In the Philippines, everyone knows Utah's Jordan Clarkson

NEW YORK • For the longest time, Paolo del Rosario felt alone. In the Philippines, he was that rare type of basketball fan: He rooted for the Utah Jazz.

He had adopted the team as a young boy in the late 1990s because he loved the two-man game of John Stockton and Karl Malone - and because the rest of his family, like many Filipino families, loved the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Lakers irritated him.

"I guess I just found them too loud," he said.

Now a Manila-based sports broadcaster, del Rosario, 30, remained on his own in his Jazz fandom for years until suddenly, about halfway through last season, he discovered that he was no longer on his own.

The Cleveland Cavaliers had traded Jordan Clarkson to the Jazz, and del Rosario started receiving text messages from friends: "Hey, are you ready? You're not going to be the only Jazz fan in the Philippines any more."

Even as the Jazz have gone about their business of building the best record in the National Basketball Association (NBA) this season, they have struggled to escape the long shadows cast by glitzier rivals. Beloved in Utah, the Jazz do not exactly have a global following.

The one clear exception, though, is their growing presence in the Philippines, a basketball-crazed country where the 28-year-old Clarkson, who identifies as Filipino-American, is a household name. His highlights flood social media.

"I'll say this: If he doesn't win sixth man of the year, I'm not sure the NBA is ready for the online reaction from this part of the world," said Nikko Ramos, the editor-in-chief of the Philippines edition of Slam magazine.

In the Philippines, where, because of the time difference, many people wake up with breakfast and basketball, fans are getting a heaping serving of Clarkson to go with their tapsilog and pandesal.

Jordan Clarkson (in green) of the Utah Jazz lays the ball up against the Memphis Grizzlies in their NBA game last Wednesday. The Filipino-American has become a sensation in basketball-mad Philippines.
Jordan Clarkson (in green) of the Utah Jazz lays the ball up against the Memphis Grizzlies in their NBA game last Wednesday. The Filipino-American has become a sensation in basketball-mad Philippines. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fans have spent 45 per cent more time on the streaming service watching Jazz games this season than they did last season, according to the league.

And on the NBA Philippines Facebook page, Clarkson-related posts outperform all other content by an average of three to four times. A video of his highlight from a win over the Los Angeles Clippers in December has been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

Clarkson clips have become a part of the morning ritual for Gabe Norwood's three young sons, who have more of a direct connection to the shooting guard than most do: Their father has played with him on the Philippines national team, known as Gilas Pilipinas.

"My kids get ready for school by watching NBA games rather than cartoons," said Norwood, who plays for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, one of 12 teams in the Philippine Basketball Association.

Clarkson, who is having the best season of his seven-year career, averaging more than 17 points per game, said he was acutely aware of his Filipino roots growing up in San Antonio.

His maternal grandmother, Marcelina Tullao, made sure of it. She told stories about Pampanga, the province north-west of Manila where she was born, and made traditional dishes like chicken adobo and lumpia.

Those meals helped him feel a connection to the place, one that grew stronger as he got older and eventually led him to develop a friendship with Norwood, who also grew up in the United States but has become a bit of a pied piper for Philippines basketball.

Clarkson was still in college when Norwood heard about him from a friend. When Clarkson declared for the NBA draft in 2014 following his junior season at Missouri, Norwood gave him a call and sent him a pair of Nike sneakers that had been a special release in the Philippines, part of the Kobe Bryant signature line.

Clarkson became very famous very fast. A lot of that had to do with his joining the Lakers after he was a second-round draft pick in 2014. The Lakers are popular in the Philippines, where many fans still idolise Bryant - a superstar who made at least a half-dozen appearances in the country in his prime.

Clarkson also soon proved that he was a bona fide NBA player, averaging 11.9 points per game as a rookie. The following summer, he made a trip to Manila - and drew crowds wherever he went.

The country's adoration for Clarkson, who has a Philippine passport, went to another level when he competed for Gilas Pilipinas at the 2018 Asian Games, and nearly led the team to an upset over China in group play. His grandmother would watch the games and cry.

"For Filipino fans to actually see him play for our national team, it was almost surreal," said del Rosario, the broadcaster and longtime Jazz fan.

OLYMPIC DREAM

Clarkson plans to return to Gilas Pilipinas in 2023, he said, when the team take part in Olympic qualifying competitions, including the World Cup, which the Philippines is co-hosting.

Fiba, the sport's international organising body, allows one naturalised player per team, though Clarkson said he was hopeful that Fiba would consider him a local player before the next Olympic cycle.

In any case, Clarkson has learned just how much Filipinos care. In the NBA last season, players had the option of putting league-approved messages on their jerseys, and international players could display them in their native languages.

Clarkson chose the word "Peace", which caused a small uproar in the Philippines because he had not used the Filipino word for peace, "Kapayapaan."

It became such a hot topic that his father, Mike, went on Instagram to assure everyone that his son "continues to represent his Filipino roots with pride".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2021, with the headline 'In the Philippines, everyone knows Utah's Jordan Clarkson'. Subscribe