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An Affair To Remember

Rockets ready to put on a show in basketball-mad Philippines

MANILA - By now you’ve likely already heard plenty about the love affair between basketball and the Philippines. Some of the stories tell of an ardor so intense they sometimes seem to drift into the realm of hyperbole. But whether or not embellishment is involved should do nothing to diminish the fact that this is a nation head over heels for hoops. And know this: this is not some summer fling or embryonic romance. This country has been basketball-obsessed for decades.

I learned that firsthand during the summer of 1993 in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. While visiting my parents for a few months in the city of Al Khobar that summer, I figured it would be nice to earn a little spending money so I spent several weeks working in home construction at a nearby oil and gas company. The working conditions were, to be blunt, brutal. The Saudi summer heat was as oppressive as you’d expect with highs in the 100s – and frequently 110s – and not a hint of air conditioning to be found.

Every worker at that site, save me, had the same story: they were Filipino men working at least 12 hours per day, frequently seven days a week, all in an effort to send as much money as they could to their families back home. And every single one of those men seemed to be consumed by basketball.

Some spoke English perfectly. Others’ mastery of the language began with hello and ended with goodbye. But the second they found out that I too was a hoops junkie every single one of them did their best to carry on extended conversations about their shared passion for the game.   

The more we talked, the more their infatuation revealed itself. While I went home and crashed from exhaustion, they stayed up until the wee hours hoping Arabic TV would show a replay of one of the recently completed NBA Finals games. Not surprisingly, they were obsessed with Michael Jordan. Their knowledge of the MJ canon was remarkable – keep in mind, this was 1993; practically a decade before the days of YouTube – so our early days featured regular sessions during which we'd swap tales of His Airness' greatest hits (It occurs to me now how it’s such a pity that this experience took place in '93 rather than during Hakeem Olajuwon's reign in '94 and '95 – I could have blown their basketball-addled minds with my expansive knowledge of Dream's college and pro career). They were insatiable in their thirst for the sport.

Two decades later, nothing's changed.

You see it in the courts littered around Manila and the myriad NBA jerseys worn on the streets. You hear it in the screams that ring out seemingly every time a player goes out in public. And it’s certainly there in the game of Where’s Waldo? that ensues every time the media horde engulfs its latest victim.

“They love basketball,” says Chandler Parsons. “It’s awesome to come to a place that really respects and takes in the game and knows everybody one-through-fifteen on your roster. The cab driver last night knew everybody on our team. It’s just crazy how passionate they are.”

In roughly 48 hours, that passion will be put on full display when the Rockets and Pacers face off on the floor of the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila. Yes, it’s just a preseason game, but the fans who pack the arena surely won’t treat it as such – a reality that’s not at all lost on the Rockets’ players.

“For (the people of the Philippines), this is one of the biggest games of their lives,” says James Harden. “It means a lot to us as well, just to give them a glimpse of NBA basketball and what we have and our talents.

“It’s definitely special. It’s up to us to put on a show and make sure they remember that day and remember that game. They love basketball. They’re major fans over here. It’s my job to make sure that they’re happy.”

And-1s: Three days after the Rockets’ preseason opener, players were still buzzing about the extraordinary pickpocket routine Patrick Beverley pulled on Jrue Holiday in the fourth quarter. Said an awestruck Chandler Parsons: “You don’t see that very often in an L.A. Fitness league game, let alone against an All-Star. That’s just what (Beverley) does every day. I hate practicing against him so I can’t imagine going against him in a game. He’s fearless and he can really defend. He’s got great instincts and hands.”