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Out of Left Field: Why we love basketball, from Toronto to the Philippines

Two writers define their connection to the global sport
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Kartik Rudra: A love letter to the sport and its impact on Toronto 

Growing up in Toronto’s west end, there was no shortage of ice rinks available to play hockey. However, I didn’t use them. While many of my friends didn’t use them out of a dislike for hockey, I, like so many other fans, couldn’t afford to. Hockey equipment was expensive, and none of us knew anyone who played hockey enough to justify playing it. 

Instead, we spent the remaining seasons of the year pounding the pavement playing basketball behind our elementary school. Even in the snow, we’d try to run ball games. We’d run different games and pretend to play as some of our favourite players, such as Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh, and, yes, even Andrea Bargnani. 

For myself and so many others in Toronto, basketball wasn’t just a sport. It was a social connector. It didn’t matter what religion, race, or ethnicity you were, nor did it matter how good or bad you were at the sport. It was about having fun with your friends and bonding over the game you loved. 

Simply put, ‘ball’ was life. And it still is. 

For years, basketball was an afterthought in a hockey-crazed city. Hockey was considered the national pastime, a ‘man’s game,’ and a hallmark of our city’s culture. After all, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a legendary status in sports. Even when they’re not winning, their influence held this city hostage. Basketball rarely received any respect within media coverage, with television networks opting to report on the most obscure hockey news before turning their attention to basketball.

Despite all of that, basketball was slowly tightening its grip over Toronto. The ever-changing demographics of the city began to think differently about the sport. A fusion of different cultures, races, and ethnicities, in addition to the sport’s ability to capture the minds of young people and the number of hoopers balling out on pavement courts across the city, helped to skyrocket its popularity. 

It was an inclusive sport. It was a sport meant for everybody. 

While Vince Carter put basketball on the map during his time in Toronto, the sport took off by 2014, culminating in a first Toronto Raptors playoff appearance in six years and the beginning of the “We The North” movement. By their 2019 NBA Championship, the Raptors had managed to unite everyone in this entire city like never seen before. 

Everyone, from the most passionate ballers to the casual ones who knew almost nothing about the sport, were united. 

The Raptors and the sport of basketball began to represent something greater. They represented a collective identity — an identity that was forged from being ‘outsiders.’ It didn’t matter where you came from. It didn’t matter who you identified as. 

When you came to Toronto, you were no longer an outsider. You were in the most diverse city in the world, and you were embraced as one of our own. For a team that was considered an ‘outsider’ in an all-American league, and for a sport that, for most of its history in this city, was merely thought of as a side-show, it was a match made in heaven. 

Toronto became a basketball city, first and foremost. 

When reporters following the Raptors’ historic championship run asked Raptors President Masai Ujiri about the diverse makeup of the Raptors fanbase, he managed to sum up the meaning of this team and sport within a singular quote: 

“That’s something we’re really proud of. It identifies with what Toronto is, diversity.”

Guiller Lorenzo Cenizal: The Philippines and basketball — a respite for the weary and weathered

Time and time again, when my father regaled me with the follies of his rash and impetuous youth, a basketball court infallibly snuck its way into the stories. Walking the mean streets of Manila, Philippines, he’d see seven hoops varying in size and shape down a single city block. Likewise, I’ve loved the sport for as long as I could remember. 

As I sit here writing this piece, I’m incessantly glancing at my phone for tonight’s scores. Heck, if we weren’t in a pandemic, I could go to my local court or the University of Toronto Athletic Centre to experience it firsthand. 

Yet, as I began to draft this piece, I was hit with a startling realization. I left the Philippines at the tender age of five, and while I know that basketball is the sport that defines my home country, I can’t comfortably claim to know the reasons why. It would be arrogant to assume an entire nation I spent so little time in felt the same way as I did. 

Instead of writing a passion piece on just a feeling and whim, maybe I could learn something myself. So, against my initial instinct, I consulted external sources.

An infant form of basketball found itself in the Philippines by way of Christian missionaries after Spain ceded the country to the United States in 1898. The locals were said to have learned the basics from stationed American soldiers who were on break, shooting hoops instead of rifles. Within two decades, basketball was introduced in the Philippine education system, which resulted in early forms of intercollegiate tournaments. 

As time wore on, we established a national team that did well enough to place fifth in the 1936 Olympics. In 1975, the Philippine Basketball Association became Asia’s first basketball league. Then came the era of my dad, the one where you couldn’t walk a city block without catching a glimpse of a game. It wasn’t so different from the one Sopan Deb from The New York Times observes today, as being on every street corner, “from the churches to the jails to the slums.” 

I suppose that falling in love with the sport that grew concurrently with your national identity is instinctive. However, more empirically proven, Lou Antolihao, who wrote Rooting for the Underdog Spectatorship and Subalternity in Philippine Basketball, summed up basketball’s prominence in Filipino culture as a reflection of self — a game for the masses that embodies the ideals and sentiments of millions of low-income and marginalized Filipinos.

In 2013, the Philippines made headlines when basketball courts were the first things rebuilt in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan. Keeping with Antolihao’s summary, I have a working theory as to why that is. Basketball, to me, is a perfect allegory for Filipino values. It’s a game of runs, ups, and downs.

As such, poise and togetherness are paramount. It’s a game in which anything can happen — where Goliath can be felled by David and opportunity can present itself at any moment. In a nation historically steeped in poverty and struggle, these aspects are necessary for survival — characteristics to strive toward.

That is why what began as a fun subversion that the foreigners brought for locals has matured into the respite of a nation in dire need of one.