Home Court: Filipino Hoops in Canada's Frozen North

Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory, has become home to thousands of Filipinos, and one very important basketball league.
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Originally published May 1, 2013.

Gavin Diore is doubled over with his hands on his hips, sweat gleaming on the tip of his nose. The searing white fluorescent lighting unique to high school gymnasiums reflects harshly off the hardwood beneath his feet. It’s early evening on a Saturday, on Easter weekend, and the gym is full. Spectators spill from the mouth of a blue, steel-framed doorway; more wait in the hallway, craning their necks and peering over shoulders. Inside, people cluster in the four corners of the gym, while others gather along the sidelines, leaning against the white brick walls. On the stage adjacent to the court are a few other fans, legs dangling above the glowing hardwood. Each team has a cheering section of its own; pods of scurrying children tear along the baseline, adorned in replica jerseys of the men on the court. A frail, elderly man sits in a blue chair at the edge of the doorway. He leans forward when the action reaches the far end of the gym, propping himself up with his cane and wincing each time.

Diore’s team leads by seven points with three minutes to go when he picks up his sixth and final foul. He’s not happy about it, and the two referees wait unblinkingly with whistles in their mouths as Diore throws his arms up in frustration, pleads his innocence and finally storms off the court and into the locker room. Minutes later he returns in street clothes with a camera to his eye and a large smile on his face. His team, the Pilinians, go on to win, and Diore films the final minutes of it.

It’s shortly after 8pm when the next set of teams files out of the blue locker room doors, forming layup lines as Top 40 blares from the sound system. The winner of this match-up, which pits Kentucky Fried Chicken against Viernes Janitorial, will face Pilinians in next week’s championship.

“Who will win?” says the woman behind the microphone, a Filipino accent thickening her words. “The flying chickens or the flying brooms?” If Kentucky Fried Chicken seems to have an especially raucous cheering section, and it does, it probably has something to do with the fast food empire’s recent arrival in this frozen corner of Canada, and the rows of cars that idled in wait for the greasiest mass-production chicken north of 60. Romy Gayangos, the General Manager of the league, sits beside the PA announcer, smiling. The sound system, along with the electronic scoreboard, are new additions this year, purchased after months of fundraising efforts netted more than $2,000. The teams that finished earlier return to the sidelines to watch the next group. This is basketball in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

***

Whitehorse is the capital city of the Yukon. Forgotten by most Canadians and unknown to most everyone else, this is a place where winter lasts eight months and the temperature routinely plunges past 40 below zero and stays there. During the dim depths of winter, depending on how far north you get, the sun barely rises above the tree line; get far enough north and it won’t rise at all. Fly into the airport a couple times, and a passenger will be on a first name basis with everyone working there. It’s strange to think that any space so vast could be so insular, and in fact you can leave in any direction you want; it will just be hours until you reach the next town. The territory, taken as a whole, is almost 30,000 square miles larger than California, and home to just 35,000 people, most of which live in Whitehorse. There’s a border with Alaska on the west, the North West Territories on the east, British Columbia to the south; the northern coast rests on the Beaufort Sea. But mostly there is a lot of nothing. Bears walk down city streets during the 20-hour-long summer days; locals joke about mosquitoes being the region’s official bird.

Diore is a member of the Yukon’s Filipino community, a community that has grown from 150 people when he arrived nine years ago, to more than 2,000 now. Most of the growth can be attributed to the Yukon Government’s nominee program, which was designed to alleviate the region’s labor shortage by bringing foreign workers into the territory. Diore started the Yukon Pinoy Basketball League in 2007 with four teams; there are now more than 150 players in the league. They wear professional-looking uniforms with the logos of various local businesses stamped across the chest. The uniforms are made back home, in the Philippines; it’s the best deal, Gayangos says.

Even with its growth, Diore is constantly recruiting. The league is usually one of the first introductions newcomers get to the community. “You see new people in the grocery store and you introduce yourself and the next week they are here,” he says. “Some people come to play and more come just to watch and meet people and learn about the community.” Diore says it used to be easy to speak with everyone, but now his introductions are occasionally marred by language barriers, indicative of the nearly 200 dialectal variations that exist in the Philippines. Sometimes, he also mistakes local First Nations people for Filipinos. “It’s getting hard to tell,” he says sheepishly. “There are just so many people now.”

Gayangos stands at the end of the baseline with his arms folded across his chest. It’s his first year running the league -- he calls it a “brotherhood” -- but he has been involved since its inception. He puts particular emphasis in getting younger players onto the planning committee, ensuring continued growth. “There are so many young players now and they are developing on the high school teams and then this gives them more exposure and training,” he says. “It teaches them responsibility. We all support each other.” The growth of the Filipino population has been mirrored in the school system, and basketball, a hugely popular sport in the Philippines, has worked its way into the local lexicon, alongside hockey.

The territory’s high school circuit is dominated by Filipino players. Last year, traveling teams from Alaska crossed the border during the Arctic Winter Games, a biennial mini-Olympics of sorts with nine contingents from across the circumpolar North. Alaska, usually a much stronger force in sports, was trounced in nearly every game. Last year’s local basketball MVP, a 14-year-old Filipino, now suits up alongside Diore on team Pilinians.

In the hallway of the Catholic high school that hosts the league, there’s a bulletin board covered with red tissue paper and tacked with laminated clippings of students who have made the local newspapers, for sporting accomplishments or musical achievements or other notable feats. More than a few feature Filipino students. The school itself made headlines in the last month, when a student challenged the school’s policy on sexual orientation that referred to homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” and “an act of grave depravity.” Things are changing in the Yukon, and the region’s Filipinos, and basketball, are a part of it.

***

The commissioner’s sister is named Ailene, and she operates the Asian Central Grocery Store and Restaurant. Ailene came to the Yukon in 1989, in the first wave of migration. She estimates that there were, at most, 20 other Filipinos in the territory at that time. She left her hometown on the Visayas Islands and arrived in November, one of the hardest and coldest months of the year. She spent her first night, an unseasonably warm minus-five late fall evening, sleeping fully clothed in a down parka, mittens and a woolen hat. Later that winter, the mercury dropped to 60 below zero.

“I came from a tropical place and grew up on the ocean but here everything is frozen and cold,” she says. “But it’s home now. The opportunity is here. When I was young I dreamt of touching snow, but I never thought I’d be living in it.”

The place is multicolored and wildly aromatic, with aisles of sauces and pastes and oils and packaged and dried food from across Asia. A tropical wooden overhang shades the cashier, and a wall-mounted flat screen television beams Filipino television into the dining area. A selection of rice cookers and pots and pans line the far side of the room and the clang of dishes and sizzle of a generously greased grill sound from the kitchen. The space also hosts karaoke nights, children’s birthday parties, and other events; freshly arrived Pinoys will leave their phone numbers with Ailene, in case she knows of any eligible singles who might be interested in going out.

Earlier in the season one of the league’s players got engaged the day of a game; that night they celebrated at the store, playing music and drinking imported Filipino beer. “We try to do anything we can,” says Ailene. “If it’s going to be positive, if it’s going to bring the community together.”

“If people are having problems they come here and we try and help,” adds Mike, Ailene’s business partner. “We put them in touch with other people, or listen and give advice.”

Mike is a recent arrival to the community, having made his way North from Alberta six months ago. He’s middle-aged, with a soft smile and dark sunken eyes. The Yukon is the fifth place he’s lived since arriving in Canada in 1994. “I hope this is my last stop,” he says, looking out the window and onto an empty street. “When you’re alone it’s easier to move around.” The smile on his face is suspended over a deep sadness.

In 2005, nine years after he started an import and export company, Mike’s wife got sick and he fell into a depression. His friends picked him up and asked him to join a small business, it kept him busy and his mind occupied, but it didn’t heal his wife. She passed in 2011, and Mike entered a complete depression. “I had lost interest in everything,” he says. “But then my daughter phoned and said ‘come to the Yukon, come work up here’. I came without hesitation.”

Mike found new family through the Filipino community and because of his role at the store he’s now a face that everybody knows. The store is also one of the main sponsors of the league. His daughter, Jocelyn, is currently on staff as a city councilor.  

“In terms of lifestyle for us, the Filipino community, we’re improving,” says Ailene. “We’ve gone from menial jobs to owning businesses. We have a dentist in town, now. We’re the fastest growing ethnic group in Whitehorse.” In a city that was never a place anyone quite wanted to live, Yukon’s Filipinos have found something like home: a place to live, work, and play basketball.

***

A week later the championship game pits team KFC against the skilled but aging Pilinians. Collapsible stands unfold next the court and pour down the sideline at Porter Creek Secondary School. It’s a considerably larger space than the usual gym, but in tonight’s atmosphere, it feels full, even cramped. There’s not an empty seat to be found on the bleachers; a local reporter sits under the far basket, a zoom lens fully extended. The action moves fast, with each team playing a similar style that’s near pathologically focused on passing and getting an open shot. The shot clock never once comes close to expiring. On many of the possessions the ball doesn’t touch the floor.

Late in the second quarter, the premier of the territory and the city’s mayor shuffle into the stands nearest the exit. Their appearance is greeted by a round of cheers and applause and an announcement of their arrival over the PA system. They sit stiffly in the third row of the bleachers, constantly smiling but never removing their coats. They are also joined by Whitehorse’s Member of Parliament and Jocelyn. At the half, they take turns speaking to the crowd; the mayor points to Jocelyn, calling her the hardest working city councilor he’s seen in 31 years. In the stands, Mike watches, wide-eyed and emotional. What he might be feeling, so far from his home in so many ways, is hard to guess. Pride, at the very least, is palpable.

The teams enter the final quarter within seven points of each other. There is a season’s worth of build up in the final 10 minutes and a year’s worth of camaraderie and community converging on the sidelines. It gets loud, and the game gets close. The teams exchange leads on each possession and the crowd jumps up and down with every basket, the floor shaking with the rhythm of their cheers. The Filipino woman on the microphone rises to her feet and pushes her chair aside, the speed of her voice increasing and arriving at a higher frequency. It gets louder still.

Players on the sidelines cup their hands around their mouths, yelling instructions to teammates over the noise of the cheers. With 21 seconds remaining, a KFC flying chicken drops in the game-tying basket, a left-handed layup, and gets fouled. Along the sideline, his teammates, all 13 of them, link arms as he toes the free-throw line. He takes three dribbles, exhales and knocks down the go-ahead basket. The gym erupts and Pilinians, eager to get momentum back on their side, rush down the court and turn the ball over. The gym gets louder and Pilinians begin fouling away the final seconds. The flying chickens hold on to win 75-70.

At center court, Romy and his fellow committee members pull golden trophies and silver medals from a cardboard box. They wear black t-shirts with ‘committee’ written on the back in white block text. The stands empty as everyone in attendance rushes the court. It’s chaos after that, a happy churn of cheers and camera clicks and congratulations. The premier and the mayor pose for photos with the teams, and family members crowd in as well. Ailene moves through the crowd. It’s nearly 10:30pm and only three people working at the store. She makes the call on her cell phone and tells them to get ready, tonight’s going to be a celebration.

Photos by Sam Riches. To see more, go here.


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