After a tiring daylong flight to Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport, American hoops junkie Rafe Bartholomew saw something at a baggage carousel that made his heart sing. Writing in his first book, Pacific Rims an ode to the exuberance of basketball in the Philippines Bartholomew recalls that a tall foreigner made her way to the luggage belt only to be "denied" by a limber Filipino who "bent his knees, spread his legs, pushed his butt out and made it impossible for her to get around." At first, Bartholomew thought, "It can't be," and yet it was a classic box out and an "auspicious sign" that Filipinos indeed were mad for the game, as the book's memorably zany subtitle underscores: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.
Before arriving in Manila in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship, Bartholomew, a self-effacing "basketball freak" and assistant editor at Harper's, had seen or heard little to prepare him for the local obsession with the sport. In the Philippines, a game imported by American colonial educators a century ago (intended originally for girls' gym classes) had since become "a cultural force on par with the Catholic Church," he writes. Bartholomew's survey is consequently full of wide-eyed observations: the laughably unsporty names of Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) franchises, like the Barangay Ginebra Kings (named for a San Miguel offshoot that makes gin, vodka, rum and whiskey) or the San Miguel Beermen (sponsored by the beer company); the taxi driver who tells Bartholomew he's given his son the name Kobe Bryant Salem; and the balletic street ballers in flip-flops who specialize in herky-jerky circus layups and other maverick shots, most Filipino men being too short (at an average 5 ft. 5 in.) for thunderous dunks. All of this is woven into the book's loose narrative structure a chronicle of the Alaska Aces' storybook journey to the 2007 PBA championship. (The team is named not after the frigid American state, but for a local milk company.)
There is exposure, too, of a seamier side to Philippine basketball. Bartholomew alleges that important games are often fixed, depicting smashmouth fans angrily chucking peso coins and beer cans at refs. He claims that councilmen trade courts for votes in "craven hoops-related politicking," building hoops instead of much needed schools, hospitals or food banks. Add to this the racism toward foreign players (many of whom are black) and the twisted popularity of "skirts vs. squirts" games between transvestites and midgets and you've got a compelling sociological story in your hands.
There's also something to be inferred here about a nation's psyche. Despite the fanaticism for the sport, the Philippines last qualified for the Olympics in 1972 and in international rankings is now a dismal 53rd, just below Kuwait. Bartholomew doesn't fully articulate why, but suggests earlier success was predicated not on overwhelmingly superior play but because so many other nations had yet to adopt and develop the game.
Neither does Bartholomew offer enough historical context to make Pacific Rims consistently interesting. He links basketball to post World War II nationalism, calling it "a binding agent for the whole archipelago"; he speculates that its popularity today has much to do with the Marcos years, when it was one of the few things to watch every night on heavily censored TV. But he also spends rather too much time on highlight-reel longueurs pages-long descriptions better left to YouTube clips. These tend to dampen "the siren clank of ball on rim," with which he lures us at the start of his book. And yet, given his tender years (Bartholomew is just 28), this can be indulged as a mistake by a rookie. In its subject matter, enthusiasm and occasionally brilliant flashes of gonzo prose, Pacific Rims is mostly All-Star stuff.
This article originally appeared in the November 22, 2010 issue of TIME Asia.