PALAYAN CITY, PHILIPPINES - Both the Philippine and U.S. crowd went wild as Philippine Army 1st Lt. Andrew M. Linao dribbled the ball past the opposing team's power forward, bobbing and weaving, before a Filipino-U.S. duo outmaneuvered him and took the ball.
This was just one of the many tense moments during a basketball tournament between Philippine and U.S. soldiers May 5 and 12 in Palayan City, Philippines, as part of Balikatan 2014, a bilateral training exercise between Philippine and U.S. service members.
Approximately 60 Philippine and U.S. soldiers were divided into four teams, and one civilian local was invited to play for each group. A crowd of civilians and military personnel gathered around the basketball court to watch the spectacle unfold.
"We seldom have sports activities [with the U.S.] like this one, so it's a privilege," said Linao, civil military operations officer, 20th Infantry Battalion, 8th Infantry Division, who also played for the team that took 1st place. "In this area, both the Filipinos and Americans have a long history together, dating all the way back to the Second World War, so we want to make them feel like this is their home away from home during fun activities like these."
"The Americans are very skilled and are pretty tall so it almost feels like we're playing in the National Basketball Association," added Linao, with a laugh.
Basketball provided a cultural bridge between the two nations, as it is considered as one of the most popular sports in the country. Numerous leagues exist in the Philippines, the largest being the Philippine Basketball Association, with teams sponsored by 10 of the Philippines' largest corporations. The sport is played by both amateurs and professionals alike, and it was no surprise that sports enthusiasts, and aspiring children and teenagers made up most of the audience.
"We are fortunate because not only [does the U.S.] help us improve our military capabilities, we're also able to build camaraderie, esprit de corps and improve our relationship with them," said Linao.
Balikatan is a bilateral training exercise between the Philippines and U.S. designed to improve cooperation and interoperability between the two nations' armed forces through training as well as humanitarian aid and disaster relief projects, and to increase stability and security within the region. Activities such as the Basketball tournament allow not only for increased cohesion between Philippine and U.S. Forces, they also show the public that soldiers also know how to unwind during their off-time.
"We just want to get our soldiers and their soldiers out doing something fun, mixing in with the local community and showing a presence for the locals," said U.S. Army Maj. Mark Blakely, officer-in-charge with the civil military operations team in Fort Ramon Magsaysay. "It's more than just interoperability with the military, it's the relationship on the individual level that we're trying to solidify."
"I love getting out and meeting the people. Everywhere we've gone, the Filipinos have been very welcoming and friendly," said Blakely, of Bozeman, Mt.
In addition to the Basketball game, 25th ID's civil military operations team has also organized several humanitarian aid projects, such as refurbishing the Riverside Elementary School and the Kalakid Elementary School in Nueva Ecija.
"We've also done projects in the community, refurbishing schools and doing projects, so I think we've done a lot of good things since we've been here," said Blakely.
Ultimately, the soldiers were out there to shoot hoops, build friendships and have a good time.
"The game was fun," said U.S. Army Spc. Latiana Heden, a quartermaster and chemical equipment repairer with 3rd Squardron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, of Chapel Hill, N.C. "Even though we didn't win, everybody played very well and hard. There was a lot of sportsmanship on both sides of the court. It wasn't about winning or losing, it was about having a good time."