issue 314 - July 1999
Adam Porter ducks and weaves around basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, on tour to promote Adidas sportswear to the celebrity-hungry youth of Manila.
Kobe Bryant could be just any old 20-year-old multimillionaire basketball star destined for sporting immortality. But there is more to him than that. Because when the LA Lakers’ number eight steps outside the US to visit Manila, the capital of the Philippines, he becomes an unwitting participant in a global sneaker war that encompasses poverty, strikes, the whole of Asia and your bunions.
PETER BARKER /
Kobe belongs to Adidas, the transnational sporting giant originally coming straight out of Germany. He has signed a $10 million deal to promote the shoe manufacturers across the world, and in the Philippines he has the world’s second-largest basketball market ready to samba under his every jump. The Philippines is utterly basketball mad – a legacy of American involvement that included driving off the Spanish imperial rulers in 1898 and the less successful Japanese in 1945. Today, basketball isn’t just the major sport, it’s the only sport. Bryant’s arrival at the ridiculously luxurious Peninsula Manila Hotel is heralded by banners, fans, film crews and a phalanx of tussling Filipino snappers. As he steps out of the crushing 75-per-cent humidity into the marbleized foyer’s mother-of-all air conditioners he takes about two-and-a-half giant strides to cover the 50 metres to the lift.
Bryant visits a shopping mall – a consumer oasis in a desert of poverty and chaos – to play exhibition ‘street’ basketball, where three players on each team play into one hoop. He is promoting the Adidas Streetball World Tournament, with finals in Paris. When we get there the place is heaving with at least five thousand basketball maniacs craning to get a glimpse of their hero. Look upwards into the atrium and all you can see is four floors of faces. Kobe plays up to them, he flips and dips, dunks and schmunks. At one stage I’m sure the ball is attached to his hand by a piece of elastic. The place goes mad.
‘How does it feel to be loved that much?’ I ask him later.
‘I can’t take it all in,’ he replies, ‘I just can’t do it. I was trying to, standing there looking at all the faces. I was saying to myself “take it in! take it in!” But it was incredible. In the States people get excited, but not like this. The adrenaline rush was awesome, total. I’ve never experienced anything like that. Manila, it’s amazing, just amazing.’
Indeed it is. Bryant is whisked away from the popstar bedlam, occasionally stumbling over a few desperate fans. Bryant could be shot, stampeded or just eaten by the crowd. Adidas’ investment could go up in shreds. But Bryant remains as cool as he can. Smiling as he goes.
Adidas are smiling too. Great profits are a matter of sophisticated yet simple technique. Basically what Nike, Adidas and the other shoe giant Reebok do in production is to subcontract. They sign contracts with shoe manufacturers to put together all the component parts of the shoe. This means that they can search for the best deal in a highly fluid manner. If someone’s costs are too high, or become too high, then you go elsewhere, right now.
As Adidas’ Asian co-ordinator, Claire Gilpin, pointed out to me: ‘Our Korean operation is getting a little sticky at the moment.’ She means, of course, that the workforce want a union. The advent of global capital means that the shoe makers – like everyone else who trades on the global stage – can move their money around the world with hardly any trouble. As Thomas Jefferson once pointed out: ‘Traders have no soil of their own; they go where the profits are.’ Impoverished people and governments in the Third World beg for their cash. Like the kids on the streets of Manila or Jakarta, the ones who come up to you with eyes a-doed and hands outstretched: they may be degrading themselves but, boy, are these fuckers poor.
Manila is home to around ten million people. About half of them live in a kind of poverty that is difficult to describe. You need to smell it to understand. The mixture of sweat, shit, rotting vegetation and spices is sweet and penetrating. It clings to you like the kids in the Barrios. I recognize that smell. It smells like slums the world over. I have smelt it in Africa and in Latin America. I was shocked this summer when I went to the World Cup and smelt it in shanties outside Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence.
The mother-of-all air conditioners doesn’t smell like that. Inside the Peninsula Manila’s foyer restaurant – one of four grandiose Western-style eateries – sit a hundred replica Ferdinand and Imelda Marcoses. Dripping in opulence, like its guests, the Peninsula Manila is the smartest hotel I have ever been to. Even the sand in the hallway ashtrays has the Peninsula’s trademark three Ps stamped in it every day.
Half-a-mile away outside Pasai, the banking and commercial centre pockmarked with giant skyscrapers and glowing foreign-bank signs, are the disused railway tracks where thousands live in total degradation. A giant and unwanted population. A massive vat of cheap labour (if only they had any) and a place in which to fall if your job moves elsewhere. To China or Vietnam for example. These are the people global capital uses and spits out. The people the scabs exploit.
I am stampeded for my British Airways complimentary washbag and a few sweets from the hotel. I stand on a little girl’s bare foot and she cries. But everyone wants to talk to us, everyone smiles. The children are beautiful but damaged, fluent in three languages – English, Spanish and Vasaya, one of the 70 Filipino dialects – and we have a laugh marching up and down for half an hour chanting ‘Big stick! Big stick!’ as one of the kids, Joseph, wields the said stick at the front of the group. Then I get in my air-conditioned cab that costs fuck-all to hire – and leave them forever.
I go to chat with the Philippines Sports Commission. I meet Commissioner Teresita ‘Tisha’ Abundo and ask her whether or not big sports companies are a good influence in the Philippines.
‘Oh yes, we need their money,’ she says, smiling. But she doesn’t seem to care much for that subject. ‘I was a model, you know, for Christian Dior,’ she tells me. ‘I love the Philippines, it is easy to be rich here. I don’t want to have to clean my own clothes or do my own cooking. You can have a maid here very cheap, you know.’
She is a member of the new Government of President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada – a former film actor and action hero. In return for Imelda Marcos not standing as a Presidential candidate, Estrada cancelled the search for the missing billions of dollars of Filipino money in her possession.
Kobe Bryant has been invited to the Presidential Palace in Old Manila to meet Estrada. Past a few shanties just outside the gates of the compound we enter a world of visible opulence. Range Rovers, Mercs, mobile phones and well-pressed shirts are the order of the day. Kobe is half -an-hour late as the traffic and pollution in Manila are quite incredible – an hour and a half to go five miles.
Kobe’s Mum has been crying at the poverty she has seen. Kobe has ‘never seen anything like it’ and he vows to ‘tell everyone when I get back to the States’. The President waits for Kobe Bryant. When it comes, the photo-op is great, it makes all the papers the next day, with the Adidas basketball prominent in the shots, as Kobe and the Prez clown around. Then Adidas give ‘Erap’ a couple of holdalls full of goodies, and we leave.
Juancho has no goodies. He is angry. He has been waiting with his two boys outside the Don Bosco Church housing project for street kids. So have many others. They are waiting to see Kobe, who is visiting the three-story building about five minutes’ walk from the hotel. Adidas bring Kobe in by car convoy round the back way, avoiding the waiting fans. The genial, gentle basketball child, unaware of the commotion outside, dwarfs most of the Filipino adults, so he towers over the hundred or so kids from Don Bosco. He dances and plays with them, completely at ease. They are all dressed in Adidas T-shirts. The invited Filipino press snap away.
Philip Go makes a speech to the kids. ‘If you work hard you can achieve anything you want in life,’ he says. I’m not sure he really believes that. I don’t think he would make the same speech in the Barrios – they would laugh their rags off. The hired security is everywhere, to keep the people excluded. Security like Sylvia, the hopeful Olympic bodybuilder who guards Kobe’s beautiful mother Pamela; and Zimmer, the half-Chinese, half-Austrian giant who looks like he could pull your spine out if he got pissed off with you. Outside, a young girl called Twinkle (yes, really) is crying with joy – she gave me her camera to take into the building to snap Kobe for her. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she splutters as I go out to give it to her. As I turn to go back in I am tapped on the shoulder. ‘Adidas is bullshit,’ says Juancho, still outside. ‘Bullshit. They just selling shoes.’
In the end I ask Bryant what he thinks of all this American achieve-your-dream fantasy-world tripe. Does he truly believe that all the kids from the shanties he saw from his limo could really become Kobe Bryants if they worked hard enough? Aren’t they more likely to end up stitching his shoes together at Adidas’s factory in the Maktaan Export Processing Zone – a tax-break area for big companies – rather than stitching up ball-bouncing opponents? That is if they are lucky.
The answer was depressing but predictable: ‘I do. If they work hard enough. If they take their goals one by one, then they can achieve. I think so.’
On this sort of nonsense the business community and their well-rewarded, often unthinking supplicants have built a world. For themselves.
Adam Porter is a freelance journalist who was until recently a contributing editor of GQ Magazine in London.