It’s a nation steeped in basketball history but is its obsession with retaining its own identity a limitation? The 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup told us a lot about Gilas Pilipinas but can Philippines basketball be more than Puso?
The 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup is now two weeks behind us. Japan and Indonesia played their part but this tournament was mostly about the Philippines and its famously rabid basketball culture. The sport is like rugby in Madagascar, hurling in Keady, or korfball on the Sickos Committee podcast. It is a national obsession, yet not a force in the sport.
Having brought the best in the world to Manila for a fortnight, was their any actual benefit for the Philippines in hosting the tournament?
“Yes, I believe the just recently concluded FIBA tournament helped Philippine basketball in more ways than one. Not only did this tournament promote the country’s basketball culture and passion for the game, but it also proved that the Philippines is an adequate country host for grand events such as the FIBA World Cup. So, it won’t be a surprise if more tournaments, whether basketball or not, will be held here in the future,” Nicole Ganglani, a Manila-based journalist who covers the Los Angeles Lakers for Silver Screen and Roll, told BallinEurope.
Ganglani however has an important coda to that comment.
Seeing the gap
There was a lot to like on paper about this tournament. The Philippines hosted the most attended international basketball game ever. On opening day, the fire was there from over 38,000 fans but the Dominican Republic was too strong. It would become a familiar story.
“Another aspect is that this tournament was a realisation for Philippine basketball that they are still way behind compared to their competitors on the court. They embarrassingly only won one game out of five and if this tournament will help them realise that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for them to fully develop, then it served its purpose.”
Rafe Bartholomew, author of Pacific Rims, an extensive read on experiencing basketball culture in the Philippines had a similar view.
“The Philippine national team was a huge story but was largely viewed as a disappointment. The team didn’t look as good as people hoped. The loss to Angola, fans may have taken that game for granted a little bit,” he said.
“People were following the national team’s progress avidly in the tournament and they were extremely vocal about the shortcomings. The coach announced his plans to step down before their final game. I think he was the only coach to leave his post during the actual World Cup.”
A simple explanation but not an easy solution
This result at the FIBA Basketball World Cup was hardly out of the norm for Gilas Pilipinas. In 2014, they went 1-4 with a win over Senegal. In 2019, they went 0-5. Prior to that, except for 1986 when they withdrew and 1978 when they hosted, the Philippines simply didn’t qualify for a FIBA Basketball World Cup between 1974 (when they went 2-5) and 2014.
The all time win-loss record, for the most basketball obsessed nation on the planet, at the World Cup is 14-31. That’s bad, then you realise that 10 of those 14 wins came in their first two appearances in 1954 and 1959.
It begs the question
How can a nation, this large and this focused on the sport, be so inept when taking on nations without anywhere near the basketball infrastructure it possesses let alone against top tier sides?
“Because the Philippines has not produced enough talents capable of playing overseas. It’s really that simple. As much as the country treats basketball like it’s a religion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the talent to compete against the world. It’s a harsh truth I know. and it hurts me to say this but that’s just reality,” Ganglani said.
“There are various reasons as to why the Philippines have yet to see a local breakout start overseas. For one, let’s face it — Filipinos aren’t perfectly physically built for basketball. Filipinos are shorter than the average basketball player, they’re less athletic and physical,”
“They rely heavily on their speed, shooting ability and what they call ‘puso’ which means heart and love for the game to propel them to victory — which we just saw in the FIBA World Cup led them nowhere. If anything, the FIBA World Cup was another indicator as to why they can never get past their competition.”
Yet there is development
It just may not be what’s needed to compete internationally, particularly against the sport’s top teams.
“The youth system is, in some ways, very sophisticated. There’s widespread penetration of jr NBA tournaments around the country. Camps are pretty common as well for kids to learn basic skills. There are talent scouts all over the nation. Usually you will see young players who have the potential to be strong college or professional players get recruited and brought to Manila in their early teenage years,” Bartholomew said.
“That side is widespread. Where development may fall short is that the passion for the sport can create obstacles for ideal development. The most talented players, the ones that look like they have the most potential, they are found so early. They are given a star status so early in their lives that it’s hard not to imagine it impacts them. They are basketball stars before they are even close to realising their potential as players.”
BallinEurope is ramping up its YouTube game this season. Subscribe to our channel now for player exclusives, analysis videos, and much more.
We need to talk about Puso
In Araneta Coliseum, watching South Sudan utterly dominate the Philippines in an arena that was 60 per cent full, the unique nature of Philippines basketball, the Puso, was visible.
There’s an abundance of effort. The game is played in a most cavalier way. All out attack is the goal. Everything is built around speed and electricity. It’s certainly heart-pumping but it’s not terribly effective.
James Leonard Cruz described the way Gilas Pilipinas play in an article for The Game, that captures the nature of Puso basketball.
“Much like how our proud ancestors bravely fought cannons and guns with bolos, spears, and wooden shields, it didn’t matter who we were fighting. The only thing that mattered was that we were there to fight and that we were fighting to win.”
Read our deep dive into the future of basketball in Canada. The success at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup is only the beginning of the story.
Getting to the heart of the matter
In his column, which I recommend you read, Cruz calls for the Puso era to be called to a halt. Bartholomew however believes a balance can be reached.
“Basketball in the Philippines developed on its own and in isolation after the US introduced the sport. Basketball took on a life of its own in the country. It was also inspired by the NBA but, because of the distance, players and coaches couldn’t just go and see what was happening in other countries. That was until the [requisite] technology came along in the last 15 or 20 years,” he said.
“There’s something cool about that but it doesn’t necessarily make it more competitive on an international stage. Then it gets philosophical. Is it more important that the Philippines has its own version of the game that it has developed for 100 years? Or if the country took more from others, they’d perform a little better?”
Finding that balance
The unique culture of basketball in the Philippines is one to be cherished but all cultures evolve. Music is a great example where assorted world influences have become infused into Irish traditional music over the years. It is different yet still has its own identity. Bartholomew hopes that can happen with basketball in the Philippines.
“I never want to see the country lose its unique spirit and reject its history in basketball. It’s one of the richest histories in all of world basketball. Like anyone else who cares deeply about Philippine basketball, I want to see the country do well in international competitions or achieve close to their potential,” he said.
“That’s the frustration for a lot of people. They know there is a lot of talent in the country. Not so much that they would expect to beat top 10 teams in the world on a regular basis. Still, they want to see the country put its best food forward and look like it is competitive. Opening up more, being more willing to accept what the rest of the world has learned about the game, would probably be a benefit.”
France decided to introduce a form of salary cap earlier this year. In a continent like Europe, that simple won’t work in basketball. Read why here.
About that culture
The goal for many that made the trip to Manila for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup was to experience those wild local crowds. The pricing however was out of whack. The cheap seats were sold out, so too were the courtside ones, but the bulk of tickets were in the mid range. This left many empty seats in arenas, something that was acknowledged as a mistake by FIBA at the end of the tournament.
It also showed the wild impact of the NBA on the sport. Austin Reaves was the most beloved player at the tournament, because he plays for the Lakers. Dillon Brooks, because of his comments about the Lakers during the NBA playoffs, got booed every time he touched the ball. The NBA, and really the Lakers or anything Lakers-adjacent, rather than basketball as a whole was box office in Manila.
“Every Team USA game and Philippines game had senators in the front row. The president came to the opening game against the Dominican Republic. There was a huge amount of national interest. There’s always that tension, especially in a country where not everyone can afford expensive basketball tickets, between maximising participation or maximising revenue,” Bartholomew said.
“FIBA and the local organisers went for a more revenue oriented strategy. That led to some smaller crowds in the mid tier areas of arenas for some great games. It was unfortunate. They could have achieved full houses but it was too expensive for a lot of people.”
The very culture that the sport sought to embrace in Manila was somewhat lacking inside the arenas but that can be a lesson for those in power. There are quite a few of those they could take on board.
What to do?
There’s a lot of love for basketball. There’s a lot of people playing basketball. If you are good at basketball, you get spotted early. The pieces are there for the Philippines to be a lot better at basketball. Not just the national team, which would benefit from a change in FIBA naturalisation rules, but in terms of building true breakout stars.
The question is how to make it actually work?
“Perhaps, if God can bless Filipino basketball players with more height and athletic ability then that would do wonders,” Ganglani said.
“Jokes aside, the Philippines have to start from scratch. What’s going on behind the scenes now with the leaders of the Philippine National Basketball team, specifically the Gilas Pilipinas, has become a little too toxic and full of politics and complicated issues. So fixing this first is a first step.”
An important self-assessment
There needs to be both a cultural shift but also an acknowledgement of the strengths within the existing basketball culture,
“It would be nice if Filipino basketball players are trained under the right development programmer. Not the one they’ve known for years as they’ve patterned their training methods similar to how American basketball players develop their players, which is wrong because Filipino athletes don’t necessarily possess the skills of an American basketball player. The current local development programme isn’t holistic enough. Filipinos need to improve their grassroots program,” Ganglani said.
“Instead of basing their development program on what works for others, Filipino basketball players need to come up with what works FOR them. That starts with the basic basketball plays like developing their IQ and learning the right fundamentals such as how to cut, pass, shoot, defence, and dribble instead of what players see in highlights like shooting, dunks, etc”
There is genuine cause for hope
The way we look at basketball now in the Philippines needs some context. There are opportunities being missed but it was, not so long ago, a much worse foundation to build on.
“The country is constantly working on ways to improve. If you look at from the time I first started paying attention to Philippine basketball in 2005, it was banned from FIBA due to internal conflicts. It was viewed as a country that didn’t have its act together despite its outsized love for the sport,” Bartholomew said.
“The country has come a long way since then. There’s a double edged sword with this outsized love for the game. There’s an abundance of players, the Philippines probably leads South East Asia in players who go abroad to play in other Asian leagues. There’s so much depth of talent that they could probably support several pro leagues, and they do.”
It’s the speed at which the development happens that frustrates fans of the sport. With the shoots of real progress visible, there’s a natural desire for lots of fruit to be borne quickly.
“There are fans who want it to happen all at once. Nothing does. With more Philippine players going to Japan and Korea, it may accelerate the process. It could force the PBA to open up more and increase its pay scale to compete. All of that interaction will speed up the process of opening Philippine basketball and making it more competitive in years to come.”
Ganglani agrees with Bartholomew that progress is becoming more visible. The Gilas Pilipinas may still be floundering on the global stage but there is hope for change.
“It’s important to note that over the past three years, some of the young basketball players have already represented the Philippines in international leagues such as the Japan Basketball League and Korean Basketball League so this alone is a sign that there has been progress in this regard,” she said.
That being said, these signs of hope should not be taken for granted. Bartholomew pointed out that while basketball remains a religion in the Philippines, faith is not a given.
“With everything being more dispersed in the world now and more options for entertainment, not every game is as packed as it was in the 1970s. In some ways, it has been knocked down a peg from those high points. The fact is that everywhere, throughout the country, wherever you go outside there are people playing on courts. Basketball is part of the fabric of daily life in the Philippines. That is engrained over generations.”
This is a complex problem. Indeed, whether it even is a problem is a matter of complexity in itself. Right now, fans in the Philippines love basketball no matter what Gilas Pilipinas does. Still, the impact just one son of a Filipina mother in Jordan Clarkson was obvious. Now imagine more players, coming from the Philippines itself and spreading their basketball to the world.
Puso can live on but innovation is also a matter for the spirit. The generations that flock far and wide can make a difference. They just need the right backdrop in place to truly take flight.
Huge thanks to both Nicole Ganglani and Rafe Bartholomew for their assistance with this piece. You should follow them both on Twitter. Follow Nicole here and Rafe here