Slam dunk

Nathalie Tadena

For someone who has played basketball his whole life, writer Rafe Bartholomew knows a thing or two about shooting hoops. But when the Northwestern alumnus moved to the Philippines after graduation, he had no idea how difficult it would be to play the game in flip flops – a norm on the court for many Filipino basketball fans.

“If you have not grown up doing that, it’s difficult,” Bartholomew said. “When I play in my chinellas [a type of slipper], I’m afraid to run, I’m afraid to jump. I have to go super slow every step otherwise I feel like it’s going to lead to a disaster.”

Last year, Bartholomew published his first book, Pacific Rims, which examines the unexpected passion for basketball in the Philippines. The New York native spent three years in the Philippines on a Fulbright scholarship he received after graduating from Medill in 2005.

“The biggest thing I noticed is just how widespread basketball is in the Philippines,” said Bartholomew, now an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine in New York City. “If you talk to someone for ten minutes, you’ll find out that he may have grown up watching the game three nights a week with his dad or that basketball was their ‘dessert,’ something they watched after eating dinner every night.”

Bartholomew first came up with the research proposal while conducting an independent study in long-form sports writing during his senior year at Medill. He came across the book, Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, by Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff, which featured a “mind-blowing” chapter on basketball in the Philippines that ultimately inspired Bartholomew’s grant proposal.

With a help of a mentor at Ateneo de Manila University, Bartholomew attended Philippine Basketball Association games, sat in on professional teams’ practices and interviewed more than 150 coaches, players and fans.

Whether playing on courts in rural provinces or watching games in the cities, Bartholomew saw that basketball had a larger patriotic significance for many Filipinos. The game in many ways served as an informal playing chip in different aspects of Filipino society, noting that for example, politicians in the country have bought defunct basketball leagues to boost their image on the campaign trail.

And of course, Bartholomew, who played club basketball at NU, made time to shoot hoops with new friends and interview subjects, organizing pick-up games with pros and fans alike.

“Growing up in New York, I was really taken by the fact that I’ve lived on the same block for most of my life but didn’t know anyone there,” he said. “After a few months in Quezon City, Katapuno, I would walk around and what would be a 10-minute walk would turn into a half-hour walk, because I would stop just to talk to different people and neighbors on my street. The novelty of having a foreigner in the neighborhood wore off as time went on, and I became more like a real member of an everyday community.”

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