For Filipinos in New York City, ball (and discipline) is life
By Erica Davies
Bright fluorescent lights spill onto Ascan Avenue, guiding Filipino parents through the dark streets of Forest Hills into P.S. 101Q’s gym.
On Saturday evenings, they bring their children to the school to play for the Filipino Basketball Association (FBA) of New York from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Members of the Filipino Basketball Association are children of accountants, nannies and day-laborers who are strung together by a common thread: a love and appreciation for basketball and Filipino culture.
Basketball is an escape from poverty for those who aspire to play professionally for the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), where players earn 20 to 30 times the salary of the average Filipino. For others, it is a detractor from a life of crime and drug addiction that many Filipino youth fall prey to. For all, it is a moment of fun in the hectic lives they lead.
“Sports is a metaphor for life, it teaches you the right values,” said Manuel Pagilinan, CEO of investment management company First Pacific, in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Not to cheat, to focus, the discipline of the sport, are all values that resonate in everyday life.”
53-year-old Bong De Los Santos, the sole coach of the Filipino Basketball Association, has spent every weekend of the last eight years driving to P.S. 101Q from his Jersey City home to teach youth of all ages how to play basketball.
It was the final day of the fall camp session for the 4- to 7-years-old cohort. Excited to receive their official FBA T-shirts, the children were chatty and restless. Two teenagers, 17-year-olds Leah Pinili and Abby Reyes, rounded up six girls and four boys into two lines. Pinili and Reyes joined the FBA at the age of 10 as part of the inaugural cohort in 2007; the high school seniors are now Santos’ coaching assistants.
“Okay boys and girls, today we’re going to start with a ball-handling drill,” he said. “Squat down to the ground, put the ball in front of you, and roll it with two hands to the orange cone, then around, and come back. Ready, set, go!”
A child in an over-sized Carmelo Anthony jersey quickly shuffled his feet. His small hands pushed the ball forward as he tried to keep up with another boy who was steps ahead of him. After two go-arounds, Santos blew his whistle again.
“Water break!” he shouted. The children scattered around the gym to find their parents waiting on the sidelines with bottle water.
Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Santos makes ceiling fixtures in a manufacturing facility in Brooklyn, but he always makes time for one-on-one training sessions during the week. His coaching job is unpaid and takes up most of his weekends.
Santos' wife tells him he’s working himself too hard, that he needs to start minding his health because he’s getting older. He allows it to go through one ear and out of the other. For him, continuing to foster the passion for basketball in his students is top priority.
“For Filipinos, basketball is in our blood. It’s a part of our culture,” he said. “It’s the passion of the game that keeps them away from drugs and doing well in school. It’s a way of life.”
Though Filipinos make up only 3.8% of the New York population, those who immigrate to the city bring their love for basketball with them. Including FBA, there are currently 10 Filipino basketball leagues within the New York Metro region and roughly 100 across the United States. Most operate seasonally during the summer months, but FBA is the only one that operates year-round.
The Philippines was one of the first nations introduced to basketball when the U.S. government integrated the sport into the physical education curriculum in Philippine schools in 1910. The country entered Olympic competition in 1936 as a commonwealth, and continued to compete in the Olympics after gaining independence in 1946.
The men’s national team performed well in international tournaments like the Asian Games, the Asian equivalent of the Olympics, where they won the gold medal in 1951. Three years later, the men’s team won the bronze medal and finished with a 5–2 record in the Final Round games at the 1954 FIBA Basketball World Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup). To this day, the team’s third-place win is still the best finish by an Asian team in the World Cup.
After two decades of dominating international basketball competitions, the Philippine Basketball Association was founded in Quezon City in April 1975. Composed of 12 company-branded franchise teams, it is the first and oldest professional basketball league in Asia and the second oldest in the world after the National Basketball Association.
Approximately 40 percent of people in the Philippines play basketball in some capacity, according to Frank P. Jozsa, author of “The National Basketball Association: Business Organization and Strategy”. Basketball is especially popular in urban areas like Cebu, Manila and Quezon City. Data from Zenith Optimedia’s 2008 Sponsorship Intelligence Report show that 81 percent of the urban population identify as basketball fans, with nearly 50 percent claiming to be avid fans. Urban Filipinos are also fans of their American basketball counterparts: 75 percent claim to also be fans of the NBA.
Similar to the United States, university leagues are also extremely popular, namely the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (Philippines). As a result of the immense popularity, the Philippine Collegiate Championship, a tournament similar to the American NCAA’s March Madness, was established in 2008.
During college, Santos played in a university league. After he received his engineering degree from Cagayan de Oro college in Mindanao, he left the island against his parents wishes and traveled to Metro Manila to pursue his dream of playing for the PBA in August of 1989. His dreams of playing professional basketball soon fizzled: although he was a lean, sinewy 6'2”, at 27 years old he was no longer in shape the way he was in his college days.
“My parents always told me ‘finish your studies first and then do whatever you want’. But by that time, I wasn’t as physically fit as I was in college,” he said. “I wasn’t able to follow my dreams, so now that frustration goes to the kids. That’s how I started getting into coaching.”
Since Santos couldn’t join ’em, he trained ’em — he became the head basketball coach at his alma mater that fall. He found that he liked coaching better than playing, and continued to do so even after he and his family immigrated to the United States in 2006. A year later, he started the FBA with two friends and less than 10 children. Within its first year, the group grew from 10 to 60 solely through word of mouth.
For participants, basketball is less of a hobby and more of a culture. Lauren Batac, a sophomore at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, attended her father’s weekend basketball games as a child. Santos, or “Coach B” as she prefers to call him, played on the same team as her father, and encouraged him to enroll her in FBA’s summer camp at 8 years old.
The 15-year-old enjoys playing with other Filipinos because games are played closer to the street-style basketball of the Philippines than the American way of hardwood floors.
“In the Philippines, they can play basketball barefoot,” she said. “Here, they would never do that. They need an air-conditioned gym, an actual basketball, and equipment. [Filipinos] have the passion to play at any time.”
Without access to basketball camps, Filipino children learn how to play the game through trial and error on dirt streets and concrete courts. Santos said he learned how to play basketball by shooting around with his friends as a child because his parents couldn’t afford professional training.
The financial hardships that got in the way of pursuing his dreams is the reason why Santos charges only $150 for an eight-session clinic, less than half the cost of Nike’s $495 three-session clinic at Baruch College. His one-on-one sessions are done per request, and are completely free of charge.
Lynne Guerrero, who handles FBA’s finances and is also Leah’s mother, says that the organization never turns away a child because of financial hardship. The organization covers the difference between the program’s cost and what parents are able to pay. As a former college athlete who is now a parent, she recognizes the importance of the social and personal skills learned through basketball.
“[Basketball] helps kids develop social interactions, it helps reinforce listening skills,” she said. “If you learn how to listen in school and on the court, you’re gonna learn how to listen to your parents.”
In Filipino culture, education and respecting elders are values paramount to all else, including athletics. Guerrero says she has to remind some FBA parents that the benefits of basketball translate to all aspects of life, including academics. Discipline and responsibility are two reasons why basketball is big in Filipino culture — both are emphasized in practice constantly.
18-year-old Phoebe Valenton, an FBA player who also attended Archbishop Molloy High School, says the personal skills she learned at FBA have helped her in school.
“Discipline and time-management definitely,” she said. “Without the program, I probably wouldn’t have paid attention as much in class.”
Though the program emphasizes important skills such as self-discipline, it isn’t done in a grueling manner as other high school or college athletic programs throughout the city that require huge time commitments from students during the week and on weekends. Santos’ coaching is a combination of the seriousness of American sports and the fun of Filipino athletics in all the right moments, something that all of his students appreciate.
“I feel like I enjoy it more with Filipinos. When it’s mixed, I feel like it’s more competition, you HAVE to win,” Batac said. “When I play with Filipinos, it’s competition, but I’m enjoying it at the same time. You feel closer.”
According to Pinili, outside influences like the pressure to play for a Division I college is the major difference between American and Filipino basketball, something that is apparent to her when she plays against teams of mixed backgrounds. Camaraderie is more important than competition when she plays with other Filipinos at FBA: there is a certain level of closeness that is foreign to other competitors.
“Here, we always play against people we know,” she said. “In high school you don’t, so you hate them because losers never shake hands after a game. In Filipino tournaments, you always say good game, then hang out afterwards.”
For Pinili, Batac, and Valenton, FBA is more than just a Saturday night basketball club. It’s a family of Filipinos who thrive their culture through a mutual love of the sport.
“I was overwhelemed with the amount of Filipinos in one gym,” Valenton said. “Outside the Philippines, I’d never seen that many Filipinos in one place. There’s just a natural connection between Filipinos.”
At the end of the practice, Santos carried a cardboard box to the middle of the court and called over the children and their parents. He pulled out a stack of red t-shirts from the box; “Filipino Basketball Association” was printed in black block letters across the chest. The children were ecstatic as he called their names one by one to receive their shirts. Afterward, four of them shyly handed him a white envelope.
“Thank you, Coach B!” they said in unison before they giggled and ran off.
Inside the envelope was $150 and a thank you card from the parents, who were appreciative of his time and efforts. Santos said that gifts like these were common, like a grandmother giving her grandchild a card enclosed with $20 simply for being who they were. Although he thinks about the what ifs of playing professional ball, he doesn’t regret his pro-bono venture into coaching.
“I never looked at [coaching] as a money making venture, it would take all the fun out of it,” he said with a smile. “As long as there are kids who want to play basketball, I’ll train them.”