Manila, Philippines – As the 2023 FIBA World Cup kicked off in the Philippines, co-hosts of the championship along with Indonesia and Japan, on Friday, basketball-crazy Filipinos in an arena north of the capital, Manila, set a FIBA single-game attendance record of 38,115 fans for the home side’s opener against the Dominican Republic.
It eclipsed the previous record of 32,616 spectators in the 1994 World Cup final in Toronto, Canada, where the USA defeated Russia for their third title.
The feat is no surprise for the Philippines, where basketball is deeply embedded in the culture.
There are basketball courts in every district, where locals play ball in their flip-flops and wear the jerseys of their favourite NBA players.
The country’s main league, the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA), has a solid base of passionate fans, while Filipinos are also avid NBA fans. The NBA Facebook page tallies nine million followers from the Philippines, making it the most significant online fan base outside the United States.
Parents name their children after NBA players, as seen in the Philippines’ current pool of college players – Ray Allen Torres, Steve Nash Enriquez and LeBron Lopez.
It is no wonder top basketball players and NBA stars are eager to be in an environment that honours their sport like a religion.
“The basketball environment is great in the Philippines, anybody who has grown up in the basketball circle knows that coming here, you’ll see the passion of the general public,” said New Zealand Tall Blacks head coach Pero Cameron in the team’s news conference. “It’s the basketball mecca.”
And with Manila staging the final round of the 2023 FIBA World Cup from September 5 to 10, athletes and fans can expect more basketball history to be made.
Basketball was introduced to the Philippines in 1910 by American colonisers, who overhauled the country’s educational system and included the sport in the curriculum. The Philippines then found early success in Asian competitions, winning the 1913 Far Eastern Games basketball championship, which served as the springboard to the sport’s popularity in the country.
Since then, media have widely covered the sport from print to broadcast to the point that hardcore fans religiously follow the news of grassroots basketball prospects.
Not only did games for the Gilas Pilipinas, as the national team is known, sell like hotcakes, but Filipinos filled up the Mall of Asia (MOA) venue, where the final round will also be held, for the USA’s opening game against New Zealand as organisers announced that single-game tickets are priced as low as 499 pesos ($8.81).
This led to Filipinos, eager to watch the NBA player-loaded team USA, to queue in a line that was almost half a kilometre long.
Meanwhile, Gilas Pilipinas’ opener against the Karl-Anthony Towns-powered Dominican Republic featured the homecoming of fan-favourite Filipino players, who are representing the flag in big leagues globally.
Filipino-American NBA player Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz continued to be a key player as he scored a game-high of 28 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, to help the 40th-ranked Philippines stay within reach of 23rd-ranked Dominican Republic before they slipped to an 87-81 loss.
Though the Philippines boast the 1954 World Championship bronze, they have struggled to size up to their international counterparts in the modern era. But the toe-to-toe performance against the Dominican Republic surprised Gilas fans and made them proud.
“It must be the home court advantage and the talent of the whole team as well [that they played well],” Filipino fan Eliz Kabahar told Al Jazeera. “So it’s just not about Jordan Clarkson, but also the supporting cast of June Mar Fajardo, Dwight Ramos and the quality minutes of Kiefer [Ravena] and Scottie Thompson.”
Clarkson, who traces his Filipino heritage from his maternal grandmother, made his national team debut in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he led Gilas to their best finish of fifth place in 16 years. The Jazz star took the lone naturalised player spot in the FIBA World Cup roster as he acquired his Philippine passport after the age of 16.
Another player celebrating a homecoming within the Philippine team was 7-foot-3-inch (2.2-metre) wunderkind Kai Sotto, who is the first homegrown Filipino to play in the 2023 NBA Summer League.
The 21-year-old made his Summer League debut for the Orlando Magic – his highest achievement since leaving the Philippines in 2019 to pursue the NBA dream.
Other big names of overseas players include national team mainstay Kiefer Ravena, who plays for the Shiga Lakestars in Japan’s B League, and 25-year-old Rhenz Abando, who won the 2023 Korean Basketball League (KBL) championship with Anyang KGC, the KBL Slam Dunk championship, and the 3×3 All-Star Game this year.
Gilas head coach Chot Reyes, who led the Philippine team in their 2014 World Cup campaign, is confident that each player in the team will be a great contributor to the rest of the squad.
“As I would like to say: ‘The strength of the pack is the wolf, in the same manner that the strength of the wolf is the pack’. So it’s not just going to be about Jordan [Clarkson], like it was never about [naturalised player] Andray [Blatche] back in 2014,” Reyes said in the pre-game news conference.
Honouring Filipino roots
Filipinos also take pride in their diaspora who make it big on the world stage – so Filipino-American Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has won hearts, with fans knowing more about him than the current roster of USA players.
Spoelstra, an assistant coach for the USA side, was thrilled when FIBA announced that his team would be playing all its games in Manila.
“Once we found out that we’re playing in Manila, I couldn’t believe it,” Spoelstra told the media after he coached 40 young ballers – boys and girls – in an NBA clinic.
“This is going to be really cool, to be able to reconnect with family and also, I have a lot of friends and I haven’t been able to see them since the last time we were here.”
Brought up in Oregon by his Filipina mother – who hails from San Pablo, Laguna – the love of basketball was a big part of his upbringing, and he dreamed of playing in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) – the country’s top professional league.
“My family [from the Philippines] would send VHS tapes of the PBA games, and I just saw how crazy the crowds were. I was like: ‘I want to do that’,” the 52-year-old said, who ended up becoming a player-coach with Basketball Bundesliga second division club TuS Herten in Germany before being offered a position with the Miami Heat.
But as he garnered greater success as a coach, leading the Heat to two NBA titles, he has given back to Philippine basketball by holding training camps whenever he visits the country to inspire the next generation of Filipino ballers.
In the process, Spoelstra shares his Filipino heritage with the people he works with so they understand the passion Filipinos have for basketball.
“In my career, I come here during the summer and I usually try to bring two or three staff members just so they could understand my background, what’s important to me and also experience the level of enthusiasm for basketball out here,” he said. “We had a lot of fun and I’m just thrilled to be able to be here now with the USA programme, competing at the highest level.”
The PBA is one of the top destinations for ageing ex-NBA players. During the pre-tournament media conference, USA’s Jalen Brunson was surprised to hear that his father Rick had a one-game stint with the Barangay Ginebra team in the 1998 PBA Governor’s Cup.
“That’s crazy. Basketball has opened a lot of places for myself and my family. So to know that dad was here, it’s special, the experience is something that we can bond together,” said Brunson in USA’s pre-tournament news conference.
The Philippines take on Angola in their second World Cup match on Sunday, hoping to get their tournament back on track.
“Manila’s hosting of the FIBA World Cup means a lot to me because it’s once in a lifetime to witness the country hosting an international event like this,” Filipino Eliz Kabahar told Al Jazeera.
“So I felt that I should not miss this event and that’s why I’m here to support not just Philippines, but the World Cup.”