To Filipinos, Jordan Clarkson is already a source of national pride. He is the lone active Filipino American in the National Basketball Association, and in June, he became the first player of Filipino ancestry to play in the NBA Finals (shout out to Raymond Townsend and Nate Robinson who never got there). Last week, after years of rumors, Clarkson finally became the first of these very few NBA Filipinos to represent the homeland in international play at the Asian Games.
For a country in a several decades-long love affair with the game of basketball, Clarkson simply being in the NBA is a big deal, but his membership on Gilas Pilipinas, the Philippine men’s national team, invokes a godlike status.
As the daughter of Filipino immigrants, I’ve known this love firsthand, even here in the U.S. I grew up with basketball. For the longest time, it was the only sport I watched, because it was the only one my family watched. Any other sports I became interested in were developed on my own. At family gatherings, basketball is the sport that garners conversation. On Christmas Day, my relatives and I gather in the family room to watch the NBA’s lineup of games, scheduling gift opening and other festive activities around them. I could go on forever about the full breadth and history of the Filipino passion for hoops, but I’ll instead recommend you read Rafe Bartholomew’s authoritative book on the subject, Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.
Gilas finished in fifth place in the Asian Games, which may or may not have been a disappointment as they are no powerhouse, even in Asia. Clarkson’s participation was really the only highlight of the competition for Gilas supporters. He was an integral player for the team, emerging immediately as the star player on a team he had just joined.
In his debut, Clarkson put up 28 points, eight rebounds, and four assists for a Gilas team that narrowly lost 82-80 to eventual gold medal winners, China. His speed and agility were a problem for opponents not accustomed to his elite skill level. In the third quarter of that game, Clarkson did his best work. He scored 16 of the Philippines’ 26 third-quarter points, leading a comeback that ultimately fell just short.
In just his first game, Clarkson proved how much of a factor he could be for Gilas Pilipinas.
In 4 games with Gilas, Clarkson did a bit of everything, averaging 26 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. Clarkson gave Filipinos hope that perhaps Gilas might end their medal drought, which began in 1998. That didn’t happen, but he still helped Gilas improve upon its seventh place finish in 2014. And he did so with its B team.
Clarkson became the face of the Philippines for the Asian Games, acting as the country’s flag bearer in the Games’ opening ceremony. Sporting a Barong—a traditional Filipino dress shirt—with his fellow countrymen, he led the Philippine delegation. In that Barong, waving the flag with blue on top, red on the bottom, and a white triangle with a yellow sun and three stars, Clarkson truly looked the part of a Filipino; someone who all Filipinos could see in themselves.
Every time I watch Clarkson play, I think of how cool it is for there to be a Filipino in the NBA. But it wasn’t until I saw these pictures of Clarkson at the opening ceremony that I, for the first time, truly saw him as a Filipino.
When describing what the experience of being the Philippines’ flag bearer was like, Clarkson spoke highly of it:
“It was probably one of the happiest days I’ve had in my career, in my life,” Clarkson said after the opening ceremony in the Indonesian capital. “Just seeing everybody’s face, how happy everybody was.”
With his Asian Games officially completed, Clarkson’s future with Gilas, unfortunately, may be a precarious one. The NBA schedule conflicts with FIBA World Cup qualifiers, so that will prevent Clarkson from playing for the Philippines then. And there are only so many international competitions he’s allowed to play in. The Asian Games were a “one-time exception.”
Clarkson, however, expressed confidence about his future with the Philippines in an Instagram post:
Featured image from South China Morning Post.