Victor Malimban patrols the baseline like a proud and hungry doberman. The 40-year-old Filipino rec-league baller watches his teammate slice toward the basket with the ball. In a thicket of limbs, Victor emerges, as if summoned for this moment to shoot a short jumper from just inside the free throw line. His shot kisses the front of the rim, taking its time before bouncing into the hoop. Victor, all 5’ 7” of him, runs stone-faced back down the court with his teammates.
Victor’s San Antonio-based over-40 Filipino basketball team are in Austin, Texas to try their luck in an Asian American basketball tournament for amateur club teams with players of Asian descent. The older players on Victor’s team play a uniquely Filipino form of basketball. His teammates call it, “gulang style,” aka “old man style,” aka “the way Victor plays.”
It’s a style of play common in the Philippines, learned on crooked rims and dusty streets. Gulang style is less about three-pointers and pick and rolls, and more about baseline trickery and sharp elbows to an opponent’s back when the referee isn’t looking. It’s a style out-of-step with the current American way of basketball adopted by younger generation of Filipinos.
“People have different styles of being good at what they do,” Victor says. “Some people like to dive in, some people like to shoot threes. Who’s a better basketball player, the guy who puts a lot of effort into scoring twos, or the guy shooting easy threes?”
Victor’s team runs in the over-40 division; each member has been playing the game for decades. The team was formed from a group of over-40 players who run in the Filipino Basketball League in San Antonio. The league has existed there since the early 90s, save for a few years when it stopped because of too much fighting. The league originated as casual games with potlucks serving pancit and lumpia, and eventually became a twice-a-year 10 team, three-month round robin tournament.
On a makeshift court in the streets of Manila, with a backboard made of painted wood, nailed onto a neighbor’s wall, Victor picked up gulang style. The court was on the main street in the neighborhood and games paused when cars passed by. Victor played ball because that’s what everyone else did. He started young, a shrimp to the older kids who crowded the court, and his job was to hustle and rebound.
Basketball has long been popular in the Philippines, it’s the unofficial national sport. The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is the second oldest professional league continuously existing in the world after only the National Basketball Association.
Filipino ball has a unique geometry that is most apparent at the rec-league level where everyone stands 5’ 8” or so. The players, especially the older ones, zigzag like knights on a chessboard. When everyone is short, the game is all about speed and trickery on two dimensions.
Victor’s teammate, Julius Paragas, exemplifies the pint-sized fury of the Filipino baller. At the Austin tournament, Julius, 41, attacked on offense with all the foolhardy, relentless bravado of a shorter Allen Iverson. Imagine Wolverine as a ballhog. The 5’ 4” guard pounds the ball like a speed bag. He dives into two defenders at a time, forcing himself into fight or flight scenarios before shooting the trickiest of turnaround shots and reverse layups. Sometimes they went in.
The taciturn Julius exudes a swagger and machismo borne from barefoot ball in the barangay. He always attacks, which is the important part. It’s on this fact that old timers say they can tell if a baller learned the game in the Philippines or in America.
“In the Philippines if you shoot outside without driving you’re called a sissy,” says Will Daprola, who at 59 is the oldest member of the team.
Victor arrived in America at age 11. His father was from the Philippines, but his mother was from Vietnam. In California, and then in Texas, young Victor lived for pickup ball. He’d play every day after school, three hours at the same park with the same kids. His Manila childhood lessons in hustle and odd angles served him well. He played varsity ball in high school, and the American kids he met at the court became his friends and tutors in American customs and folklore.
He and his siblings worked hard to fit in, to speak English, even as their mother kept her heavy accent, a mixture of Vietnamese, Filipino, and English that all mashed together when she was angry. Victor saw assimilation as a process of addition, like adding a jumper to his drive. He was the polite Asian kid when he visited his white friends’ homes, complimenting the food even as he wondered why they put butter on their rice. He still speaks Tagalog, but when he goes back to the Philippines now, he is the one with a Yankee accent.
As he grew older, Victor was stuck to the game. He sometimes skipped dates to play basketball; birthdays too. He’d show up late to work after morning meetings on the court. He reasoned that his girlfriend and his job would always be there. His ability to prove himself on the court may not. He perfected his role in basketball, a mixture of well-timed baseline play with hard-nosed–and slightly dirty–defense.
The problem in Austin is that the other teams play American-style ball. Filipino ballers, as with any immigrant group who plays the game in the U.S., tend to adopt the American style of play as they assimilate. They soon begin shooting threes like Steph Curry, and Euro-stepping like James Harden. Even those among the older generation begin to work on a more Matt Bonner-esque three-point set shot.
But not Julius, and not Victor. They play the game in Austin much as they did when they fell in love with the sport, even if it made everything harder than it needed to be.
Near the end of the first half, Julius slithers to the right baseline and shoots a semi-open step-back jumper. He misses but Victor teleports from underneath a Houston defender and grabs the rebound. He then tunnels underneath the basket and throws up a layup from the other side. Which misses. The scrum for the rebound ends with Julius wrestling the ball away and sneaking in a layup to cut the deficit by two.
The other team flies down the court and immediately hits a corner three. The rest of the game unravels in the same manner. Each trey ball for Houston seems inevitable, like the pop of a jack-in-the-box, while each of San Antonio’s occasional threes seems to elicit a silent prayer of gratitude.
Victor’s team loses the game by 30 points.
After the game, the team walks to a nearby gym, where San Antonio’s younger players compete in the Open division, the tournament’s most competitive. This game, with all players in their mid-20s or younger, barely resembles the dinosaur basketball in the other room.
The San Antonio Open team starts the game with a three point blitzkrieg. They move like a flock of Kyrie Irvings, spinning into impossible layups, pulling up for long threes and, lunging for steals after letting their man go by. The team plays five-in, five-out, a roster of replaceable mechanical parts, with no one over 6′ tall, and everyone able to shoot.
Victor’s team watches the youngsters with a sense of wistful regret. Julius recalls his younger days, when his tenacious will was matched by with a willing body. Victor, too, says he can tell he is slowing down. He hurt his knee on the court last year, which has led to one injury after another.
In their last game of the tournament, Julius enters a state of berserker rage, scoring over 30 points in a tough loss. He charges into the paint again and again, probing, relentless and foolhardy. The San Antonio team loses again, albeit narrowly. They leave Austin without a win.
Weeks later, when asked if one could still win playing gulang style, Victor says no. Even he is learning how to shoot threes now, like everyone else. After all, how many points does individuality put on the board? There is no bonus for purity.
“You have to adapt,” Victor said. “Slowly do the things that the other players are doing.”
Victor still isn’t comfortable playing the three point line yet. When he plays on the perimeter it’s as if he is wearing another man’s clothes. Try as he might, Victor still plays the way he learned growing up. He is adding the American style to his game, but on the court, he is still that little kid in the barangay, hustling for the ball and shooting from angles odd to everyone else but him.