- Playing with the Big Boys: Basketball, American Imperialism, and Subaltern Discourse in the Philippines by Lou Antolihao
The global dissemination of basketball came with complexity. In some cases, hyphenated-Americans took the game back to their ancestral homeland; in others, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) missionaries took the game to their outposts; and in others, American soldiers took the game to their foreign stations during the First and Second World Wars. [End Page 224]
It is not clear that basketball’s origination in the Philippines follows any of these three tracks independently. Indeed, the most that James Naismith, basketball’s founder, could do was speculate on how the game became popular in the former American colony. The conditions in the island nation provided inauspicious grounds for the growth of the hoops game.
In Playing with the Big Boys: Basketball, American Imperialism, and Subaltern Discourse in the Philippines, author Lou Antolihao describes these conditions in terms of the history and sociology of basketball in the Philippines. The author provides a rich and robust set of sources—including interviews, academic archives, and national archives—to amplify his personal interest and broad experiences within Filipino culture. He argues that the culture and history of basketball in that nation is complex and has provided a unique discourse on colonization, subalternity, commercialization, and globalization.
Antolihao’s title refers to the most primal reason for wondering why the Filipinos have such a fascination with basketball—their short stature. “Arguably no other country’s choice of national sport has been called more into question than that of the Philippines,” he argues because of the nation’s lack of height. Basketball is a sport with a premium on height, and yet the hoops-loving Filipinos average only 5′4.4″ for men and 4′11.8″ for women—roughly half a foot shorter than the average heights for Americans and Spaniards, the two nations with the most successful recent national basketball teams (13–14).
Despite this natural disadvantage, the Philippines put forth very successful national teams through the 1960s that helped provide an identity to the nation still grappling with its recent past as a Spanish and then American colony. Winning the Asian Games basketball tournaments in 1951, 1954, 1958, and 1962 (166) helped provide the nation with success on an international scale that it had not achieved before.
This success spawned an evolving basketball culture over the past fifty years that Antolihao describes with great detail. The international success in the 1950s and 1960s created hoops hysteria around the country, as basketball became the national pastime by exciting the massive working class. This group, new to the joys of Filipino national pride and emerging consumer culture, helped generate what Antolihao calls the “Hollywoodization of Hoops” (93). Elite basketball players became national celebrities, and businesses found ways to commodify the game by sponsoring teams in the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA), which originated in 1975.
The PBA found great success in its first twenty-five years of existence. Commercial interests prevailed such that almost 75 percent of the Filipino adult population indicated that they followed basketball. This time period, Antolihao notes, represents the re-emergence of a crucial aspect of Filipino identity—rooting for the underdog. The subalternity that Filipinos experienced while colonized became obvious as basketball spectators—especially those in the working class—showed their penchant for cheering on the underdogs. In doing so, “local basketball followers are clearly not only cheering for their favorite team but also rooting for themselves” (122). Thus, the nation’s historical discourse as the colonized, Antolihao aptly describes, continued through the prominence of the PBA and its fans.
Since the turn of the century, the PBA has faced increasing economic hardships. Globalization has provided Filipinos with greater access to American basketball games, and the short nation has struggled to become relevant on the world’s basketball stage. All [End Page 225] of this, the author notes, amplifies the need to question the Philippines’ strange interest in basketball.
Antolihao provides a...