MANILA, Philippines ' For many young Filipino American basketball players, when the pressure of carrying a professional team becomes overwhelming and a trip to KFC isn't enough to stave off homesickness, the go-to guy for counsel is Alex Compton, a 32-year-old former star of Madison West High School's 1992 state championship team.
Philippine professional teams began recruiting American-bred players with Filipino blood in the mid-1990s. Although the gold rush has cooled in recent years, Filipino American players still occupy dozens of roster spots in the Philippine Basketball Association.
Compton seems like an unusual guru for these players. What does a white guy from Wisconsin know about the Philippines?
A lot, actually. His hoops rÃsumÃ in the country goes back nine years. He coaches and plays in the PBA, the country's premier league. He was also named MVP of the now-defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association in 1999 and won championships in the MBA and a local minor league.
He knows a lot about basketball, too. He was a starting guard on the 1992 Madison West squad, the school's only championship team since 1945. Madison fans still remember the team's sharp-shooting backcourt of Compton and Mike Dammen, who rained 10 three-pointers on a powerhouse Milwaukee King team in the championship game.
In the Philippines, he's a bona fide celebrity. Americans introduced basketball to the country in 1911, when it was still a U.S. colony, and the sport has flourished. Filipinos play and follow basketball with a cultish devotion. They build courts out of an endless array of materials, including clothes hangers, car hoods and coconut trees. Athletes like Compton are mobbed in malls and called 'idol' by fans.
Compton, however, is sometimes better known as an entertainer ' a commercial actor, television host and the blond-haired Amerikano who once appeared opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a local magazine's 'separated at birth' feature ' than a sportsman. The caption under Compton's photograph on the wall of fame at a Quezon City Taco Bell doesn't even mention basketball. Instead it reads, 'Alex Compton, Coffee-mate model.'
Still, Compton, who was born in Manila, has established himself as a mainstay in Philippine basketball as well as one of the most beloved Americans in the country. He has lived there since 1998, when he left Madison to begin his professional career. Over the past nine years, Compton has learned to speak nearly flawless Tagalog, hosted a men's lifestyle show on Philippine television and organized basketball camps for high school players.
In contrast, Filipino American players with stronger ancestral ties to the archipelago are notorious for ignoring native culture. 'There are some Fil-Ams that are not even interested to learn the language,' says Chris Guidotti, Compton's former team manager. 'They just want to take Filipinos' money and bring it to the States. Alex doesn't have any Filipino blood, but he's more Filipino than all these Fil-Ams in the PBA.'
In some ways, Compton seemed destined for a career in the Philippines. When he was 10, Compton and his family spent a year in northeastern Thailand. His parents, both Southeast Asian studies scholars, were researchers there.
Compton moved to Madison from upstate New York in 1988, when his parents began working at the University of Wisconsin. Although he dreamed of playing in a foreign league, Compton had no clue how to get to one until his junior year at Cornell. When a coach heard Compton was born in the Philippines, he told Compton that he could play on a team in the Philippine Basketball Association. Compton found an agent, who arranged for him to join a team in July 1997, after graduation.
'It was already in place,' Compton says. 'I'm telling my boys. I'm fired up. Everybody's excited.' He said his goodbyes, packed his bags and headed to the airport, only to find out that the ticket his agent said would be waiting for him didn't exist. The agent told Compton there was a mix-up, and that the ticket would be waiting for him in a week. This time, Compton called ahead. Again, the ticket wasn't there.
Compton demanded an explanation from his team manager in Manila, who told him that they hit a snag when they learned Compton had no Filipino blood. The league's policy, it turned out, was that players had to be at least half Filipino. It didn't matter that Compton was born in Manila; without a Filipino parent, he couldn't play.
The manager offered a solution, Compton says. The team would obtain forged documents to make it look like Compton's biological mother was a Filipina who died and that his actual mother was an unrelated woman who married Compton's father after Compton was born.
Compton refused to go along with the deceit, and in an instant his opportunity to play was gone. He returned to Madison and found part-time work at a sporting goods store. 'I was living like a bum,' he says. 'I got an Ivy League degree, I don't have a job, and I'm basically living off my college friends. Like my rug was just pulled out from under my feet.'
Four months later, Compton heard from another Philippine agent, who told him that a new league, the MBA, would let Compton play even though he wasn't Filipino. After six months in limbo, Compton flew to the Philippines in January 1998 and has lived there ever since.
Once Compton arrived, he quickly won Filipinos over with his game and his openness to local culture. Compton and his Manila Metrostars teammate Romel Adducul were the 'Batman and Robin' of the MBA, according to sportscaster Sev Sarmenta.
'People loved to see this very tall, brown Filipino playing with a small, white American,' Sarmenta says. (Compton is 5'10'.) 'When he was talking to them in Filipino it tickled them even more.'
The way Compton connected with average Filipinos is almost unheard of for American players. After games, he would sometimes spend hours joking with fans and playing with street kids. 'You could tell early on that he was not the ugly American,' Sarmenta says. 'Alex took an effort to know the people.'
By the time the MBA folded in 2002, Compton was a fixture in Philippine basketball and fully assimilated into the culture. But he still couldn't play in the PBA. Instead he played in a minor league and appeared on television as a basketball analyst.
Compton retired from playing last summer and took an assistant coaching job with a PBA expansion team, the Welcoat Dragons. The team finished in last place in the league's first tournament, which ended in February.
But in the first week of March, days before the beginning of the second tournament, Compton's playing career was resurrected. Because Welcoat was a weak team, the PBA decided to let Compton play for the Dragons, just this once. Compton says he was worried about his conditioning after eight months of coaching, but more than anything else he was happy to be competing again. 'Playing basketball is just so much fun,' he says.
That simple love for the game, which Compton has carried from Thailand to Madison to Manila, is one reason that he says the amount of time he'll stay in the Philippines is 'definitely indefinite.' Compton and the country are bound by basketball.
'Maybe that's the key,' Sarmenta says. 'Filipinos share his longtime passion, which is basketball.'