OPINION: Why Filipinos bother with basketball (even though we’re too short for it)

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There is an argument that Filipinos should give up on basketball. We’re too short for it. We’re never gonna win the Olympics. We should focus on sports where we can win. But should we? Photo from HOOP NATION/TWITTER

Editor’s note: Gian Lao works at the First Pacific Leadership Academy. The views expressed in this piece are his alone.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s a miserable truth about Philippine sports, and it’s one we all know: Whenever a Filipino athlete succeeds globally, they do it in spite of

The latter half of that sentence doesn’t matter. We’re familiar with this story. The Filipino athlete training with old equipment in a smelly gym. The Filipino athlete photographed eating tuyo with rice, challenging the world with a suboptimal diet. The Filipino athlete working a day job while training for the Olympics, or running away from home to pursue sports.

In a sense, it’s no different from the teleseryes we love. It’s the same formula. Change a few key elements, handpick some new artistas from a carousel of mestizos and mestizas, add a minor twist, and you’ll get a version of it: the Great Philippine Story.

I happen to be of the opinion that the Great Philippine Story — sports version — sucks.

I don’t say this to discredit our athletes, whom I admire deeply for hurdling the many challenges in their way, and for turning in some spectacular performances. I say this because I hate that it always has to be like this.

Is it too much to dream that, one day, we won’t have to win against all odds? Is it too much to ask for our athletes to win a medal, and in the aftermath of the euphoria, find that they cruised to victory because they had the talent, as well as the necessary support from the State and the private sector?

It’s frustrating. But to be completely fair, we can make some room for optimism this time. Our performance at the recent Asian Games can be easily summarized: Not bad.

Look at our loot. Four gold medals, two silver, and 14 bronze — good for 19th place out of 45 nations and barely missing our self-imposed target of 15th. It is with the most cautious optimism that I say: Things are looking up. We finished 22 in the last Asian Games, and had just one gold medal. We’re more competitive in more sports. We are proud of new revelations in golf (Lois Kaye Go, Bianca Pagdanganan, Yuka Saso) and skateboarding (Margielyn Didal). And we have a Philippine Olympic Committee President who isn’t afraid of telling the truth: The athletes carried us; we need to support them better; and we need to stop getting in their way with internal politics in our National Sports Associations.

Basketball is precious to us not because it wins us medals — but because it’s been woven into the national fabric.

In the midst of the national post-mortem after the Asian Games — conducted primarily on social media — I found only one disturbing train of thought.

Isaac Reyes, a data storyteller from the Internet, penned a satirical research abstract, which concludes that the Philippines should “cease playing basketball completely.” Reyes playfully argues that getting over our “national obsession with basketball,” together with a strategic redistribution of sponsor funding, would quintuple the Philippines’ medal haul in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Reyes became one of the loudest voices in a digital mob that says we should give up on basketball. We’re too short for it. We’re never gonna win the Olympics. We should focus on sports where we can win.

I agree. Kind of.

Filipino children should be exposed to various kinds of sports growing up. We need to widen their horizons. We need to make the economics work for multiple sports, especially the ones with which we’re physically compatible. Sports funding, largely driven by private sponsorships, and significantly supported by a percentage of PAGCOR revenues, should be distributed to sports where we can excel globally.

But mine and Mr. Reyes’ paths diverge at a critical point. We have different answers to the question of why we play sports to begin with.

His comedic research abstract comes with an implicit assumption — that winning is the only reason why we even bother with sports. A brief Google search will reveal thinkers who share the same assumption. They say that the value of sports to a society is as a unifying force. It gives us a collective aspiration for national glory. When we win, it is the national version of ripping our shirts off, revealing a glowing six-pack seemingly painted with liempo marinade, and screaming “Pinoy pride!”

It is easy to imagine how this might be good for us. It might mend the societal and political fractures that have admittedly worsened over the past few years. It might get us to like each other again, and this is why we must win. Then again, how many times has Manny Pacquiao triggered a national day of celebration? And how often have we quickly reverted from a nation united to a nation divided?

There is a more extreme approach to this concept. George Orwell famously referred to sports as “war minus the shooting.” This quote represents a wider view that countries like the United States, China, and Russia, invest in sports because international success validates their national philosophies. The winner gets a leg up in an ideological war, which would be one possible explanation for why some countries allegedly falsify birth certificates, or allegedly conduct state sanctioned doping. Sports is war, and they cannot afford to lose a war.

Now, I am not saying that we should be happy with losing. I want us to win. Actually, I fully support the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) devoting the most significant portions of its budget to “tier one sports” — meaning, sports in which we have the highest chance of winning Olympic medals. To be completely fair, the PSC is already doing what Mr. Reyes and his sympathizers are suggesting.

My problem is with the rhetoric. There will always be something problematic with reducing the value of sports into a single word, be it “winning” or “unity” or “pride.”

When we win, it is the national version of ripping our shirts off, revealing a glowing six-pack seemingly painted with liempo marinade, and screaming “Pinoy pride!”

The value of sports cannot ever be reduced to one word, simply because it takes up such a huge space in our spectrum of feelings. We do it to feel like we’re a part of a team; we do it to have fun, enjoy, and be happy; we do it to build self-confidence; we do it to be fit and healthy; we do it because we love doing it. Those are all important aspects of sports, and it is dangerously simplistic to say — even as a joke — that we should “cease playing basketball completely” because we have no chance of being the best in the world at it.

Basketball is precious to us not because it wins us medals — though, of course, those are very welcome bonuses. It’s precious because it’s been woven into the national fabric. It’s precious because we don’t find it weird that some 5’2” man practices his shooting form while walking on the street. It’s precious because it’s become a way for us to forge relationships with others through pick-up. It’s precious because it’s become a means of expression — the way we dribble, pass, shoot, and even cheer. It’s precious because — regardless of whether or not it was a colonial hand-me-down — it is a means by which we build our communities.

It doesn’t matter that we’re small, even. In fact, I like that we, as a nation, love the game of basketball, even given our average height. It’s a very Filipino thing to do. And it’s not like we haven’t gotten better. We’ve gone from 67th in the FIBA Rankings in 2007 to 30th today. Let’s not disrespect our athletes by pretending nothing’s happened.

Somehow, our sports authorities are approaching our Olympic performances with a sound strategy, and I am grateful for that. Many of us Filipinos are likewise fully supportive of the lionization of athletes like Hidilyn Diaz, Yuka Saso, and Margielyn Didal, among many, many others. But this shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. We can celebrate our winners without disparaging or belittling those of us who fought and lost. We can support our collective aspiration to win while still adhering to the wide set of values that makes sports worth practicing. And we can up our medal count while embracing our national love for basketball.

This, in my opinion, should be the only way we make a name for ourselves. If our nation does take a place in the upper echelon of sporting countries — and I think we can — I want it to be truly us, not simply a nation that resembles us.