Go to any street corner in the Philippines. Any village. Any beach. Even a church. You’re likely to see a basketball jersey.
“It’s often described as a religion,” Carlo Roy Singson, the managing director of N.B.A. Philippines, said in an interview.
Indeed, basketball is ingrained in Filipino culture and has been for more than a century.
The sport’s permeation of a country of about 105 million began in the late 1800s, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. A large facet of the introduction of the fledgling game was Christian missionaries, who were part of the Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association). The game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, conceived of the sport at what was then known as the International Y.M.C.A. Training School in Springfield, Mass. To take a round object and throw it into a peach hoop, as Dr. Naismith pictured it, could be a morale and character building endeavor. Soon after he invented it, missionaries began spreading it around the world, particularly in the Far East and the Philippines, in U.S. controlled areas — a kind of sports imperialism.
The N.B.A. and its players, recognizing the sport’s popularity in the Philippines, have invested time there in recent years. In 2013, the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers played a preseason game there. According to a spokesman for the league, the N.B.A.’s Facebook page has 7.3 million followers from the Philippines, the largest of any country outside of the United States. Steph Curry has visited the country multiple times. His teammate, Klay Thompson, taped a video message in 2015 specifically for his Filipino fans. Multiple networks, including Fox Sports and Solar, broadcast 30 live games per week during the regular season. Two of the most notable figures of Filipino descent in the N.B.A. are Jordan Clarkson, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard, and Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat.
This all began in the early 1900s, when basketball was introduced into schools in the Philippines. In 1913, the first Far Eastern Championship Games — an early version of what is now known as the Asian Games — took place in Manila, featuring several East Asian countries taking part in Olympics-style competitions, including basketball. It was the first of 10 biennial events, before disagreements between the countries disbanded the games. The Philippines won gold in nine of them.
The country’s population took to the sport en masse. In 1936, its national team made the Olympics and finished fifth, finishing 4-1 in the tournament. At the 1954 FIBA World Championship, the Philippines won a bronze medal, the best finish for an Asian country. Two decades later, in 1975, the Philippine Basketball Association, Asia’s first basketball league, was created. These games kept the sport at the forefront of Filipino culture and helped grow interest throughout the 20th century.
Chang W. Lee, a Times photographer, traveled to the Philippines in April to document exactly how far the sport has come there.
“This is my life! This is my life!” proclaimed a basketball fan, Teddy Garces, after his team, Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, won Game Six to tie the 2019 Philippine Basketball Association Cup semifinal series with Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok on a Friday night in April. Garces, a fan of the game for 30 years, spent most of the evening in motion, sitting in his courtside seat one minute then hopping up on the advertising panels every time a Rain or Shine player scored.
Across the court, Ehla DeJesus, 17, and her sister Rochellyn, 9, moved as if to counterbalance Garces. The sisters jumped up dancing each time Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok got a basket. The energy of Garces, the DeJesus sisters and others rocked the Ynares Center in Antipolo City until the last play of the game.
Earlier in the day, basketball devotees in the country had been transfixed by another Game Six, more than 8,000 miles away, when the Nuggets played the Spurs in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs. In Tondo, the Manila slum, a fisherman, Joel Galigar, desperately tried to connect his TV antenna so he and his family could watch the game. Early morning N.B.A. game watching is his nearly daily ritual. But after trying and failing to get the antenna adjusted, and finally relying on a neighbor who came to the rescue with a borrowed cable box, Galigar and his family of six watched the game in their barely standing tiny hut. Soon after the game began, neighbors started to crowd around the hut, leaning in to catch a glimpse of the game.
All week similar scenes played out in Quezon City and Manila. On the mornings when N.B.A. games were being played, nearly every home visited by Lee was watching the game.
Corporations have seen the opportunity. In 2013, Nike brought LeBron James to the country for a short visit.
Stephen Curry visited the country last September on the first stop of his Under Armour Asian Tour. It was his second visit.
Under heavy clotheslines in a narrow alley on a recent Saturday morning, Randy Fausto wore Curry’s jersey while playing the Filipino version of pool and watching a Warriors game through a window. Fausto claimed the jersey was his lucky charm. After the Warriors game ended, men migrated to nearby Asamba Covered Court, where Romeo Naguiat was playing. Naguiat is unemployed and plays daily, including in a local league.
Back in the center of Manila, Gil Tandoc, his 7-year-old son, Michael, and 9-year-old daughter, Elgene, worked at the family’s convenience store adjacent to the Manila City Jail Complex. The store sells basketballs.
While Michael and Elgene tirelessly bounced the basketball off the fence surrounding the jail’s entrance, inmates and guards inside the jail were busy getting ready for their own basketball tournament.
Up the coast from the jail in Navotas, other games happen in the unlikeliest of places. As the sun began to go down and the heat lost its intensity, the players — both adults and children — came out to play at Navotas City Cemetery among the “apartment tombs,” stacks of cement boxes containing the dead. It was there that 21-year-old Renalto AbAdies, who lives in a slum adjacent to the cemetery, played on a recent evening. “I don’t fear the dead,” said AbAdies, who said he has spent his life playing there.
In the Philippines, the game is everywhere.
Additional reporting by Chang W. Lee.