The story of Fil-Am players

I will start this one strongly: I am against racism.

For those for you who have experienced being in another country and got discriminated because of your “brown skin”, you know what I mean.

Robert Jaworski is the son of a Polish-American. (PBA Images)

I remember being in New York City in 1996. It was quitting time and I, being the tourist, was busy taking snap shots of the World Trade Center—from ground level. There was a loud bell that sounded and before I knew it, an army of the rank and file began marching towards me—in a hoard and in a hurry. I tried avoiding the oncoming crowd, but then I realized that right behind me was the entrance to the subway on 33rd street. I quickly ducked into a nearby bar to seek temporary refuge from the deluge. Then a patron inside yelled, “Hey Asian, what are you doing in here?!” Startled, I eventually realized it was an Irish pub. Another man sneered, “Your kind isn’t welcome here, get out.” So I did.

It was the first time I felt discriminated. It was really no big deal and I wasn’t really aware. But walking back to the Path Train to head back to my uncle’s place in Jersey City, it stung me to be spoken to and rejected in that manner—just because I was “Asian”.

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There are multitudes out there that have to learn to live with this kind of unwarranted flack daily, even if they are already bonafide citizens of that country. The Philippines is no exception.

Apartheid is defined as: a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race. The word itself is so synonymous with South Africa, where apartheid tore their nation apart for generations. If not for the efforts of one Nelson Mandela, the world would not see the effects this has on a culture, and although racism and racial discrimination has been toned down over the years, it is still practiced—oftentimes inadvertently and ignorantly—by native inhabitants of a certain region of a country.

In the Philippines, one of these regions happens to be basketball.

We hear this sometimes when our brothers at the Azkals are brought up. That’s why they are called Azkals in the first place, right? Short for “Asong Kalye” or mongrel; half breeds. Yet the heat of the racial debates in Philippine soccer isn’t really as repercussive as the tone in professional basketball—at least not yet.

The Azkals are so aptly named. (Photo by Bob Guerrero)

But what is it about being of foreign-descent and playing in the PBA or the PBA Developmental League (D-League) that irks many of our countrymen? The arguments put forward are that the Filipino-American (Fil-Am) or the Filipino-Foreigner takes a spot from a “pure-bred” Filipino, most noticeably in the PBA. Fil-Ams get paid more, allegedly. Fil-Ams still bring their “Americanisms” to the Philippines in terms of arrogance, condescension and cultural thinking; hence they become detriments to being “role-models” of the sacred game. Many people say that the PBA was more palatable before the arrival of these half-breeds who, in the case of some, are later on exposed to be all hype (Jon Ordonio is a classic example)—merely because of their apparent Western heritage.

You have to remember the diversity of the Filipino.

We are one of the most highly adaptable people in the world. The Filipino can live in snow infested countries as well as deserts, and in being so diverse, can proliferate by marriage to other inhabitants of the world.

This is an indisputable fact.

The offspring of these unions tend to be curious about their roots. For a select few, they trace their roots back to the homeland and subsequently become recognized as a Filipino by blood—no matter how tainted—and granted citizenship with full privileges. But then those who choose to settle in Philippines now become castigated for being half-breeds, or in the case Harry Potter: Halfbloods. It’s terrible.

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Newsflash: the Fil-Ams have been in Philippine basketball since it all started. Do names like Bachmann, Borck, Jaworski and Brill sound local at all? If it had been “Bakman (maybe of Ilocano descent)” or “Brocka” or “Jawo” or “Brillo” then maybe, right?

Among the very first Olympians the Philippines sent was a hurdler by the name of Miguel White (1909-1942). White won a bronze medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. He was a Fil-Am. John Henry Gray (1906-1964)—whose father was from Arkansas and whose mother was from Leyte—saw action in the boxing competitions of the 1932 Los Angeles games.

1936 Olympic Bronze Medalist Miguel White of the Philippines (Photo: Philippine Sports Commission)

Here are a few other Olympians of foreign descent:

Swimming: Akiko Thomson

Christel Simms

Christine Jacob

Daniel Coakley

James Walsh

Jasmine Alkhaldi

Tanker Jasmine Alkhaldi represnted the Philippines in the 2012 London Olympics (Photo: http://philippinesgofor …

Judo: Tomohiko Hoshina

Shooting: Enrique Beech

Taekwondo: Donnie Geisler

...and finally:

Basketball: Kurt Bachmann

Charles “The Blond Bombshell” Borck

Robert Jaworski (Father is Polish-American)

A lot of PBA fans always make a case that the glory days of the league was when the proliferation of the “Fil-Am” wasn’t as rampant as nowadays. Lim Eng Beng, a pure Chinese cager from La Salle, played in the PBA long before there were regulations on the inclusion of non-Filipinos on team rosters. He went on to be included among the 25 Greatest Players in PBA history.

Perhaps the most famous case was Pepperdine’s Ricardo Brown, who after suiting up for the national team made his debut in a Great Taste uniform in 1983 and became the hands down choice for Rookie of the Year. In 1985, Brown won the MVP award. Another of the pioneer Fil-Am invaders was 1984 PBA Rookie of the Year Willie Pearson, who only played five seasons in the league. Pearson allegedly fled the country in 1989 dodging tax evasion charges which now segues to many allegations of mischief by the next generation of Fil-Foreigners.

Pepperdine's Ricky Brown was one of the original Fil-Ams. (Photo courtesy of Ricky Brown)

In the late 1990’s, more and more Fil-Ams began showing up at the doorstep of all entry-points of Philippine basketball.

The birth of the now defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) swung the gate wide open for a vast array of unfiltered foreigners claiming to have Filipino lineage and finding jobs as “local” cagers. The MBA did not require much paperwork and hence, the influx began.

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In the PBA, all hell broke loose in the 2001 season when it was proven that several “Fil-Ams” falsified their documents and eventually a crackdown from the Department of Justice was said to have “weeded out” the fake Fil-Foreigners, or “Fil-Shams” as the media coined them. However, despite several rulings, the tables turned and some who were initially banned from the league still made it back and the controversy still continues to be debated today.

The repercussions of the “Fil-Sham” period still stings many loyal PBA fans to the point that now the present-day Fil-Foreigners are still scrutinized, despised and even derided—even if it has already been proven that their ancestry is authentic.

Many are now beginning apartheid divisions of referring to two sets of players: “Fil-Ams” and “Pure Breds”.

I find this ludicrous.

The Filipino-Foreigners amongst us are still Filipinos. No one made a big fuss about Willie Miller, Topex Robinson, Calvin Abueva or Jason Castro because despite their foreign blood and appearance they spoke Tagalog and grew up in the country—imbibing its traditions and mannerisms. Others such as Jeffrey Cariaso, Mark Caguioa and Alex Cabagnot eventually became accepted because of their “pure-bred” stature and they went on to speak Filipino fluently.

Despite having an American father, Willie Miller is universally accepted as a local. (PBA Images)

Americans like Alex Compton, Rafe Bartholomew and Norman Black won the admiration of the Filipino people because in spite of their citizenship, they immersed themselves into the culture and have often even emerged as “more Filipino” than some these alleged Fil-Ams who still can’t speak simple Tagalog despite being in the Philippines for years already.

But at the end of the day, they are still our countrymen; they have Filipino blood. They belong with us.

I believe this is part of the evolution process of a people.

The NBA was an all-Caucasian league when it began in 1946. When Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Chuck Cooper became the first African-American players in 1950, the Americans did not quite know what to make of the breaking of the Color Barrier. The 1978-79 season saw the New York Knicks parade the first “All-Black” line-up and were publicly referred to as the “New York Niggerbockers”, which was probably the most degraded moniker in the history of professional sports. Yet today, it is widely accepted that African-Americans dominate the league.

In 1950, the NBA's color barrier was broken by Earl Lloyd and two others. (Getty Images)

In stark contrast, today’s NBA has (in this 2012-13 season) a total of 84 foreigners representing 37 countries worldwide. In all, over 300 players donned an NBA jersey. They play as equals—not as imports.

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In all national leagues across the globe, imports see action all the time. Eventually, some become naturalized by that country and become full-fledged citizens of that nation. This has happened more in recent years.

The Philippines is proud of its heritage as a people as well as its heritage as basketball nation. The Fil-Foreigners who are among us now is the next step in our evolution. Many may have their reservations about them being here, but down the road I believe we will be more open-minded about having them amongst us. It’s a process all countries go through. Maybe be we can hasten it in the Philippines. Let’s all move forward.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter: @NoelZarate

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.