'Not just basketball' - circumcisions, pageants at Philippines courts

Manila (AFP) –


Indoor courts are central to life in tens of thousands of towns and cities across basketball-mad Philippines, hosting everything from funerals and beauty pageants to "circumcision season".

These so-called "covered courts" are essential in remote or poor communities, where they are often one of just a few public buildings.

So when people are forced to flee violent storms in the disaster-prone nation, they seek refuge on the basketball courts.

"It doesn't get empty, it's overused," said Roel De Guzman, who's in charge of the courts in one part of the capital Manila.

"It's not just for basketball."

In one recent week one of his courts hosted a government seminar, a class for would-be motorcycle taxi drivers, an amateur boxing match promoted by national legend Manny Pacquiao and, of course, some basketball.

The fact that daily Filipino life is deeply entwined with the courts is no surprise, given basketball's immense popularity in the Philippines.

- 'Saturated with basketball' -

It's a love affair that goes back to the 1900s when basketball was introduced to the archipelago by the Americans.

The sport flourished to the extent that the Philippines became the first Asian nation to found its own professional league.

To this day basketball jerseys are an ubiquitous choice of attire, while local leagues and favourite NBA teams are on TVs from the capital's wealthiest homes to the humblest bamboo shack in the provinces.

For Rafe Bartholomew, an American journalist who wrote a book on Philippine hoops culture, the omnipresence of covered courts is proof of Filipinos' love for the game.

"It is one of the most easily recognisable examples of just how... saturated the country is with the sport of basketball and the role it plays in people's lives," he told AFP.

According to the most recent government figures, there are 24,931 public covered courts scattered across the Philippines' roughly 40,000 towns.

Building the courts is a simple and popular way for local politicians to provide services to their electorate. It also gives them a place to emblazon their names and build their political brand.

The courts play an especially large role in the lives of people in rural or poor segments of the Philippines, where nearly a quarter of the population exists on less than $2 per day.

A hospital in the country's capital recently converted its covered court into a ward to treat cases of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection transmitted in animal urine.

The disease particularly impacts people in poorer neighbourhoods, where poor sanitation and drainage collide to spark outbreaks.

- 'Circumcision season' -

The courts are also the scene of deeply rooted cultural events such as so-called "circumcision season", when boys across the country have their foreskins removed en masse as a right of passage to adulthood.

The improvised clinics at the gyms pop up yearly and contribute to the Philippines, a majority Christian country, having one of the world's highest rates of non-religious circumcision.

Bartholomew said he was once bumped off from his early morning basketball practice to give way to boys queuing up to go under the knife.

Yet the gyms also provide a gathering spot, whether just a roof-covered space or one with bleachers and air conditioning. Effectively a type of town square in the nation of some 106 million people.

"If you look at Filipino plazas, it's almost tantamount to saying it's a basketball court," urban planner Paulo Alcazaren told AFP.

He noted that public parks have been, to a large extent, replaced by covered courts as central gathering places. Perhaps it's because the courts offer the promise of action.

"It's a spectacle, it gathers people," Alcazaren added.