Dubai: Like many others, getting up early has been part of Marlon Cinco’s mundane daily routine. There is certainly nothing special with an early breakfast and driving kids to school before hunkering down for even more run-of-the-mill tasks at work. 

His dreary morning cycle is often shattered by a healthy dose of excitement and anticipation when the months of May and June come around—it’s the playoffs of the National Basketball Association (NBA), certainly one of the most awaited basketball events of the year for many Filipinos, arguably the most passionate of basketball fans the world over.

Because of time difference, live broadcast of NBA games can start as early as 4am in the UAE. It can be a big hassle to wake up at such ungodly hours, but for Cinco and many other hard-core fans, it’s a small price to pay for the thrill and excitement of watching the best teams in the world slug it out live for the ultimate title in basketball.

“I do have to wake up early because of my kids. But when the Warriors and the Cavaliers have a match, I feel so excited to see the games live,” said Cinco, referring to the protagonists of this year’s NBA championship series, which concluded on Saturday (Friday night in the US) with the Golden State Warriors winning the title over the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Cinco says it’s hard to miss the playoffs this time of the year as conversations, especially among Filipinos, tend to gravitate towards the NBA finals, whether it’s in the office, among friends, family and even in chat rooms and social media. 

“Everyone is talking about it,” says Cinco, who owns an events firm that organises basketball tournaments in Dubai.

Basketball nation

The Filipinos’ special affinity for basketball started in the early years of the previous century when the sport was brought to the country by the colonising Americans; curiously, it was subsequently first introduced into the country’s school system as a women’s sport.

But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight when basketball landed on Philippine shores. In fact, baseball, also introduced by the Americans, was already a dominant sport across the archipelago when Filipinos first came to know about basketball.

How basketball eventually overtook baseball as the country’s number one sport is a good subject for another discussion, but as sociologist Lou Antolihao points out in his book, Playing with the Big Boys, the rise of the popularity of basketball paralleled a growing national sentiment in the early decades of the previous century, particularly in the lead-up to the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1934.

The Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This perhaps helps explain where such pride in basketball as a nation’s favourite sport took its roots and why the passion continues to thrive today, especially among homesick overseas Filipinos in search of ways to remain connected with their culture and heritage.

Playing in Dubai

On the basketball courts at the Dubai Sports World, such passion and pride for the sport is on grand display: Filipinos—players, spectators, cheerleaders alike—occupy almost every playing court at any given time.

Cinco, who is organising one of the tournaments being hosted at the venue, says basketball is truly such a huge crowd-drawer for Filipino expats. Some 30-odd teams are competing in his tournament alone, with each team having up to 18 regular players and reserves. There are around a dozen other tournaments concurrently running at the venue, apart from several more being held in different sports halls across the emirate.

A basketball tournament in Dubai

Playing basketball, of course, is not only a matter of pride. For many Filipino expats, basketball has become a sanctuary, a place of refuge from the daily grind of this busy metropolis.

“Playing basketball helps me deal with stress and helps me relax,” said Anthony Ferrer, who works as a technical manager. “The next day, my energy level gets better when I play basketball.”

For families and friends, basketball offers a way to bond and catch up with each other. Ferrer says watching basketball is a much more pleasurable family activity with his wife catching on to the game.

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“I enjoy watching basketball with the family,” said Ferrer, sharing how they eagerly woke up in the wee hours to watch the NBA finals live on TV. “Sometimes it’s my wife who wakes me up to remind me that the games have started.”

Christina Chavez Molina, a community manager at a multinational tech firm, says her family of four goes to basketball events together, especially when their young son is playing or attending basketball clinics.

Molina says she picked up the sport also because of her husband, who is a long-time fan of the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA.

“I like GSW because I like Stephen Curry,” she says, referring to the Golden State Warriors and its star point guard. “I’m not really a fan, but my husband is. He’s a very avid fan of the San Antonio Spurs [in the NBA], so I kind of lean to that team as well.”

Ryan Hernandez, an event organiser in Dubai, credits basketball for helping him stay away from vices. “Playing basketball has helped me quit smoking when I came to Dubai,” he said. “So if I have a chance, I try to play every day after work.”

Hernandez, who started playing basketball when he was 7-years-old, says he learned the rudiments of the game from his father. “My father loves basketball, my grandfather loves basketball,” he said.

Now a father himself raising a family away from his homeland, Hernandez wants his son to likewise enjoy the sport his family and millions of other Filipinos have loved for generations. “My father taught me basketball, now I’m teaching my son as well.”

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