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Filipinos and basketball: Setting a cultural pick

By Monica Rhor
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Right away, you can tell this isn't just another Sunday pickup game. Right away, you know this is serious.

Maybe it's the rubber-soled Nikes squeaking across the gym floor and the bass-drum rhythm of the basketball. Maybe it's the 12-game winning streak of the league's top team and the standout stats of a player averaging 22 points a game.Maybe it's all those things and more that tell even a casual observer that the gym at Fels High School in the Northeast becomes a place for hard-core hoopsters every Sunday.

The players are college students, doctors, blue-collar workers, salesmen and insurance underwriters. They live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. They range in age from the teens to the 40s. But they have at least two things in common: They are of Filipino descent -- a requirement for joining the Filipino American Community Athletic Association (FACAA).

And they are basketball junkies -- an addiction that travels straight back to their roots. Basketball mania in the Philippines makes the current Sixers playoff fever seem tame, league members say.The turnout for FACAA games reflects that passion. They have become community socials for local Filipinos, bringing together dozens of fans, families, and other basketball aficionados. The league also serves as a kind of lure to entice younger Filipinos to join community organizations. They come for the basketball and stay for the connection to their culture, FACAA president Jen Omana says. "It's a way to get people involved in the community," she says.

The power of basketball to draw Filipino Americans doesn't surprise Omana, who recalls seeing people in the Philippines take off from work to watch NBA playoff games on television via satellite. Filipino fans also avidly follow the seasons of several pro and semipro leagues.

"Basketball is life back there," says Noel Abejo, a former FACAA president who helped start the league in 1995. "It is the main activity. All you need is sneakers and a ball, and you can play it anywhere."

It is common to see fans wearing the uniforms of their favorite teams, said Abejo, who just returned from a four-week trip to the Philippines.

"That feeling was pretty much brought here," he says.

In the Philadelphia region, home to about 20,000 Filipino Americans, players used to gravitate to pickup games in North and South Philly. Over the last 20 years, other Filipino basketball leagues have come and gone, Abejo says.

Then, four years ago, a group of younger Filipinos, led by Wille Encarnacion and Abejo, now 34, tried their hand at starting a league. FACAA began with eight teams. It has grown to 14. The team rosters include one former Philippine semipro player and a coach who starred in that country's pro league.

Players from as far away as Virginia have tried to join the league, says Omana, 26, an assistant basketball coach at Haverford College. During its season, which begins in February, the teams meet every Sunday at Fels High for a fast-paced round of games that start at 10 a.m. and continue, without a break, until 4 p.m. This year, two teams had to be cut from the roster because of time constraints at the gym, Omana says.

The season culminates in a two-day playoff round and a championship game. This year, the playoffs will be held on June 5 and 6, with the championship scheduled for the following Saturday. "It's definitely competitive," Omana says. It's three weeks before the playoffs, and the Executives are showing off the skills that have them undefeated this season. With 9:33 left to play in the game, they lead the Goodfellas, 72-44, and show no signs of letting up.
The Goodfellas get the ball, and Number 3 sinks a basket. "Al Salvador!" intones Jeffrey Omana, who does a dramatic play-by-play for every game. A Goodfellas fan jumps to her feet, exhorting her team to "Shoot! Shoot!" and then to take it "E-e-easy!" The mother of a player, she called out sick from work to attend the game. "I am the cheerer for this team," she explains. But the Execs come back fast. Dennis Balagtas, Number 12 and one of the league's standouts, scores a fast three-pointer -- then two points -- then another two.

The Execs run away with the game, stealing the ball after every failed Goodfellas scoring attempt. The gap widens with each passing second on the time clock:

81-46. 88-54. 95-59. And, finally, 100-59, with Balagtas sinking the last ball.

Balagtas, 26, who lives in Cherry Hill, was recruited by a Philippine scout two years ago and played semipro basketball there for eight months. Now an automobile salesman, he sees FACAA as a way to keep his hand in the game he loves. "Basketball is life to me," Balagtas says. "And when you play in front of your own people, it just makes it more special." Like many involved with the league, Balagtas says he has been drawn closer to the Filipino community through basketball. "It made me appreciate my people," says Balagtas, who was born and raised here. "Growing up in the suburbs, where the community isn't large, I didn't really know that much about my heritage. Now, I do."

Bringing the community together has become as much a part of FACAA's mandate as staging basketball games, says Jen Omana, who attended an all-girls Catholic school where she had only one Filipino classmate.

"My ties were strictly to my family," she says. "Now, I've met so many people. It's so amazing to see people who have similar backgrounds."

In response to the growing interest, FACAA now posts league schedules and information on a Web site and Abejo puts out a newsletter with game recaps and statistics.

FACAA also offers basketball clinics, martial-arts classes, softball, and tennis lessons for children.

Many people join the league, then become involved with other Filipino community organizations, says Abejo, who now belongs to the Filipino Executive Council, an umbrella group of Philadelphia Filipino organizations.

"Once I got involved with this, I wanted to do more," he said. "That's true especially for people my age. Seeing games draws people who normally wouldn't socialize with other Filipinos."

On Labor Day weekend, FACAA's profile will loom larger as it hosts the Inter-City Basketball Tournament, which will bring together 68 Filipino teams from 16 cities in the United States and Canada. The tournament is expected to draw more than 4,000 players and fans to the area.

Many will be like Archie Elefante, number 4 on the Scorpions. After he immigrated to Philadelphia from the Philippines five years ago, one of the first things Elefante did was look for a court. He found FACAA. "Once you're in it, you crave basketball every time," Elefante, 24, said. "It's just a basic, friendly game. You have fun, drug free, and break a sweat."