By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
“It is a love letter to the Philippines from me,” said Rafe Bartholomew, regarding his book, “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.” Bartholomew lived, learned, and played basketball in the Philippines. Bartholomew, a 6’3″ white man from New York City, learned Tagalog, adapted to Filipino culture, and familiarized himself with the Philippine Basketball Association.
A life-changing chapter
Born and raised in New York City, the 28-year-old did not have any ties to the Philippines or Filipino culture aside from some Filipino friends and occasionally sampling Filipino food. He attended Northwestern University in Chicago where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism.
The idea to go to the Philippines came from a school project. “It is something I really stumbled into,” he said.
During his senior year, Bartholomew participated in an independent study course where he determined what makes a good long form sports book.
Bartholomew read through many books and came across “Big Game, Small World,” by Alexander Wolf. In the book, Wolf travels the globe exploring different cultures and their fascination with the sport of basketball. One chapter in Wolf’s book describes his travel to the Philippines and details the love its people have for hoops.
“This chapter jumped out at me,” Bartholomew said. He became intrigued by the games played, where players must avoid defenders and traffic, polish homemade backboards, and play in flip-flops (also known as tsinelas). Bartholomew wanted to explore this “alternate basketball universe.”
In the spring of 2005, Bartholomew was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the historical and cultural popularity of basketball in the Philippines. The Fulbright Program, one of the most prestigious awards program worldwide, provided Bartholomew with a stipend to travel and live in the Philippines.
In preparation for the trip, Bartholomew learned Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, from a woman at the Filipino Consulate near Northwestern. “She fed me pan de sal and coco jam,” Bartholomew said, referring to the snacks that helped him get through the language tutorial.
Life in the Philippines
Bartholomew lived in Manila, where he rented a townhouse near the University of the Philippines.
He traveled extensively throughout the Philippines following basketball and playing where he could find a game.
He lived on the grant from the Fulbright program for about a year and a half. After that, he took odd jobs doing freelance writing, coaching basketball camps, and even briefly starring in a forgettable Filipino soap opera as an American businessman.
Through his connections at Northwestern, Bartholomew scored the opportunity to spend a season with the Alaska Aces of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). The PBA is the first and oldest professional basketball league in Asia.
Bartholomew observed the cultural interactions on the team between the Americans (referred to as “imports”) and Filipinos, and the dynamic between Filipino and Filipino American players.
Overall, he noted that many American players embrace the Filipino culture including its basketball customs. One of the most memorable moments he had covering the team was at one Aces practice where former Rainer Beach High School star Rosell Ellis had to crawl through the legs of another player, a customary penalty known as “lusutan,” because he lost a shooting contest. Ellis, a veteran of international basketball, complied without argument. “[Ellis] never put himself before the team,” Bartholomew noted.
Another custom Bartholomew discovered was playing basketball in flip-flops. “I didn’t hurt myself, but I was being extremely cautious,” said Bartholomew, who was afraid of spraining an ankle. “I wouldn’t run or jump as high. I would imagine in the back of my head my ankle swelling up.”
An avid basketball player, Bartholomew played whenever he could in the Philippines.
“There was always a little joking about my height.” At his height, Bartholomew towered over many of his Filipino opponents. He would also be teased as the “import” during games.
“It was the most fun in terms of basketball,” said Bartholomew of playing basketball in the Philippines. “This was just perfect for me. I could play at any time of the day. Whether it was an organized pickup game or on a homemade court, there [were] so many options and places to play. It was a dream.”
Bartholomew never encountered any problems when he spoke Tagalog to Filipinos. He found an “unfortunate double standard” for some of his Filipino American friends. “If I displayed any interest or ability in [speaking] Tagalog, it’s encouraged [in the Philippines]. The bar is set pretty low. [But] I know from Filipino American friends, the attitude is different [in the United States].”
He recalled that if Filipinos from the United States could not speak perfect Tagalog, they were told not to make an attempt to speak. This was a type of shame for not being able to master the native language.
Returning to the States — nice rejections and then a slam dunk
During his three years in the Philippines, Bartholomew conducted many interviews with coaches and players, researched the history of Filipino basketball, and took volumes of notes, which filled 15 to 20 spiral bound notebooks. Bartholomew had written about 70 pages of a book as a proposal for a full-length book while he was in the Philippines. He refined it when he returned to New York. All he needed to do was find someone to publish his book.
Bartholomew signed with a literary agent to help him develop a proposal to sell his book to a publisher.
The hardest obstacle that Bartholomew faced was convincing publishers that people would read a book about basketball in the Philippines. “I got a lot of nice rejections. A few were meaningful,” said Bartholomew of the many rejections, some of which gave him genuine words of encouragement. But some rejections were harsh.
He recalls a publisher saying, “This is America. No one cares. People don’t read about basketball, and people don’t read about the Philippines.”
After two years of pitching “Pacific Rims,” he received a deal to publish his book in February 2009.
Bartholomew wrote and refined the book over the span of seven to eight months. While writing, he held down a full-time job as an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine. The book was released in June 2010.
Bartholomew does not intend for the book to be the definitive word on Filipino basketball. He recognizes that some critics may wonder why they should read a book about the history of Filipino basketball from a white American that visited the country for three years.
“It’s a fair point to make,” Bartholomew added. “I hope that the people who make that point read the book.”
When he wrote “Pacific Rims,” Bartholomew wanted to make sure that the tone of the book did not seem like he was a casual observer. “I don’t want to come off like someone from the Western world that came in, took a tour, and can tell what’s wrong there. I don’t like that tone. I didn’t want that to come across in [my] writing.”
“Pacific Rims” is the beginning of books about the Philippines authored by Bartholomew. “It is my goal to continue writing about the Philippines. My years there [made it] become the country I think about most and draw the most inspiration [from]. It’s not just sports, but almost every day, I found a story I could write about.” ♦
For more information on Rafe Bartholomew, follow him on twitter @rafeboogs or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Pacific-Rims/109253392430422.
His book is available on Amazon.com.
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.