In the 1980s, Billy Ray Bates, dubbed "the Legend" by Brent Musberger, washed out of the NBA and onto the shores of the Philippines, where for a few wild years his legend grew, both on the court and in the bars.
The following is adapted from Rafe Bartholomew's Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.
When 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. Nor have those who ever saw him drink.
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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.
Bates was born in 1956, yet his Mississippi upbringing seemed straight out of the nineteenth century Reconstruction South. He was the second youngest of nine children living in a sharecropper's shack on a white millionaire's farm in Goodman, a hamlet on the outskirts of a small town, Kosciusko, in rural Attala County — the godforsaken dot within the dot on the map. Their home had no plumbing and no electricity. Their alcoholic father died when Bates was 7 years old, and Bates and his siblings worked the fields to support the family. He spent his youth picking cotton and soybeans, breaking clods of fertilizer behind tractors, and hooking logs for lumbermen; later, he credited his powerful physique to a childhood of manual labor. Bates went to school only to play basketball, and although he never learned to read full sentences in class, he was able to dunk by his sophomore year. Basketball became his sole purpose in life.
In some ways it was fitting, because there was seemingly nothing he couldn't do on a basketball court. In high school and then at Kentucky State University, if Bates wanted to dunk, he'd dunk. If he wanted to shoot from 25 feet out, he did it. He may have been one of the most naturally gifted players to ever lace up a pair of high-tops. But because he had so few other opportunities in life, he became a basketball savant. Reared in a corner of the deep South that had hardly changed since slavery, Bates was never expected to do anything but pick cotton and drink himself to death. When his athletic gifts were discovered, they offered him a ticket out of Mississippi, but without any of the preparation he would need to survive in the world. He had little more than his instincts, which served him well on the hardwood but failed him almost everywhere else.
Initially, Bates's talent seemed to keep him out of the NBA. He averaged more than 20 points over his last two seasons at Kentucky State, but NBA scouts considered him a brilliant freelancer who couldn't play a disciplined, team game. They looked at his stunning athletic gifts and wondered how he ended up at a second-tier program like Kentucky State. In the scouts' minds, if a player could look as good as Bates and still get passed over by the major schools, he had to possess some irreparable, unseen flaw. Instead, Bates began his professional career with the Maine Lumberjacks — a PBA-worthy name — of the CBA, where he led the league in scoring for a season and a half until Portland gave him a chance.
With the Trail Blazers, Bates showed that he could put up points against the best players in the world, and his high-wire leaping ability and against-all-odds path to the NBA made him a fan favorite. It wasn't long before the national media got wind of his story. During halftime of one of Portland's playoff games against Seattle, CBS ran a segment on Bates's upbringing, and while watching him torch the Sonics for 25 points per game in the series, Brent Musberger dubbed him "the Legend."
Yet the fissures in Bates's dream-come-true were already widening. When he joined the Blazers, he reportedly had never heard of a checking account. He had trouble relating to his teammates. Although Bates was described as good-natured and likable, some scenes from The Breaks of the Game reveal how difficult it was for Bates to relate to his teammates. Many of the other Blazers also came from poor, predominately black neighborhoods, but Bates endured a deeper level of poverty and stuck out as the locker room rube. The book contains an account of a dinner Bates shared with fellow rookie Calvin Natt and Portland scout Stu Inman. Bates was excited to learn that Natt also hailed from the South and asked Natt if he too had grown up eating squirrel and possum. Natt burst out laughing while Inman was crestfallen. How do you save a man like that? Soon, Bates attracted hangers-on, men and women who leeched his fame and newfound cash flow. With them, he drank and partied until it began to affect his game. The Trail Blazers gave up on him after three seasons. He received second and third chances from the Washington Bullets and then the Lakers, but squandered them. After a few seasons on top of the world, Bates checked into a Phoenix rehab facility.
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The more I discovered about Bates, the more I wanted to learn. In Manila, I found local sports magazines that quoted an Oregonian story about his rehab stay. While he received treatment for alcoholism, the sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie explained that Bates had nothing aside from hoops: "All he knows is basketball and he's in a situation where he knows his tools are not where they were before. He is a young man who lives for the recognition and the glory. He gets his recognition from what he does with a basketball. There is a terrible danger when someone is one-dimensional. If the basketball doesn't go well, how else can he define himself?" The man Ogilvie was describing sounded like an inside-out Shakespearean tragic hero. Bates was all fatal flaws with one saving grace — hoops. But the sport was never enough to save Bates from the poverty and racism he'd come from; it was only enough to give him a taste of the good life and set up his next fall.
There was no way Bates could maintain an NBA career while slipping into full-blown alcoholism. So what did he do? Get clean, pull himself together, and take another shot at the big leagues? Nope. By the looks of things, he found a place where he could keep playing without giving up the bottle. That place was the Philippines. In the PBA, Bates's talent was so overwhelming that he probably could have played in a drunken stupor and averaged 30 points per game. By most accounts, he always dried out before tip-off. His career average of 46 points per game is the highest of any PBA player, import or local, and Bates will probably always be remembered as the best import in league history. Throughout the '80s, he was a superstar in the Philippines, one of the nation's most famous and infamous ballers, whose legacy lives on today.
In the same breath, coming to Manila could be considered one of the worst things that ever happened to Bates. In the Philippines, all of Bates's self-destructive habits were enabled, if not encouraged. He could score at will, average almost 50 points a game, and be worshiped by a nation of devotees who treated his ability to put the ball in the hoop like it was proof of the divine. And here's the clincher: Bates never had to quit drinking. Time would eventually catch up with him, but for a few wild years in the mid-1980s, he had found his proverbial free lunch. Catastrophe could wait.
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I wondered if Bates ever recognized the similarities between his early years and the lives of many Filipinos. Even if he only glanced Manila's squalid shantytowns from the window of a passing car or looked down on farmers' bamboo homes from a descending airliner, did he ever think to himself that these people, who bathed in streams and hijacked electricity from nearby wires, knew more about the life he had come from than 95 percent of his fellow Americans? If Bates ever had this realization, it never led to much. He got along with fans, enjoyed their adulation, but never seemed to bond with the Philippine masses or demonstrate awareness that their struggles mirrored his own. Instead, he spent his time drinking, carousing, and playing ball.
Bates actually tried to stay clean when he first arrived in the country. In many of his preseason interviews with local sports columnists, the conversation touched on how he had become a changed man after rehab. By the end of these interviews, however, Bates was usually finishing off a bottle of beer. When a writer named Butch Maniego interviewed him for Champ magazine after a practice in May 1983, Bates had the team trainer bring him a couple of San Miguels. What better way to cool down than to double-fist some brews? Maniego, who'd been briefed on Bates's newfound sobriety, asked about the booze, and Bates told him: "I don't have those problems anymore, thanks to God. I'm a man's man, and a man is gonna have a beer. I'm all alone and I can't see why I can't have a beer. I'm in complete control of myself and I don't have no stacks of beer in my apartment. It's just a drink between friends." And with that, Bates fell off the wagon and into the Bacchanal.
Back then PBA players partied hard. In the '80s sports magazines, I noticed almost as many pictures of teams drinking and smoking at postgame celebrations as images of them on the court. But even these seasoned drunkard-slash-athletes had never seen anyone drink like Bates. I met several of his former teammates — Atoy Co, Philip Cezar, Tito Varela — and inevitably the first word that came out of their mouths when I asked about Bates was "crazy." Cezar said Bates downed whiskey like the rest of them drank beer. Co told a story about the squeeze bottle Bates would bring to practice. Bates usually filled it with orange juice, which seemed strangely acidic for a sports drink. One day, on a hunch, Co opened Bates's bottle and took a whiff, then quickly jerked his head back and shook off a shiver. The Johnnie Walker fumes had stung his nostrils. Tommy Manotoc, Bates's coach in 1983, remembered the first time they went out together. After watching his new import drink enough liquor to knock out a horse, Manotoc followed Bates into the street and saw the American pick up the back end of a car by its bumper and do a set of curls with it. He's wild, Manotoc thought, but he's strong.
Then there was the womanizing. Bates wasn't just putting up Chamberlain-esque numbers on the court, but also in the bedroom. The intervening decades have no doubt led to some embellishment in the Bates mythology, but the guys who played with Bates recalled him hitting the town most nights with no fewer than four lady friends. A small-town boy who once said his Mississippi hometown only had two girls, Bates went hog-wild with Manila's groupies. To the women, Bates was a famous, physically stunning 26-year-old American who tossed pesos around like they were Monopoly bills — why not enjoy his riches?
When Bates first joined the team, his handlers tried to curtail his indulgent lifestyle. They hired drivers and bodyguards to make sure he always returned to his condo by midnight. No problem, Bates told them. And he did ride back to the apartment before curfew. He just didn't stay there. Bates struck deals with local taxi drivers and the security guards in his building. For a tip they would look the other way while Bates slipped downstairs, left the building through a rear entrance, and hopped into a cab. The whole charade was pointless, anyway, because the idea of any 6-foot-4 black American keeping a low profile in Manila was outlandish. Not to mention, Bates played for one of the league's most popular teams, the Crispa Redmanizers. A polar bear would have had a better chance of cruising the streets unnoticed. On a handful of occasions, Manotoc and Crispa manager Danny Floro would arrive at a game to hear that Bates was spotted leaving a bar at seven that morning. What could they do? Besides, more often than not, Bates could shake off a crushing hangover and still score 50.
Manotoc and Floro didn't want to worry that Bates might be tipsy every time Crispa took the floor. Eventually, Manotoc feared, the hard living and late nights would cost the team an important game. So he cut his own deal with Bates. Manotoc told him that he would weigh him before every game and pay him a hundred-dollar bonus every time Bates came in under 210 pounds. For the most part, the plan worked. Back then, PBA teams played about every five days, so Bates could drink for the first three days, then rest and dry out on the fourth day. On the fifth day he'd suit up, tip the scales at 210, hit the court, and look unstoppable. In the PBA, Bates became known as "Black Superman" for the way he swooped to the rim, peaking higher and hanging longer in the air than anyone else on the court, but his ability to recuperate from drinking marathons was nearly as superhuman as his prowess on the hardwood.
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Although Bates was hardly a role model to the Philippines' aspiring young athletes, he was beloved by teammates and fans. He was a drunk and a lothario, but he was a joyous one. When I spoke with his teammates and coaches, they remembered their nights out with Billy Ray as the epic benders of their youth. Only once did Bates's drinking get him into serious trouble. After a game in Naga City, the biggest town in Camarines Sur province, Bates and another import, DeWayne Scales, went drinking. They ended up in some dubious nightspot, where, according to a report in Atlas Sports Weekly, the two imports ordered beers and started enjoying the "floor show," that is, a striptease. The story gets fuzzy here, but Bates somehow offended the other patrons. The article says his hooting and shouting at the go-go dancers bothered the locals. Who knows how Bates's behavior deviated from the accepted norms of strip club conduct, but one of the other customers threw a bottle that hit him in the head. At first Bates didn't respond. He was having too much fun cheering on the dancers. But when the song ended, he stormed through the club and demanded that the bottle-tosser face him. No one owned up to the attack, so he found the biggest table in the joint and flipped it over. Glass, beer, ashtrays, and bar snacks crashed to the floor, and then the real melee broke out. Bates and Scales hid behind the table while the local customers threw everything within reach against the makeshift shield.
When the hail of projectiles ended, the bar owner kicked everyone out and walked Bates and Scales back to their hotel, where he met a Crispa assistant coach and demanded several hundred dollars for his trouble. Was the near-riot actually just a shakedown? A choreographed fracas to give the bar owner a reason to insist on payback? There's no way to tell. One thing is for sure: the Atlas article ended on a disturbing note. "Maybe, the next time Bates wants to unwind after a game," it said, "his Crispa handlers ought to give him what he wants in the solitude of his hotel room." The suggested solution — to ply Bates with willing love slaves in a private place where he couldn't cause trouble — speaks to a common and unfortunate Philippine attitude toward black athletes. Players like Bates were idolized for the way they could dunk a basketball, but off the court they were often viewed as borderline savages. Part of the reason teams hired drivers for imports was to keep an eye on them. A driver was supposed to prevent a player's inner Mandingo from emerging at an inopportune moment that might tarnish the team's image or lead to the import getting hurt and wasting the team's investment in him.
This paternalistic, dehumanizing attitude toward black players was widespread, not only among teams but also with fans, who seemed willing to accept and sometimes even encourage sleazy behavior from imports as long as they put on a show at gametime. A transcendent player like Bates could get away with almost anything. His character only amplified his game. When he heard that TV announcers were calling him Black Superman, Bates came to games with a cape flapping behind his back and dunked in the hokey outfit during warm-ups. When Bates arrived at Crispa, he brought a flamboyant personal style from the twilight of the disco era that was new to many Filipinos. He was one of the first players to wear a headband — a white rag knotted Rambo-style at the back of his head. The tendrils of a lush, shimmering jheri curl tumbled over the top of the headband. Bates's hair and its accessories became the subject of a barrage of sports features, in which journalists asked Billy Ray to explain the look: with all the activator he was putting in those curls, he told them he needed something to keep the greasy mix of sweat and moisturizer out of his eyes. He was the first and only import in PBA history to have a line of signature sneakers made for him. The Black Supermans, made by local shoemaker Grosby, looked like a rip-off of Nike's Air Force Ones sans the Swoosh. He further accentuated his look with wristbands, striped knee socks, and loads of swagger. Shortly after Bates joined Crispa, one of his boasts became the quote that summed up his PBA career: "The only way I can be stopped is to handcuff my right arm to my leg."
Bates had a natural star quality that allowed him to glide across the razor's edge between two opposing values in Philippine culture. In many cases, being called mayabang — arrogant — is a condemnation. There's no doubt that Bates was that, but he also projected another quality, diskarte — a celebration of skill and flashiness with a dash of machismo. People loved to watch a great player who knew how good he was. Somehow, Bates always managed to stay on the right side of these contradictory concepts. Perhaps his instincts told him how far he could push his antics, or maybe Filipinos simply appreciated his otherworldly basketball brilliance enough to forgive his excesses. It was helpful that Bates was willing to share the fun with everyone around him. After games, he'd walk out of the locker room with a boom box on his shoulder and boogie with the fans waiting outside.
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The death knell of Bates's PBA career rang in 1988. He returned to play for the Ginebra franchise, which had recently changed its name to Añejo to promote a new brand of rum. (Changing names to boost sales of a new or struggling product is a cherished PBA tradition. The increased television and print media exposure a brand receives through PBA coverage is generally associated with enhanced business. Since it entered the league in 1988, the Purefoods franchise has played as the Tender Juicy Hot Dogs, Coney Island Ice Cream Stars, Corned Beef Cowboys, Chunkee Giants, and Tender Juicy Giants.) Bates was 32, and in the six years since he first played in the Philippines, he must have put 15 years' worth of mileage on his body. His coach made him promise not to drink and party too much, but the import couldn't resist the temptations of Manila nightlife. At Añejo, Bates still averaged a respectable 31 points, but the team lost its first four games, and Bates looked like a shell of his former self. When fans saw him struggling to defend rookie guards and getting his shots blocked by local forwards, they saw the Black Superman cut down to size. Bates was spared the biggest embarrassment of his career the night of his final PBA game. He scored a career-low 17 points and looked helpless against younger, healthier competition, but few people witnessed the game because a violent storm caused a blackout in Manila. It was as if fate had intervened to prevent television audiences from seeing Bates at his humiliating nadir.
And so, because he had already broken his sobriety pact and was no longer Superman, the best import in PBA history was sent packing after four games. On one of his last nights in Manila, in a final delusional moment, Bates called the manager of another team and asked to replace their import. It was 2 a.m. and he was calling from a place called Faces disco. The team manager, who had been asleep, simply hung up. Columnist Ronnie Nathanielsz penned a eulogy to Bates's career in Champ that week. "Basketball has become an integral part of our everyday lives," he wrote, "and Bates was its most brilliant character."
After the Philippines, Bates's deteriorating skills drove him deeper and deeper into the backwaters of international basketball — first Switzerland, then Mexico, and eventually Uruguay. In 1998, back in the States, the inevitable finally occurred. Bates, soused on vodka, robbed a New Jersey Texaco station at knifepoint and slashed an attendant's ear. When he was arrested, police found that he had netted $7 in the heist, which earned him five years in prison. This had to be one of the world's all-time telegraphed passes; it was the rock bottom Bates had been approaching for 15 years. His life in ruins, he fulfilled his tragic destiny.
Yet even at this disgraced juncture in Bates's life, fans felt connected to him. From people who actually saw him play to those like myself, who were merely captivated by his legend, if you had a drop of compassion in your heart and you loved basketball, then part of you hurt for Billy Ray Bates. The online comment page of a 2004 Willamette Week article about him reveals a multilingual mash of nostalgia, adoration, and sorrow that reflects the complicated life of one of the sport's great antiheroes. On one hand, there are comments like this:
i am an avid fan of billy during his crispa and ginebra days here in the Philippines . . . i saw how wild he is when he was young, i saw him hanging around with some of his friends having beers, i saw him when he took a massive piss on the streets . . . those were wonderful moments of my childhood seeing an NBA great hanging around the place like an ordinary kid.
Yet there are also comments from young women in Switzerland and the United States, claiming to be Bates's daughters and requesting help in contacting him. Reading these, the consequences of all those amusing tales about Bates's drunken red-light follies become evident. There's no doubt that life dealt Bates a miserable hand, and the fact that he managed to rise from such depths, however briefly, is inspiring. Yet for all the heartbreak he endured, he caused just as much.
Rafe Bartholomew is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine. He received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism before traveling to the Philippines as a U.S. Fulbright scholar in 2005, when he first studied basketball's role in the country. His articles have been featured in The New York Times, Seattle Weekly, Detroit Free Press, and Slate, among other publications. He has been honored for his sports writing by the Society of Professional Journalists and in The Best American Sports Writing 2007. In October 2008, he returned to New York City after three years in Manila. New Yorkers can hear Rafe read from Pacific Rims at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan.