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P&T Book Club: Rafe Bartholomew's Pacific Rims

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First of all, I was given a copy of Pacific Rims about 3 months ago, so for me to have taken this long to publish a review is kind of shameful. I'm deeply sorry for that. That said, let's get into it.

Rafe Bartholomew isn't a Knicks guy, but we've heard from him before. Rafe is a New Yorker, and he's also the author of that excellent piece on Nate Robinson from a few years back. His new book, Pacific Rims, is about basketball in the Philippines, and it's a gem. Take the jump for a full review.

On its face, Pacific Rims is a bit of academia. Bartholomew's mission in the Philippines is ethnographic in nature.  He combines archival research, interviews, anecdotes, and observations to answer some questions. Why on earth is basketball so huge in the Philippines? How did a game that's trying desperately to wriggle into cultures around the world just blossom in the middle of the Pacific? How have a popular professional league and a widespread urban pick-up culture taken hold across the planet from basketball's source? Bartholomew, Fulbright Scholarship in hand, investigates these issues with aplomb. The politics of the basketball infrastructure, the quirky process by which Americans make their way into the pros (Earl Barron, by the way, is a former PBA-er!), and the whole gamut of sideshows that follow the game are dissected in detail and with eye to the archives.

And Pacific Rims really does hold up as an academic text. With rigorous research, the book sheds plenty of light on the zany history of basketball in the Philippines and its place in Filipino culture. Bartholomew isn't an old-school Western anthropologist in a floppy hat and a shirt with a lot of pockets, though. He is as much a basketball guy as he is a scholar, and the man has an eye for style. See, basketball wasn't just uprooted and dropped in the Philippines. That's not the whole story. The seeds were planted, sure, but the game has sprouted into a different form thousands of miles away. In a sweltering island environment populated by relatively short folks who often don't own sneakers, street basketball has been adapted by necessity. Moreover, in a phenomenon that should be very familiar to Americans, professional ball has absorbed many elements of the street game. What you end up with is a style of play that, from the blacktop to the hardwood, shares only some of its characteristics with the game you and I know. Call it divergent evolution.

As a fan, Bartholomew is all over these stylistic differences. In some ways, the game is the same, just got more fierce. Filipino ballers at every level place a high value on gulang, the scrappiness and craftiness necessary to overcome physical disadvantages in stature, age, and even footwear. In other ways, the players are as style-obsessed as our own, but with very different results. Filipino players compensate for whatever they lack vertically with twisting, acrobatic layups, often incorporating impossible angles of entry and wizardly use of spin (umupo sa ere, "to sit in the air" is the useful term). It's magical stuff, and you can get a little primer on what I'm talking about in Rafe's post at Free Darko from earlier this year.

The best part of Bartholomew's study of the game itself is that he isn't just a researcher who happens to love the game. He's a researcher who happens to stand well over 6 feet tall and run shit on the court. Anybody could study pick-up games or shadow a professional team (both of which he does), but our intrepid author steps right onto the court and learns the Philippine game in first-person. Bartholomew doesn't just observe gulang, he gets prodded and groped by sneaky veterans. He doesn't just marvel at the aerial acrobatics, he gets put in the spin cycle by players half his size. He doesn't just watch an exhibition game between little people and transvestites, he-- well, you'll have to read the book for that one. The point is that the author's love of the sport and his ability to play it gives him a distinct advantage over the average researcher, and it also makes Pacific Rims a very personal work. Those stretches in which anthropology and autobiography blur are why I really loved the book, and at the risk of sounding corny, they helped me to articulate why I love the game. In short, Pacific Rims is a riveting tour of how basketball has taken root and developed in a far-off, exotic atmosphere, and you really couldn't ask for a better tour guide. Go get it, friends.