I stepped off the plane in Manila, Philippines with about $40 U.S. to my name. I had just come from living in Australia. After a few months of jobs falling through, financial struggles, and simple bad luck, I had decided to make a hasty exit. I had no plan, no contacts and no idea what I was going to do, but that was how I’d been living for years at that point, so it wasn’t anything new.
After leaving customs, I stumbled out into the damp and heavy air of the smoggy metropolis with my backpack slung over one shoulder and my guitar’s cheap nylon case resting over the other. As soon as my feet hit the pavement outside, I was swarmed by local taxi drivers. They descended upon me like jackals, snatching and tugging at my bags as they each tried to shout over their competition for my attention.
“Where you wanna go?!”
“Over here, sir!”
The swirling tornado of hands and voices all around me was overwhelming. I chose a random face in the sea of heads surrounding me, gave it a nod and followed it out of the cloud of bodies.
I followed the small, tan man to his ride parked down the curb. The sound of the crowd behind me started to fade as they switched their attention from me to the airport doors and waited to accost the next unwitting passenger.
“Where you want to go?” the driver asked me in broken English as he helped me put my things into the beat up old cab.
“Take me to where you live,” I told him. The look he gave me told me he understood but was unsure of how to process the unusual request. I shook my head and said it again, “Yes, take me to where you live. I want to go to your neighborhood. Wherever it is you are from, that’s where I’d like to go.”
“You sure?” he asked suspiciously.
“Yep,” I smiled and hopped in the car. We pulled away from the curb and into the streetlight-speckled evening of the city.
After about 45 minutes of driving through blurry and hectic traffic, we were out of the downtown area and onto the potholed streets on the outskirts of the urban sprawl. The Slums. Rusty tin roofs affixed with leaky drain pipes covered all the shacks lining the streets that doubled as shops and houses. Emaciated dogs struggled to limp out of the way of oncoming cars and tuk-tuks, as their headlights whizzed by with every near miss.
I watched it all pass by from the taxi window and waited for a sign. As we weaved our way through the dilapidated ghetto, I noticed that on almost every other block the locals had rolled out portable, sometimes makeshift, hoops and were playing pick-up basketball games in the streets. Some looked as though they were just shooting around or playing horse, but others had legit 5-on-5 full court games going. I took note while we kept driving.
Eventually, we came upon a hotel. “Stop here,” I told the driver. I hopped out and ran in while he waited outside. There was a room free. 300 pisos per night, (almost $6 U.S.). I tried to talk her down to 250. We settled on 280, (roughly over $5 U.S.).
I ran back outside to retrieve my things from the cab. “You sure you wanna stay here?” the concerned driver asked one more time.
“Yea man, I’m all good,” he laughed to himself and shook his head. I handed him the fare, closed the door and lugged my things into the lobby of the hotel. Once I got myself checked-in and situated in my room, I decided to go out for a stroll, to see what the night had to offer and find out more about the intriguing street hoop scene there in the district. I laced-up my ratty, gray converse and headed out.
The eyes were on me immediately as soon as I hit the pavement. While I strolled I wondered to myself if these people had ever even seen a foreigner before in real life, let alone a black man. These were poor blue collar folk in a rough neighborhood. If they were lucky enough to even have a T.V., that would be the only time they would have seen someone that looked like me.
I was aware of how out of place I looked. I kept my guard up while indulging in the sights and sounds of the vivid environment all around me. I stopped to watch a few kids playing on a homemade hoop outside a dusty shop while I rolled a cigarette. When I was done I lit the end and continued my stroll.
After walking a few more blocks I came to a dead end street that had been blocked off to cars. There were people all over the sidewalk watching the huge pick-up game taking place in the middle of the road.
I silently slid up and attempted to melt into the crowd of spectators. I watched as the game continued, and slowly the people around began to notice that an outsider had slipped into their midst. Soon no one was paying attention to the game anymore. Everyone was tapping shoulders and whispering into their hands, eyes staring in my direction.
Eventually, even the players began to stop and look in my direction. The guy with the ball made eye contact with me and tossed me the rock, waving me over to play. I threw it back and said, “I’ll get in on the next one.”
They resumed playing and the crowd went back to watching the game, although still occasionally glancing at me out of the corners of their eyes. A few seconds after the brief timeout, a group of about a dozen young children circled me and began asking me questions and pointing at me. “Sorry, I don’t speak Tagalog,” was the only response I had for their curious, dirt-smudged faces.
When the game was over, the guy who had thrown me the ball called me over, “You’re up,” he waved his hand, signaling me to come over and join him. He introduced himself as Gerald in perfect English. He inquired where I was from and asked me if I ever play basketball.
“I’m from California,” I told him, “and I used to ball, but it’s been a while.”
“California huh? No problem, you can be on my team.” He introduced me to the rest of the guys I’d be playing with and told me who was on our team and who would be our opponents.
And with that, the game was underway. Each team had a person shoot a three-pointer to see who would get the ball first. While the game was getting started I noticed more and more people coming over to the court to watch. The word was out that there was a stranger hooping with the local boys, and everyone was curious to witness the rare event.
The sideline was quickly packed with spectators. Shutters from the second story windows overlooking the court began to fling open and crowd with small shadowy faces. Tuk-tuks pulled over and shut off their engines.
The guys I was playing with were good. They had all the fundamentals down and some guys were actually pretty big and could shoot. But they played the way they saw the professionals in the NBA play on T.V. Lazy defense, no movement without the ball on offense, and if you set a pick, forget about them fighting to try to get through it.
They also didn’t have much experience with the “And 1” style of street-ball that I spent the majority of my youth playing. This is the more loose, free and fancy type of basketball that was popular in the 90s and early 2000s when I was growing up. It’s a type of trick basketball that involves moves like putting the ball on your opponent’s head and pulling it off before they have a chance to grab it, or dribbling between your defender’s legs instead of your own, then following it up with a smooth around the back pass. In this type of street ball, style and embarrassing the person guarding you is almost just as important as scoring points.
As the game got underway I started to razzle and dazzle the crowd with some simple flashy moves at first. They were eating it up. And since the guys weren’t used to playing against a tough defense, I was able to force steals and picks with just a little bit of pressure.
More and more people started to gather around and I began to feel more and more confident. I started to successfully do tricks and maneuvers that were harder to pull off and the crowd was going crazy.
At one point I did a “slip-n-slide”, a move where the person with the ball rolls around on the ground, then just as they’re getting up they do a crossover dribble and go the other way. It faked my defender out so hard his ankles buckled and he fell down backward on his ass. I stepped back and hit a jump shot, “swish,” nothing but net.
The crowd all started chanting something in Tagalog as I jogged backward and reached for the high-fives of my teammates. The scene looked and felt like something out of a movie. I was buzzing.
I ended up hitting the game-winning shot, a jumper from the outside that won the game for my team. I stayed on the court and gave everyone I was playing with a high-five and pat on the back while the next team up got ready to replace the losers. Once I’d shaken everyone’s had I walked off the court to the sideline.
“You’re still on man,” Gerald told me.
“Na, I’m good for now,” I said, sucking wind and still struggling to catch my breath. “I’ve got my jeans on and everything. Just one game for me tonight.”
“Up to you,” he shrugged and passed the ball to someone else.
I retook my place off to the side of the court and leaned against a poll. The children from before encircled me again. The one in front of me pointed up to my face and asked me very slowly with a strong accent, “you know LeBron James?”
I chuckled, “Na bud, sorry. Never met the guy.” The kids continued to stand and stare at me awkwardly while I tried to watch the next game. After another few seconds another youngster, a bit older than the rest, maybe 12 or 13, pushed through the group and marched up to me.
“They want to see you,” he pointed across the court to a table full of older men, dressed a little bit nicer than the rest of the people I had seen in this part of town. They waved me over when I looked in their direction.
I walked over and they invited me to sit. At the head was a rather large, middle-aged gentleman. Sat with him were a few other men that looked to be the same age, but the man at the head was obviously the shot caller. He introduced himself as Anthony.
“You’re pretty good at basketball,” he said.
“Eh, I used to play in high school,” I said timidly.
“Where are you from?” his questions came with no emotion, his face was like a stern mask.
I told him I was from California, that I’d been traveling for a few years and had just arrived from Australia. “And what are you doing here?” his expressionless face leaned in for my answer. His cronies remained still and waited to see what I had to say as well.
“Well,” I started, “I have a lot of Filipino friends back home. I’ve even dated a couple of Filipino girls. I really like your culture and just wanted to see and experience it here first hand.”
My answer seemed to please him. For the first time, he smiled, and that seemed to give the other men sitting with him at the table permission to do the same. He turned to the young boy who had come over to get me and gave him instructions in Tagalog. The boy gave a quick nod then darted off.
I remained sitting and talking with the men. They all spoke English and were falling over each other to ask me questions. “What’s California like?”, “Have you been to an NBA game?”, “Where is Hollywood?”. I could barely get a word out before the next question came. All the while they were offering me beer, food, and cigarettes. They were all so friendly and nice, I was blown away.
The young boy returned with a plate and placed it in front of me, “This is Lechon Paksiw, a traditional local dish. Enjoy.” I thanked Anthony and offered some money. He refused to accept it and insisted that I take whatever I wanted.
“What else you want?” He asked, his face back to its normal serious scowl, “Alcohol? Cigarettes? Women? Whatever you want, you don’t worry about it, you just tell me and I get it for you. No problem.” He patted my shoulder and gave me a wink.
“Thanks, man. The food is fine for now.” I stayed and hung out at the table eating and chatting while the basketball game continued on behind me.
While I was sitting there, another older teenager came up and handed me some money. “No, no. What’s this for?” I asked confused.
“That’s yours,” Anthony said. “We like to gamble here and we bet on the games. The players on the winning teams get a cut. You earned that from the last game. Congratulations.” He sat back in his chair and lit a cigarette, the spark from the lighter jumped and briefly illuminated his cold expression.
“Really?” A light bulb when on over my head, “This might be my ticket out of here”, I thought to myself.
Just then Gerald came over and put his hand on my shoulder, “We lost that one. Coulda used you again out there.”
“Meh, he’s been over here having fun with us!” Anthony exclaimed. “Now you can join too.” He ordered someone to go get a chair for Gerald and one almost instantly materialized. Gerald thanked him and sat down next to me.
This was the first time Gerald and I really had a chance to talk. I found out that we were the same age. He had two kids and a wife. He worked as a tuk-tuk driver during the day. While we were talking a few more of his friends came over and he introduced us all.
There was Jesmon, a curious and talkative character who was also the same age as me. We got along instantly. Then there was Jay, a tall shy kid in his early 20s with a permanent smile glued to his face. Last was Mark, a university student who was back home visiting his family on a school break.
We stayed talking and drinking there for the rest of the evening. When the basketball games were finished Gerald and the boys insisted I go with them to continue the party at a Karaoke bar. With Anthony’s blessing, we were off into the warm night happy, drunk, and ready for the next scene.
I stayed out bar hopping with the boys until the early hours of the A.M., and the whole time they still refused to allow me to pay for anything. When the night was over and the last drinks were served, they came with me back to my hotel room and we carried on partying until the sun came up.
The next afternoon I met back up with Jesmon and Jay. Gerald had to work driving his tuk-tuk during the day but planned to meet me again at the same basketball court from the night before.
My two new friends took me on a walking tour around their small slum. We went by Jesmon’s home, a run down hallway in a decrepit 2 story building, where his mom fed us soup. After we ate we went to a nearby shopping mall with a video game arcade inside. The mall’s A.C. was a welcomed relief from the blazing and constant humidity beyond its doors, so we hung around and played a few games while we waited for the sweat on our shirts to dry.
When it started to get dark I went back to my room and got changed. On the first night, when I made my debut I was wearing a pair of jeans and my worn out gray Chuck Taylor Converse. The Chucks were the only shoes I had, but tonight I would at least put on a pair of basketball shorts to play in.
I got dressed and headed back down to the court. Gerald was there waiting for me when I arrived. He came over and greeted me. There was already a game going, so he asked me if I wanted to jump in next, “Sure,” I told him.
After the previous night, I had gotten an idea, and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to inquire about my plan, “Hey Gerald, yesterday I got some money cause people were betting on the game. Is it possible for me to bet as well?”
“Of course man,” Gerald smiled, “this is the Philippines!” he patted me on the back and brought me over to one of Anthony’s lackeys in the corner. He showed me how to place bets on teams as well as individuals. Once I understood the system I nodded and started to walk off.
I turned to Gerald and shoved a fist full of notes into his hand and told him to place a bet for me, “Bet half that I score 7 points, and bet the other half that our team wins,” he turned and went back to the bookie. I’d like to give him roughly $20 U.S., more than half of what I had left to my name. This was an investment I couldn’t afford to lose.
I took to the court and started stretching and warming up. I was confident, but I really needed to focus if I was going to survive another few days in this city. I went around and high-fived all the guys on my team, “I’m counting on you,” I told them with a smile. “More than you know,” I thought to myself.
The game got underway and started slow. Everybody was deciding which man to cover and feeling out their opponent. I was covering a short, fast guy in his 20’s, one of the better ball handlers on the court. I sat back and played him loose to see if he had a good jump shot from the outside. He passed instead of taking the shot, “He’s shy,” I thought as I started calculating my advantages.
A shot went up and missed. My team rebounded the ball. Everyone on the team started gesturing and pointing, yelling to pass it to me. After my performance, the day before everyone was excited and curious to see what sort of tricks I had up my sleeve today.
I took the ball and brought it up court slow, letting my teammates get in position ahead of me on offense. I threw a no-look pass to a man open on the left while I quickly cut down the key and popped out to the right to set an off-ball screen for Gerald. He pushed his man into me and curled off the pick towards the hoop. The guy I had passed the ball to dropped a bounce pass into Gerald, who caught it and turned around for a quick layup. 1-0 my team.
The Rules of the game were the first team to 21 points wins, each basket being worth 1 point and a shot behind the 3-point line counting as 2. The winning team has to win by 2 with players calling their own fouls. Any disagreement with a call is settled by the person making the claim shooting a 3 pointer. If it goes in their claim is valid and they get possession at the top of the key. If they miss, the ball goes to the other team and the claimant and his teammates are back on defense.
I focused on playing hard defense and getting fast breaks when the other team missed. If I could score my seven points by the time we had about 17 or 18 points as a team, I could get enough steals, rebounds, and assists to have us win without me having to score the last few baskets.
It looked like my strategy had worked. We were making short work of the other team and I scored my seventh point to put us up 19-12. All we had to do now was score 2 points before they scored 9. But with the odds out of their favor, the other team turned up the heat. They started using all their energy and really tightening up on defense.
They got a quick steal and pulled up on the fast break to hit a shot behind the 3 point line, 19-14. On the inbound, they got another quick steal and put in the layup, 19-15. They were making a comeback.
I came down the court and got the ball. The defense started to press me with 2 defenders. I did a spin move and glided past the weak-side of the defender on my right. His man was open down the court. I tossed him the ball low in the key, near the hoop. He went to grab it with one hand, but when he tried to dribble with the other he lost control and the ball rolled out of bounds.
The other team brought the ball back up the court and scored again. 19-16, our comfortable lead was fading, and I had already scored my 7 points to cover my bet. I needed my teammates to step it up.
I begged for the ball at the top of the key. My man tried to sneak behind me and grab the inbound ball, but I heard his footsteps and snatched the ball in the opposite direction as soon as it touched my fingertips. The defender sailed past me and I took off down the court.
I drove hard straight at the hoop, trying to attract all my teammate’s defenders like a magnet. At the last minute, I jumped up underneath the hoop, followed by a web of hands and elbows. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gerald out on the shoulder of the court, just beyond the 3-point line. In a split second, I shot the ball through a gap in the tangle of limbs surrounding me.
Someone’s fingertips grazed the ball, but the force from the pass was too strong. It skidded and came flying out of the mass of bodies and bounced towards Gerald’s waiting palms. He caught the ball as he simultaneously took a step to the side to adjust, before pulling up and nailing the 2-pointer to win the game.
I gave him a thumbs up and he returned the gesture with a wink. We all did the sportsmanlike high-fives all around as the next team came on to get ready for the next game.
I continued to stay down at the court playing and betting for the rest of the evening. When the games were over and it was time for me to head back to my hotel room I had turned my $20 into $150.
I spent the rest of the week hanging out in the day and going down to the courts at night to hoop and gamble. After 4 days, I had raised roughly $600, the cost of a one-way flight back home to California.
My last day in Manila was October 31, the day before All Saints Day. It’s a very important day for the Catholic people of the Philippines. That afternoon, Gerald took me, along with his younger brother, to a massive cemetery in the heart of Manila. They have a family tradition of painting the tomb of their grandfather in a new coat of fresh white paint every year, and this time they invited me to come. I was moved and honored for the invite. “You are like family now,” Gerald told me.
I went down to the courts and said bye to everyone that night. Jesmon told me he had a surprise for me and handed me a custom made Jersey with his name on the back.
“I can’t take this”, I told him. He insisted and pushed it on me with a hug.
I said bye to all the rest of the guys and thanked them for showing me such a wonderful time. “Come back anytime,” they shouted as I walked to Gerald’s tuk-tuk to load my bags, “we’re always here.”
Gerald gave me a ride outside of the district and brought me to a row of taxis. He went up to one, leaned in the window then came back to help me with my things, “He’ll take you to the airport. And don’t worry about paying him,” he told me while he put my backpack in the trunk.
It had started to rain and hunched figures were scurrying for cover in the shadows behind us while we said our goodbyes, “I hope we meet again,” Gerald said as he gave me an embrace.
“You never know,” I pulled away and reached for the cab door-handle, “The world is small,” I winked as I gave him a wave before getting in.
I made it back to the Bay Area in time to surprise my family on Halloween. I had been abroad for almost two years, and they had no idea I was coming home. My father opened the front door with a bowl of candy under one arm, expecting a last-minute trick-or-treater dressed as a pirate or a ghost.
Instead, he found his son with a tattered pair of Thai pants, a weathered backpack and a guitar slung over his shoulder. The shocked look on his face when he saw me through the screen door will forever be etched in my memory.
I stayed in touch with the boys from Manila and sent back some gifts after I was back and settled. When I was in Australia I had to sell the van I’d been living in in The States. This left my parents with 2 boxes of my clothes collecting dust in the corner of their garage.
I went through it all and put aside a few shorts, shirts and jerseys for my Filipino friends, things they couldn’t get, or couldn’t afford in their country. I got Gerald’s address and posted the package with a whistle he had asked me to get him so he could referee his kid’s games.
My short time in Manila was incredible. It showed me how truly generous people can be. I was with folks that have next to nothing, and limited opportunities to change their situations, yet they still wouldn’t let me pay for anything, even though it would have only cost me fractions of a cent.
It wasn’t just a testament to the generosity of the Filipinos and their culture, but to humanity and how capable we are of taking care of one another. After just a few days I was like family with these people, to the point that they would literally give me the shirt off their back and ask nothing in return.
The experience also gave me great confidence in myself and what I’m capable of. When I look back at it now, I have no idea what I was thinking, going to a country with nothing and asking to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere. But I somehow managed to, not only to survive, but thrive. I got into a position and then figured my way out of it.
I believe that these types of challenging situations are the reason to travel and the places you’ll find the most growth. Since this journey, I’ve found the confidence to work, hitchhike, and go broke all over the world. And I have the trust in myself and the universe to know that I will always be alright and taken care of. My proof? I haven’t been let down yet.