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Features

How Pinoy fans fell in love with small-market NBA teams

April 21, 2021, 3:00 PM ● Miguel Flores

The Philippines is mostly a "Lakers country" but if you know where to look, you'll also find diehard fans of small-market teams like the Spurs, Suns, Wizards, and Jazz.

Former San Antonio Spurs and France national team guard Tony Parker said he felt like a "rock star" when he played in Manila for the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (Photo credit: FIBA)

It's never been easier to be a Filipino NBA fan. Filipinos who grew up in the '80s needed special antennas or wait for tape-delayed broadcasts to watch an NBA game. If you didn't have a TV or if your mom wouldn't let you switch the channel because John en Marsha was on, you'd have to check the next day’s newspaper to find out if your favorite team won.

Today, the NBA is quite literally a few swipes away. Millennials and Zoomers, who grew up watching BTV (Basketball TV) before going to school, now have the convenience of NBA League Pass to watch any game live any time they want. It's never been easier to fall in love with the NBA.

More importantly, it's never been easier to find a team and its community of fans. In the Philippines, the Los Angeles Lakers are as loved – if not more loved – than local hoops giant Ginebra. But there are also a lot of Pinoys who have become diehard fans of NBA teams that don't have the biggest following in the United States. 

Here are some stories of how fans of small-market teams have found their ride-or-die squad.

San Antonio Spurs

After the Lakers, the Boston Celtics probably have the next biggest following in the Philippines, carrying over from the '80s Larry Bird era and some new fans from their beloved 2008 squad. San Antonio Spurs fans may have outnumbered them over the past few decades. Around 1999 to 2000, a lot of Pinoys had just gotten cable and were looking for a new team or player to root for after Michael Jordan retired.

At the time, if you didn't like the Lakers, the Spurs were your team. That particular Spurs era wasn't so much remembered for fun basketball. They were known more for grinding games down to as slow a pace as possible. They did have fun players though.

Paolo Poblador, a former Starcraft pro turned financial advisor, still remembers how he fell in love with Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili.

“I don't specifically remember when I became a Spurs fan. But I remember seeing Tony Parker scoring over bigger defenders with his signature teardrop. He was my favorite player in the team. Eventually I fell in love with Manu and Tim Duncan as well. Manu because of his wild playing style, plus he was a lefty like me, and TD was just consistently great,” recalled Poblador.

From reading Spurs blogs to following their games live as much as possible, Poblador is as locked in as any Spurs fan. He still remembers experiencing the worst pain and best euphoria ever in a span of two seasons.

“The worst moment for me was the 2013 playoffs. Yes, the year of the Ray Allen shot. I was watching with my friends in a restaurant when it happened. I was devastated when the Spurs lost, my friends accompanied me all day and we went drinking,” he said.

“Best moment was probably the 2014 championship run. It was vindication for the mistakes of the previous year. I also knew that could've been the last hurrah of the Big 3. Timmy could barely jump, Manu was getting old, and you never know if health would be an issue."

Most Spurs fans would agree with Poblador. With their streak of making the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons, Spurs fans have a lot of good moments to choose from. Outside San Antonio, most Spurs fans are probably from the Philippines. Even celebrities like radio host Bea Fabregas and Spongecola front man Yael Yuzon are professed Spurs diehards.

Phoenix Suns

Speaking of successful teams, the Phoenix Suns earned a lot of their following from the “Seven Seconds or Less” teams that dominated the mid-2000s. The Suns were mad scientists under Mike D'Antoni. Camilla Saguin, one of the most vocal Suns fans on Twitter, fondly remembers that Phoenix era.

“The main reason I became a Suns fan is Steve Nash. It was way back in 2004 when the Mavs traded him back to Phoenix. When I first saw him play, I was really amazed by his playmaking ability, so I made it a point to tune in whenever he played. I, however, fell in love with the Suns during the seven-seconds-or-less era under Mike D’Antoni. I have always been a fan of unselfish basketball, so the fast-paced controlled chaos was really beautiful to me,” she said.

The back-to-back Steve Nash MVP seasons and the dramatic postseason runs enthralled a lot of Pinoys during the mid-2000s. Although the Suns barely got shown on national TV in the U.S., Pinoy kids like Saguin, at the time, got their fix through local cable TV channels that showed the NBA 24 hours a day.

Now, Saguin very much enjoys the social media aspect of being a Suns fan, especially #NBATwitter.

“Expressing my fandom is actually really fun on social media. Even though other teams have massive online followings I feel that social media balances it out a bit. I know a lot would probably say that it’s easy to get drowned in it when you support a small-market team but to me it is only on social media wherein everyone has an equal shot at giving out their opinions and being heard.”

“I am part of some Facebook groups dedicated to the Suns, but Twitter to me is the best space to interact with other fans, writers, and even the team or players themselves.”

Saguin is such a big Suns fan that she won an autographed Devin Booker jersey in a giveaway organized by the Suns' official Twitter account.

 

In fact, drafting Devin Booker was her favorite Suns moment.

“Best moment so far would have to be the day my Suns chose Devin Booker in the 2015 NBA Draft. The moment I saw Devin Booker play I knew right away he was special. I was actually tweeting the entire time that I really want Phoenix to draft Booker. I honestly think he can be the player who brings us our first championship,” she said.

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards have had their moments, but they haven't exactly been a successful team over the last two decades.

So how does Colin Salao, a local basketball writer, end up rooting for such an obscure team? Michael Jordan got them there. Sort of.

Growing up with a dad who's a Lakers fan but didn't really egg him to root for Los Angeles, Salao described himself as a basketball nomad rooting for exciting players or teams – like the aforementioned D'Antoni Suns – until his cousin became a little curious.

“My cousin started following the NBA in the early 2000s, so he asked his dad (my dad’s brother), ‘Who’s the best player in the NBA?’ For a seven or eight year-old, that’s a pretty standard question, right? And so my tito responded by saying, ‘Michael Jordan’. I mean, he was right. But at that time, Jordan was on the Washington Wizards first as team president, then eventually as a player. My cousin immediately searched the team Jordan was on and immediately became an obsessive fan of the team from the Nation’s Capital,” said Salao.

“At that age, he didn’t know just how mediocre the franchise was – and would continue to be – but as the internet began to boom, my cousin began researching more and more about his beloved franchise. Despite being a more nomadic NBA fan, I slowly started to inherit an affinity for the Wizards due to the constant supply of information my cousin would give me. (We had a lot of faith in Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov). And once the seven-seconds-or-less Suns reached their expiry date, I realized my emotional investment remained only with the Washington Wizards. I’ve been a diehard fan ever since, through the ups and oh so many downs.”

Salao recalls how he and his cousin went on popular Wizards blog “Bullets Forever” to keep up with the team through other members of the Wizards community. Eventually, when he became a writer for SLAM Philippines, Salao got a chance to write a heartfelt letter for his Wizards.

“The community of Wizards fans in the Philippines is small, to say the least. But it does exist. I’d stumble upon a person here and there who roots for the Wizards because they love John Wall or have some ties to the D.C. area in the States. However, it’s small enough that I can’t name a single person other than my cousin that I could actively approach to talk about meaningless Wizards news, like Daniel Gafford’s upside or whether we need to re-sign Raul Neto.”

Like the Salaos, there are a lot of Pinoy fans who found a connection with a team oceans away just through the power of the internet. For example, the average Pinoy fan may not know why Chicago's called the Windy City or have any strong opinion if deep dish pizza is actually pizza. But they know that Jordan played there and that's reason enough to love Chicago.

Utah Jazz

One team that fits every description of a small-market team is the Utah Jazz. There's not a lot going on in Utah other than the Jazz, so they have the most rabid local fans, but don't really resonate nationally.

Until around 2020, the same could be said in the Philippines. When Pinoys were idolizing Jordan in the ‘90s, the Jazz played the villain twice in the Finals. With rumors of a Bulls breakup swirling in 1998, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't want to see Chicago win one more time for Jordan.

Paolo del Rosario, a broadcaster for One Sports, was very much in the minority back then.

“I followed the Jazz religiously when I was younger through highlights on TV and the recaps on newspapers. It helped that the Jazz won a lot in the ‘90s so they always made the news and the phrase 'Stockton-to-Malone' found a way to be repeated ad nauseum even in the Philippines,” Del Rosario recalled.

“The thinking is that Philippine hoop fans idolize players more than specific teams so they follow them wherever they go. My personal favorite was John Stockton, and he never left Utah. By the time Stockton retired, I was invested in the Jazz' success. Just like Stockton, who refused to change the length of his shorts after an era passed, I stayed the course and kept on rooting for the Utah Jazz.”

When The Last Dance began airing on Netflix last year, Del Rosario was one of the many Jazz fans that didn't enjoy Jordan's account of taking everything personally.

“The worst moment [of my Jazz fandom] is fairly recent: It's when 'The Last Dance' came up on Netflix and I suddenly realized what it would have felt like if I had social media during the '97 and '98 Finals. To have your childhood trauma retold to you in an objectively great documentary is something I hope my future children will never experience.”

Del Rosario is the most hardcore Jazz fan. He insists his favorite moments are the small moments that the average fan might have already forgotten about like the unlikely story of Sundiata Gaines, Paul Millsap dominating the Heatles, or the Chris Paul-Deron Williams matchups.

Recently, Del Rosario has had to welcome a lot of new Pinoy Jazz fans because of Jordan Clarkson, who was traded there last year and has since emerged as a top Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season. Clarkson is probably the second most famous Filipino athlete today next to Manny Pacquiao. Del Rosario is just excited to have more Jazz fans outside of Salt Lake City. A Jordan broke ‘90s Jazz fans' hearts. Now, another Jordan could help them make a return to the Finals.

“I understood how supportive Pinoy hoop fans are of Jordan Clarkson, so I expected at least a few new Jazz fans by association. I am glad to have them over though, because it definitely makes the experience rooting for the Jazz more entertaining. And who knows? We may have new lifelong Jazz fans cropping up in the Philippines too because of Jordan!”


Is the NBA the Pinoys' new home league?

There are a lot of Pinoys who grew up with the NBA as their first taste of professional basketball. The Philippines has a proud history of local basketball from the collegiate to the professional level, but most Pinoy fans have stuck to just following the NBA.

Has the NBA become a competition for local fan attention? The people interviewed all root for at least one local professional or collegiate team. However, all of them admit that they follow the NBA just as much, if not a bit more than the local leagues, mostly because of the length of the NBA season.

One great thing about the NBA becoming so popular in the Philippines is that Pinoy fans get a higher standard for how a league should be run. In 2020, the Philippine Basketball Association even copied the NBA's bubble strategy so they could hold a season in the middle of a pandemic.

“The NBA’s, as well as other professional sports leagues in the West’s, success should serve as samples for how our leagues locally can run and be more successful,” thought Salao.

Ultimately, the NBA has found several new home courts around the world. In the Philippines, it doesn't matter which NBA star or team comes. They will always have fans on this side of the world.