As a New Zealander, sport and the love of sport is in my DNA. From a very early age most Kiwis are indoctrinated into the rewards and pleasures of playing and following sport. As a youngster I played many sports; rugby, cricket, soccer, softball and athletics. Like most youngsters growing up in New Zealand in the 1960's, I dreamed of one day pulling on that "Black Jersey", of reaching that God-like status of being an All Black. Also like most New Zealanders I realized fairly early on I wasn't going to make it to the top. In my case it was a two-fold reason: 1/ I just wasn't good enough, 2/ I lacked the commitment to train the hours needed to get to the top, or to be fair, I was just too damn lazy. Regardless, a child-hood spent playing sport would translate to a lifetime of following and loving sport.
When I first moved to The Philippines, just over three years ago, one of my first thoughts was what sports can I watch here? If we had cable television, this would probably not have been such a dilemma. With the sports channels available on cable I would no doubt have had access to a wide variety of different sports to choose from. Without cable, the choice was limited to free-to-air television. So what could we watch?
When I first looked around The Philippines it became clear that sport played a much smaller part of life here than back in New Zealand. Whether it was because the Filipino has enough to occupy his or her life, just trying to survive and get ahead I'm not 100% sure, but one thing I was sure about was that Filipinos were not as passionate about their sport as we were. Or were they?
It didn't take me too long to discover that there are certain sports every Filipino was intensely passionate about; basketball and boxing. Now, I've never been particularly enamored with the game of Basketball. It probably has something to do with being only 5' 5" tall myself, but the sight of these enormous giants lumbering up and down a basketball court has never grabbed my attention. There was a time when I followed the Otago Nuggets and went to their games fairly regularly, but I never really felt it was a universal sport. Oh, I know there are successful short players. In the game, especially point guards, but it always seemed that if you weren't at least close to 7 feet, you didn't really belong in the game.
The Filipino love of basketball probably stems from the American influence in the first half of this century, but for whatever reason, they love it with and absolute passion. The local professional league, the PBA attract wide live audiences and great television ratings. Similarly the inter-collegiate basketball leagues attract just as much, if not more passion than the professional leagues.
Filipinos are intensely loyal to their Alma Maters and nothing is more likely to stir up rivalry than a basketball game in the UAAP between say De La Salle University and Ataneo University, or Far Eastern University against The University of the East. The finals of the PBA whether they be held at the traditional home of basketball, The Araneta Colliseum, or the newer, flasher, bigger Mall of Asia Arena are guaranteed to play out in front of full houses of in excess of 20,000 people and then add to that the millions watching on live TV at home. What amazed me was that inter-collegiate basketball was also capable of drawing similar crowds of rabid fans, even for a game during the round-robin section of the tournament. Yes, Basketball is big stuff here in The Philippines and its fans are every bit as passionate and loyal as Otago, Canterbury or Auckland rugby supporters back in New Zealand.
We also get a lot of NBA games from America and most Filipinos have their favorite teams and favorite players. The Filipinos love to watch the NBA and root for their teams. I sometimes find it quite amusing that they can get so passionate about the LA Lakers, the Miami Heat or the Washington Wizards. Of course many Filipinos have either worked in America, or have family there, so I suspect that is partly where their franchise loyalties come from. Personally I can take or leave Le Bron James or Kevin Durant, but these guys are as much rockstars here as the local PBA heroes.
Boxing is the other sport that really seems to stir the Filipinos blood. Perhaps it is a harking back to their warrior past, but there is nothing Filipinos enjoy more than cheering on one of their many champions in yet another world championship bout. Boxing, I suspect is seen by many young men, especially in the barrios of the Provinces, as a way out of poverty and a way to success. From what I've seen since I've been here, the lower and middle weights of the World Boxing bodies are ruled by Latin Americans (especially Mexicans) and Filipinos. From Donaire to Nietes, to Casimero to Viloria to Sonsona to Penalosa, there always seems to be some Filipino champion or up and comer that we can cheer for and feel pride for. For these guys, fame, fortune and adulation will lift them out of the poverty they were born into. King of all of these great champions of course is 8-Division World Champion Manny Pacquiao.
Manny Pacquiao is without peer in this country. He is a Filipino icon who has transcended boxing and leapt into the world of political and media superstar. Although still fighting, he hold a position as a Congressman and rumors suggest he will run for Senate in the upcoming elections of 2016. He and his family seem set on creating a political dynasty, with his wife now Vice Governor of Sarangani Province in Mindanao. In addition to this two of Manny's brothers and a sister-in-law were recently elected City Councillors in General Santos City, the first step in politics in The Philippines. His mother, affectionately known as "Mommy D" has become a media star in her own right. Larger than life, and comical in her role as Mother of the Champion she has even been known to upstage Manny from time to time, as happened after the Pacquiao - Bradley fight in April 2014.
To many Filipinos, Manny Pacquiao epitomizes the victory of hard work over poverty and circumstance. He truly is held up on a pedestal and treated like royalty. I once commented to my darling wife that if Manny does run for President he will undoubtedly win, his wife Jinkee will probably run for Vice-President and Mommy D will be a Cabinet Secretary probably in charge of Culture, or something similar. She thought I was joking, but perhaps not!
Anyway, back to my story. For the first year here I forced myself to watch Basketball, interspersed with the odd Boxing match, and resigned myself to the idea that that was the be all and end all of my sporting fix. We did get the odd little gem thrown in from time to time, with one of the free-to-air channels picking up the Masters Golf from Augusta, but for the most part it was a steady diet of NBA, PBA, D-League and Inter-Collegiate basketball, with World Title Fights and a boxing series called Pinoy Pride.
All that was to change though in December 2012 when I sat down and switched on the TV on a Saturday afternoon expecting to see yet another basketball game. What I got instead entranced me and has continued to entrance me for the past two years now. Instead of Basketball, I was greeted with Women's Volleyball. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the game of Volleyball has revolutionized my sports viewing...but that's for another story.