Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pustahan: Pinoy Hoops Betting

Cover image of Rafe Bartholomew's book, Pacific Rims
Image from

It is a given that most Filipinos play for fun, which is perhaps the essence of playing for the love of the game. But sometimes things turn a notch higher. Sometimes there's that nagging need for extra spice, extra flavor to plain hoops, and I've had that feeling many times before. Who hasn't? Enter the idea of pustahan, or literally "betting" in the western world. When Pinoy hoopers challenge you to a game of pustahan, you know that shit just got real, one where all fouls are hard fouls, where you can curse and complain all you want without getting a technical, where each player is also technically a referee out to call your slightest error, and where trash talk is the preferred way of communication on-court.

A pusta or bet comes in different forms. In the Philippines, however, a bet usually boils down to three options: money, soft drinks, and ice tubig. Money on the pot can be as low as fifty pesos per match, which is about $1.25. Not too much, I know, considering the likely injuries we risk, but that's how we roll. A scrimmage for soft drinks is typically called litro or litrohan, which literally means a liter of Coke. Or Pepsi, whichever is available. The losing team, of course, has the onus of buying the prize from the sari-sari store (and most basketball courts here, whether indoor or outdoor or earth, have one nearby). Sometimes, the winning team can be benevolent enough to share the drinks with the losing team. In some cases, the losing team only gets to drink whatever is left in the bottle, if any. And finally, ice tubig. If you don't know what it is, it is this: cold water in a clear, tube plastic bag. Instructions for drinking: bite off a portion of the plastic bag's base (preferably the corner), suck the water from the hole, and quench away your thirst.

The popular ice tubig.
Image from

It is not uncommon for players to travel to adjacent towns or barangays (the equivalent of communities or villages) and play against the locals. When it happens, it's typically a local spectacle --- onlookers gather and watch as their community heroes challenge the dayo or visitors. Of course, none of this will be complete without the pusta to raise the stakes even higher (which already involves hoops pride to begin with). These thing rarely happen on indoor courts, though. Almost always, the action rolls out on basketball "courts" with nothing but dirt and the earth beneath your feet, or along the streets where passing vehicles tender the quick timeouts as they cough their way out of the alley.

A single win does not conclude everything. The end of every game is not really the end. And all that jazz. Here, it is an unwritten hoops dictum: no one should simply walk away. Usually, either team, whether winning or losing, will demand for another game, a rematch, which is locally called rebanse, just to be sure that the win or loss wasn't a fluke. The second round will call for higher stakes --- the previous bet is usually doubled, apart from the desire to win, just to drive the rematch to its logical conclusion.

But at the end of it all, there will always be that sense of redemption and the hunger to meet again, win or lose. After all, the scores can only settle the match but the passion for the game will fan the inner flame to play better the next time around. Which is why, on this side of the planet, pustahan will always be integral to every basketball game --- extra spice and extra flavor for the young Filipino hooper and the young at heart.

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