Exploring the Philippines’ Improvised Love for Basketball

Stemming from the a simple love for the game of basketball, photographer Dave Carswell captures the makeshift hoops of the Philippines.

The same way that Americans are traditionally bred to love football, Canadians with hockey and many Europeans, Africans and Asians with soccer, Filipinos eat, sleep and breathe basketball.

The Philippines is a nation where basketball thrives in the truest sense, but due to the economic barriers that plague the country, access to the sport remains limited for millions as necessary equipment is not freely available. All over the country, however, a burning passion for the sport has allowed everyday Filipinos to bypass these obstacles and construct hoops from improvised materials, using trees trunks in place of poles and recycled wooden planks for a backboard, often emblazoned with unofficial branding in creative corners of the basketball-crazed nation.

Philippines

“There is something so simple about the construction of the everyday hoop,” photographer Dave Carswell observes. “A ‘no-frills’ attempt at creating a space that can be used locally, a passive resistance to the sterile nature of the mega malls, a construction that shows care, enthusiasm and hope.”

The Philippines’ love affair with the game of basketball can be traced back over a century ago when it was introduced to locals along with baseball by American teachers through the YMCA and school system. By 1910 basketball was established as both men’s and women’s sports in the public school system and in 1913 the newly-instated national team won the Far Eastern Games, the first of nine gold medals in the span of just ten tournaments.

Philippines

As the sport began to exponentially grow in popularity in the decades that followed, it turned out that the Filipinos not only took a liking to the game, but they were also quite adept. Though the country wasn’t recognized as a nation until after WWII, they made their Olympic debut at the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, finishing fifth overall. The Philippines’ four gold medals at the Asian Games are tied for second most in the continental tournament’s history. Whereas a bronze finish at the 1954 FIBA World Championship (now the FIBA World Cup) remains to this day as the best finish by any country outside of the Americas and Europe.

There’s no question that basketball has been an integral part of Filipino culture and Nike has even identified the Philippines as the third largest basketball market behind the United States and China, with its accessibility, entertainment value and fast-paced tempo resonating well among locals. Many experts also point to the little space, next to no maintenance, lack of gear and no required number of players as reasons to why it was embraced so welcomingly among a poverty-stricken population.

Philippines

Once part of the Spanish kingdom for four centuries and later under American rule following the Spanish-American war, the basketball-crazed nation remains plagued by typical problems of a former colonial country. Since its independence following WWII, the Philippine islands has been undergoing a rapid urbanization that is sweeping the nation with changes to traditional and everyday lifestyles, picking up steam especially in recent decades.

“Around the country there are subtle reminders of the archipelagos colonial past. Language, food, architecture, infrastructure and sport are all adaptive hangovers from flagrant imperialism,” Carswell says. “What stands out about basketball is the way in which it has been adapted to suit Filipinos physique, playing conditions and available amenities. It serves as a beautiful example of a forge contemporary cultural identity in post colonial Philippines.”

It is in this particular nation that basketball not only thrives, but it played a large role during times when the newly-independent country was desperately looking to forge their own national identity. This pragmatic and inventive approach to creating hoops depict more than just love for a sport, but it’s an in-depth look at the resistance of the Filipino people’s struggle for public space through the eyes of a basketball hoop.

Philippines

“Basketball is a pivotal part of Filipino culture and is on par with religion as one of the few cultural hallmarks to transcend socio-economic status.”

Not all teenagers and kids have access to a standard court, an official ball, the latest sneakers or on-court gear. Drawing on this DIY attitude, the abundance of improvised basketball courts lay claim to public space and have allowed many underprivileged locals to overcome these financial challenges in the form of a national obsession.

Many times these makeshift hoops will incrementally raise in height as the tree continues to grow, with measurements changing from day to day and hoop to hoop. The absence of an actual court with its official lines and markings also is another opportunity for the creativity of its makers to flourish.

“Basketball is a pivotal part of Filipino culture and is on par with religion as one of the few cultural hallmarks to transcend socio-economic status,” Carswell adds. “On a national level, I would say there is no other country in the world that has such an obsession with basketball like the Philippines.”

Philippines

A trip to any of the Philippines’ makeshift basketball spaces showcases not only the resourcefulness of the locals, but also the vibrant youth of the Philippines and the fighting spirit, joy and optimism that has defined past generations. Similar to the jackets and backpacks being used as goalposts for football-crazed kids everywhere from the local playgrounds of East London to rural Africa, these makeshift basketball courts showcase how far a simple passion for a sport stretches to in other parts of the globe, even when many of the kids that frequent these particular hoops are lucky to even have sneakers.

Moreover, these courts also represent a public gathering space that provide communities a place where they can come together and bond. They share celebrations, fun, moments and memories, devoid of influence from politics and shrewd consumerism.

“The Philippines is being urbanised at an alarming rate. The way in which large corporations stake claim over areas which should be given to the public is disturbing,” Carswell explains. “The creation of mass malls, gated communities and restrictive access to park lands means that corporate identities have far too much control over behaviour which only benefits further consumerism. This is also apparent in the visual pollution of large and small scale advertising across the country. Many politicians ignore the needs of the everyday Filipino so the necessity of truly pubic space is often left in their hands.”

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Typically, there is one thing that unites a nation. For some, it’s culture and for others it’s religion, but the national pastime of the Philippines is unequivocally basketball, the unifying factor between the 7,107 native islands that is reflective of hope, enthusiasm and passion. From the tight knit alleyways of Manila to the most remote communities of the archipelago lies the familiar thud of a dribbling ball and clanging hoop. As you explore the country, however, the sound may vary wildly depending on the materials that are readily available.

Dave Carswell’s monograph Dancing in the Shadows is out now.

Words by Braeden Alexander

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