Dubai All-Stars team. "The standard is high because most players have played collegiate basketball or professional basketball in the Philippines.
"But our problem is that work must still take priority, and there are too many different organisations here, so it makes it hard to develop the game properly. . Hopefully, it will eventually become more centralised."
For Khalifa Salem, the Filipino-Emirati who has represented the UAE national team, the sport's superior infrastructure in the Philippines convinced him to further his studies in Manila.
"Basketball is a big part of my life, the favourite thing I do," Salem says. "Before I played football but my uncle, a Filipino, pushed me into basketball when I was six. I'm planning the go to university in the Philippines, and I can continue to develop my game there."
He can only imagine receiving the sort of welcome afforded to Jaworski and his Legends on that wildly excitable Dubai night.
"I owe so much to basketball," the former senator said. "That's why I come over to places like this and greet my fellow Filipinos, because we have a connection through that.
"There's a large Filipino population wherever we go. And wherever there's a lot of Filipinos, there's an insatiable desire for basketball."