There aren't many people who can say that reading a book about basketball changed their life, but Rafe Bartholomew may be one of them.
Bartholomew was a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University when he won a Fulbright scholarship to study abroad. The question was, what to study? He got his answer while reading Alexander Wolff's "Big Game, Small World," a book about basketball around the globe. Wolff's chapter on the Philippines "just blew my mind," Bartholomew said.
His Fulbright research project took him to the southeast Asian nation to study their basketball culture. He ended up staying for three years and the result is Bartholomew's new book, "Pacific Rims," which reveals a basketball-crazed nation that's a kind of sports universe of its own.
The Philippines is a poor country where kids play ball wearing flip-flops, and there is a basketball hoop on seemingly every street corner or dirt road. Finding a pickup hoops game there is as easy as finding a street hockey net in Western New York.
The Philippines Basketball Association, the country's top pro league, has a following that's closer to World Cup-like fanaticism than to NBA fandom. PBA teams are named after their sponsors — one is called San Miguel Beermen — and height-challenged Filipinos display a flashy brand of ball that's played below the rim.
Some of the most interesting chapters of "Pacific Rims" involve the PBA's use of foreign players. Each team is allowed to sign one "import," usually a player from the U.S., and they are expected to play like stars every time they take the floor or risk losing their jobs. Sometimes, they lose their jobs even when they're playing well.
Bartholomew was working on a story for a Chicago publication about Quemont Greer, a former DePaul star who was playing for a PBA team called Red Bull.
"Greer was leading the league in scoring, his team was tied for second in the standings, so he was having a good season, and I thought I'd just be writing this nice basketball story," Bartholomew said this week by phone from New York. "Then after practice I was talking to the coach and the coach just casually slipped in, "Tomorrow his replacement is arriving and if his replacement looks good, we're going to get rid of him.'
"I sort of stumbled and said why? The coach said, "Well, if the other guy's better ... ' "
The Red Bulls did like the next player more, so they cut Greer. That put a premature end to Bartholomew's story angle, but he came across another great import story, a former NBA role player named Billy Ray Bates.
Bates had some playing time with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, but his fondness for drinking and womanizing short-circuited his career. He landed in the Philippines as an import.
"The people who saw him play have never forgotten a man they nicknamed the Black Superman," Bartholomew writes of Bates. "Nor have those who ever saw him drink."
Bates' bad habits went unchecked in the Philippines. He delivered on the court most of the time, but there was no one to keep him out of the bars and away from the female groupies.
"In the PBA, Bates' talent was so overwhelming that he probably could have played in a drunken stupor and averaged 30 points per game," Bartholomew writes. "His career average of 46 points per game is the highest of any PBA player, import or local."
Bartholomew said the more he learned about Bates, the more he wanted to learn.
"He's someone who just had an amazing and heartbreaking life, but someone who's such a great player that there's something inspiring about him," Bartholomew said.
Another fascinating character was Tim Cone, the coach of the PBA's Alaska Aces. Cone taught himself the famed triangle offense by watching grainy films of Phil Jackson's Lakers and Bulls teams running it. Cone's Aces became pretty proficient at the complicated attack. Bartholomew recalled the Aces bringing Tex Winter, Jackson's former assistant and the architect of the triangle, to consult with the team in the Philippines.
"It was right after Tex and Phil had moved to the Lakers, who were just learning the triangle," Bartholomew said. "Tex came into the Alaska practices and said, "How did you guys do this? You're doing this better than the Lakers.' "