Filipino American basketball player Jordan Clarkson with the Cleveland Cavaliers during an NBA game. [Image: Wikimedia Commons / Erik Drost – CC BY 2.0]

NBA Playoffs Emerge as Forum for Increased US-Philippine Engagement

ASEAN Asia

On May 24, 2021, Jordan Clarkson won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in recognition of his contributions to the Salt Lake City-based Utah Jazz basketball team. Clarkson, the league’s only Filipino American player, is the first Asian American to win the award. The choice garnered international attention and reflects the significance Clarkson’s NBA career season carries within the Filipino community. Over the past year, Clarkson’s consistent engagement and celebration of his Filipino heritage have made him an icon within the Philippine basketball fandom.

As the Jazz built the NBA’s best record during the 2020-21 basketball season, Philippines-based fans spent 45 percent more time watching the team’s games on the NBA League Pass streaming service than in any season before. Likewise, Google's Year in Search 2020 reflected Filipino love for basketball; most-searched terms in the Philippines included content about NBA teams and games. The NBA Philippines Facebook page has over 9 million followers—the most of any country outside of the United States. The page’s posts about Clarkson outperform all other content by an average of three to four times. Clarkson competed for Gilas Pilipinas at the 2018 Asian Games and plans to return in 2023. This year, he will participate in the first virtual Jr. NBA Philippines basketball clinic. Since 2007, the event has reached over 2 million Filipino youth, parents, and coaches. This year, Clarkson and other Filipino American athletes will lead online basketball drills and participate in panels surrounding inclusivity, life success, and wellness.

Recently, Clarkson's celebration of his Filipino heritage extended to raising awareness about Asian hate and violence and advocating for local Filipino communities in Utah. After a Utah Jazz game on June 8, a local Filipino American-owned food truck, Yum Yum Food, incurred racist vandalism and damage. Clarkson’s vocal response to the local violence garnered national attention. He voiced support for Utah’s minority Filipino population, collaborated with local community members to completely restore the food truck, and welcomed the truck’s owners to the next Jazz game. Yum Yum Food reopened on June 12, Philippine Independence Day, and has become known for serving the best Filipino dishes in the Salt Lake City area.

Also on Philippine Independence Day, Brooklyn Nets point guard James Harden released the Harden Vol. 5 “Manila Heritage” shoes. The pair was designed by a Filipino designer, Juanito “Quiccs” Maiquez, and pays homage to the Philippine NBA fandom. The shoes feature the colors of the Philippine flag, the country’s area code (+63), and the date that Harden last visited the archipelago for a preseason game.

The recent events symbolize the growing reality and relevance of the Philippine NBA fanbase. Although the Jazz’s season ended in June, Clarkson’s own season and activities suggest the potential for increased NBA engagement with the league’s Filipino fanbase. The NBA is a forum through which the United States can bolster its soft power with the Philippines by participating in cross-cultural exchange and expanding relations in the socio-cultural sphere.

Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.