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Why I rekindled my love for basketball as a way to connect with my father

By Ryan Oquiza Published Apr 19, 2022 2:14 pm

The UAAP season is back. The NBA playoffs are underway. Gyms, and even streets, are hearing rubber pound on the ground once more. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been as excited for basketball’s return, but here I am, eagerly anticipating each marquee match-up. What changed?

The pandemic is a prime suspect, especially since it kept me, like others, cooped up at home craving for entertainment other than the usual pedestrian content. A basketball documentary, The Last Dance, was such a riveting showcase of the fiendish and die-hard mentality of basketball’s top competitor. I also surrendered to YouTube’s algorithm, which incessantly recommended basketball highlights, segments, and video essays for me to watch.

A hobby I once thought would never see the light of day again quickly became a vitalizing suction tube for alleviating my boredom in quarantine. I initially had no explanation why I was suddenly invested in the NBA seasons I had missed. That is until Luka's game-winning shot against the Clippers in the 2020 playoffs finally provided me with an answer. My dad came up to me, in his usual chill and subdued voice, saying that he’s been following Luka for quite some time and that “–he’s the next big thing in the league.” What? Did he just talk basketball with me?

I heard that he couldn't take his eyes off NBA games so much that, at times, he'd forget my mother was pregnant.

Then it hit me: I was unconsciously using basketball as more than just a fleeting interest, but as a means to reminisce about simpler times, when it was easy to dislike LeBron James, when trying out for the varsity team was the worst of my worries, and when connecting with my dad seemed impossible. My old man isn’t usually very expressive. He’s rigid and excessively calculated, much like Spock from Star Trek. But basketball? Now that has the potential to soften his heart.

My father was born in the late ‘70s, just in time to faintly recall the Showtime Lakers, come of age with the Bulls Dynasty, and enter adulthood with the Kobe and Shaq era. I was born in 2001, three days after the Los Angeles Lakers completed one of the greatest postseason runs in NBA history by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

The author's father at “The Zone” basketball court, where he usually plays. Courtesy of REGIE OQUIZA.

I’m not mincing words when I say that my dad is obsessed with the sport. I heard that he couldn't take his eyes off NBA games so much that, at times, he'd forget my mother was pregnant. My dad worked as a senior programmer for most of my childhood, but you wouldn’t get that impression if you only saw him at night. He owns and handles a basketball league for Information Technology (IT) professionals who want to unwind after a long day’s work. With tucked-in jerseys, team banners, professional referees, and even the occasional muses (usually the wives of said IT employees), the league was a perfect orchestra of passionate and hard-working middle-aged workers eager to play their instruments once again—even at the behest of Father time. 

There’s a saying that even if you try not to be like your father, you’ll still inevitably inherit traits from him. Maybe that’s what’s happening now. I quickly learned at a young age that I was awful at basketball and wanted to do nothing with it. Accepting that wasn't easy, especially when everyone in my family told me I shouldn't waste my God-given height. I had no feel for the game, terrible dribbling skills and a messy shooting form made me stick out like a sore thumb in tournaments.

My inability to reach my dad’s lofty standards estranged me from the game.

It didn’t help that I was studying in Ateneo, the breeding ground for the legendary “Blue Eagles” (we were called “Blue Eaglets” in grade school), so naturally, my dad expected me to be good. After a basketball tournament at the Blue Eagle Gym, he confronted me about my ineptitude. He left early in the game because he didn’t like that I was just laughing on the bench with my friends and being wholly unserious instead of channeling the “Mamba Mentality” (Kobe, after all, was his favorite player ever). Thus, my inability to reach my dad’s lofty standards estranged me from the game.

And so, I took a step back and returned to my most treasured childhood gift: writing. I took the complete opposite path of my dad, patronizing the arts and humanities rather than fussing over math and science. Maybe it was an instinctive revolt against the person my dad wanted me to be. It resulted in natural misunderstandings and left little room for finding common ground. I wrote and fixated on films while he coded and reveled in basketball.

The author with his dad as he plans his team’s next play. Courtesy of REGIE OQUIZA.

Then, in early 2020, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna tragically died, which was subsequently followed by a lockdown that forced my dad’s league to shut down. Those two events devastated him. My mother recounted that when she shared the news of Kobe’s passing with my dad, he couldn’t believe it. He was dejected the entire day, unable to function properly, afflicted in a way that only the most die-hard fans know. Soon, his basketball league revenue took a hit due to canceled games and inflated costs. 

I felt bad for my dad, and I guess that feeling spilled into my subconscious, now wanting to ruminate on the times I yearned to connect with my dad. I wished I had known him better. Maybe I could have matched his passion for the game with competent athleticism. Perhaps then I could’ve better empathized with his pain. In a strange way, basketball managed to find a way to soften my heart too.

I learned plenty of anecdotes about my dad’s childhood basketball escapades through relatives over the pandemic. He loved to play on the streets, one time even brazenly volunteering to shoot a long three-pointer in front of the neighborhood players. He ended up missing the shot so badly that the ball went into an elementary school and hit a couple of things along the way—he was trashed by the players afterward. I also reminisced about the times he’d bring me to JT’s Manukan, the closest restaurant to the basketball gym he plays in. 

It reminded me that no matter how hard I strive to be unlike my father, there would always be a thread that connects us.

In those moments, I saw my dad, accompanied by his friends, transform into an entirely different person, with an energetic, loud, hilarious, and raucous personality completely taking over. These are stories I would have never known or looked fondly on if it weren’t for basketball.

The author's father along with his friends at JT’s Manukan. Courtesy of REGIE OQUIZA.

A father’s zest for basketball is most likely a common occurrence among Filipinos, but an even more frequent phenomenon is the inability to communicate and reach out to family members sincerely. I was surprised that my dad talked to me about basketball not because it was an unexpected topic or a reminder of unpleasant memories but because it was an attempt to break down an invisible barrier of differences between us. It reminded me that no matter how hard I strive to be unlike my father, there would always be a thread that connects us.

Since then, I’ve been consistently updating him on playoff standings and basketball news. I garner his thoughts whenever LeBron loses (he’s a huge LeBron hater) and even ask him to take me to the basketball court whenever he can. As amenities and gyms have reopened, his league has also taken steps to get back to normal.

After two long years of the pandemic, my dad can finally feel a shred of normalcy and return to what he loves most (other than his family, of course). I, on the other hand, at least gained something out of these dreadful years: a reinvigorated passion for basketball and a renewed appreciation for the quiet and reserved old man hiding a warm and cheerful heart underneath.