Superman with the wind at his back | Superman Blog

Superman with the wind at his back

The Legend Of Black Superman: Billy Ray Bates, Flying High In The PhilippinesWhen I left New York for Manila in 2005 to spend a year learning about Philippine basketball, I found a country where homemade hoops, constructed out of rusted car hoods and twisted rebar, kept vigil over city streets and rural landscapes alike. I found a place where politicians won votes by promising their constituents new backboards and breakaway rims; where CEOs and senators were known to jump on the scorer's table at college basketball games and flip the bird at the tycoons and congressmen cheering for rival schools; where fans loved the game so much that they remained devoted to teams in the Philippine Basketball Association despite the franchises' penchant for naming themselves after goofy corporate interests, like the Santa Lucia Realtors, San Miguel Beermen and Purefoods Tender Juicy Hot Dogs. There was no way to overstate Filipinos' passion for hoops. Over the years I heard hundreds of stories about the Philippine game. One of them was about a player I'd already read about, Billy Ray Bates. An ex-NBA player whose talent on the basketball court made him seem like his sport's answer to Roy Hobbs and whose habits off the court made him seem like the 20th century's answer to Caligula, Bates's pro career in the States sputtered, and he landed in Manila as an American import on local rosters. The people who saw him play have never forgotten a man they nicknamed the Black Superman.The Legend Of Black Superman: Billy Ray Bates, Flying High In The Philippines Nor have those who ever saw him drink.

* * *

Bates had been on my mind for years. In fact, if unlocking the mystery of basketball's place in the Filipino soul was my primary goal, discovering what happened during Bates's PBA career was a close second. I first read about him in David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game. The Portland Trail Blazers signed Bates late in the 1979-80 season to fill in an injury-depleted backcourt, and over the book's final 40 pages, Bates makes an indelible impression as one of the greatest doomed, tragic heroes in the history of the sport.


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