As an unashamed enthusiast of basketball, literature, and open bars, I was posed with an odd test of allegiances at the Young Publishers Group’s National Book Awards party last month. How could I have any complaints after leaving the party with free copies of NBA nominated books, a belly full of free Oban scotch, and the chance to hear Chip Kidd spin ’90s rock music for a crowd that ran the gamut from attractive to shut-in? Well, it was precisely that brazen appropriation of the acronym NBA, one that looked like it might stick as the National Basketball Association entered the 4th month of their lockout no closer to a deal than they were in July. Despite all the trappings of New York’s literary world, I missed basketball.
I began to search out contingency plans, first throwing my lot in with the various European leagues that NBA players were joining. I started to plan lunch breaks around Turkish league games and eagerly awaited the British press’ reception of Metta World Peace (given the poor quality of British basketball even by European standards, this move seemed more like a diplomatic mission than a decision by the former Ron Artest to stay sharp during the lockout). However, my search came to a screeching halt when I learned about the Philippine Basketball Association. A few key facts about the world’s second oldest basketball league before some musings on its significance:
The Teams: Filipino teams are not geographically based, but rather are the property of their corporate owners and thus subject to corporate logic. For example, the champions this year are owned by the Pilipino Telephone Corporation and are called the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters. Other teams in the league include the Shopinas.com Clickers, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, and the Powerade Boosters. Because teams are not geographically based and lease out stadiums across the Philippines to play games, there is a long-standing practice for teams to either disappear completely, emerge out of nowhere, or change their names. To take one example, here is how we got to the Powerade Boosters. They began in 1990 as the Pop Cola Panthers, and in the following 11 seasons proudly pursued the title as the Sizzlers, Sarsi, Swift Mighty Meaty, Sunkist Orange Juicers, Sunkist Orange Bottlers and Pop Cola 800s. The league will also occasionally allow guest teams from outside the Philippines to compete, the most astonishing of which was an American band of libertines named after the fashion designer Nicholas Stoodley. Here is his recounting of the moment his team was able to turn things around after two rough losses:
Totally dejected I decided that what was needed was a party at my house before the third game and consequently, under a full moon a team of almost naked black basketball players cavorted drunk in my swimming pool to disco music and a little too much fun! The following morning the maid found a scene of carnage before her horrified eyes: a body behind the sofa, possibly dead, two more on the patio. Vomit here and there. The other maid was discovered in a condition that is best not described in detail and the phone was ringing off the hook! Where were the players? Didn’t I realize there was an important practice? Do I know what will happen if we lose the next game. Was I INSANE?
The Players: Filipinos are allowed to play in every conference, but “imports” (the official designation of foreign players) are granted entry on certain criteria. For example, imports below 6’5’’ can play in the Commissioners Cup, but are barred from competing in the Governors Cup.
The Rules: The rules are pretty standard, except the rule that you can hang on the rim after a dunk without being given a technical foul. One can only assume that such a generous affordance is appreciated by the players (and perhaps encouraged by their corporate masters who want maximum brand exposure).
As the NBA lockout went on and it became increasingly clear that the owners were going to bleed the players for as many concessions as possible, the Philippine Basketball Association emerged as an interesting thought experiment. What would the NBA look like if the profit motive were pushed to its most absurd limits? Would the Miami Heat’s preseason preening find a way to be folded into actual competition?
What kind of narratives would fans have to construct to justify their investment in following the league?
Luckily the lockout has been resolved on terms that are still within the limits of a healthy compromise between profit seeking and respect for the game. In fact, we are left with another set of interesting narratives, such as wondering whether J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler are going to have to stage a daring escape from China, where their teams have no intention of releasing them from their contracts. We’ll also have to track the transition back to NBA ball for players who spent some time in Europe, where, as Tom Scharpling once accurately described, most players look like a taller version of Mike Birbiglia. No offense to the National Book Awards, but these are the kinds of stories that the NBA is meant to trade in.