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Book review: "Pacific Rims" is a must-read

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I was born and raised in San Francisco. My mother came to the United States from a tiny coastal town in the Philipines when she was a teenager. She's only been back once, thirty-five years after leaving, and I've never been there.

My white, blonde, blue-eyed father went with her when she made her return a few summers ago. When they got back to California after a month and a half in both Manila and places barely on the map, they were a few pounds lighter, and their skin was a few shades darker. The first thing my dad talked about was seeing poverty at every turn. He's conscientious that way, and seemed genuinely changed by the experience of living in a third world country. The second thing I remember him talking about was how basketball was everywhere, and specifically that he was astonished by how popular pickup basketball was.

So, when a PR firm offered me the opportunity to read a review copy of Pacfic Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, by Rafe Bartholomew, I couldn't pass it up.

You may recall Bartholomew's guest post at Free Darko that was linked here a while back. Consider that the amuse-bouche to the book's feast.

To start, it's unlikely most of the Rufus on Fire audience will be particularly familiar with the Philippines, let alone basketball in that island nation. As a second-generation Filipino-American, I found myself nodding in recognition when Bartholomew describes how Filipino identity politics can't be broken down into any kind of logical formula, as illustrated by the public's complicated relationships with Fil-Ams, half-Filipinos like Philippine Basketball Association legend Robert Jaworski, and the existence of popular midget-versus-transvestite exhibition games in a mostly Catholic country. Without getting too far into the details of why, it all makes total sense to me and is hardly a surprise that Filipinos tend not to have a problem embracing multiple social situations that the average American might consider inherently contradictory.

As for the basketball, there's a lot to chew on. The PBA necessarily operates in its own little bubble. Since the average Filipino is shorter than the average American, and that carries over to its basketball players, only one foreign player is allowed on each team, and he must be shorter than an allowed height. The height thing also creates a parallel basketball culture in which below-the-rim creativity hyperdevelops at the highest levels, creating a brand of game that doesn't exist in competitive play in the United States.

Bartholomew followed the Alaska Aces during the 2006-07 Fiesta Conference (teams are all named after their sponsors, each season is broken up into three "conferences"), and was granted inside access to the team and its players at all times, during games, practices, and off hours. From that access, Bartholomew paints a picture of a team as vivid as the Trail Blazers from David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, or the Suns in Jack McCallum's :07 or Less.

Rosell "Roe" Ellis is the team's imported player, expected to score 30 points per game, be the best lockdown defender on the floor, rest only three or four minutes per game, and be a model citizen. Willie Miller is the Aces' multiple MVP-winning point guard with a penchant for going Stephon Marbury on everyone, in more ways than one. On the floor, he freelances, often awing teammates and spectators alike with scintillating moves to the rim, but his mood swings and corresponding lackluster play jeopardize the team's hopes of winning a title. Coach Tim Cone is the unlikely puppet master, having taught himself the triangle offense by watching grainy videotape of Phil Jackson's Bulls teams. He's a walking amalgamation of every overprepared coach in history, constantly showing his players another way to get an edge on their opponents, even when they think they can't retain any more.

But beyond that single team's story, Bartholomew ties Filipino basketball history to the larger culture, and true hoops junkies will lose themselves in the book when they're learning about this history and the culture it hath wrought. It's not often that one happens upon a thriving parallel universe just across the ocean he had little idea existed, and better yet, has the good fortune that a storyteller like Bartholomew is there to show him around.

This book probably won't have the impact on basketball fans that Breaks or :07 Seconds did (if I may go out on a limb), but it's still a must-read. Just as You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting, is the definitive history of Japanese baseball for an American audience, Pacific Rims could go down as the definitive history of Filipino basketball for an American audience, and a worthy template for anyone else attempting to write an accessible, compelling, survey of a sports culture.

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