The morning began like any other at the Fort Bonifacio housing tenement in Taguig City, Philippines, just outside Manila. Caged roosters crowed on the rooftop. Seven floors below, bristles from an elderly resident’s broom swept away the remnants of the city festival that rocked the building the day before.
Suspended behind the door of his 230-square-foot second-floor apartment, Mike Swift slept in the cocoon of his orange hammock. It had been a late night for the rap artist who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Brooklyn. At seemingly every turn during Sunday night’s party, someone was waiting with a fresh drink. An early Monday morning start was not in his plans. Until Swift’s cell phone rang with a call from a friend, hip-hop artist J-Hon.
“Kobe,” J-Hon says. “It’s f—ing Kobe.”
Halfway around the world, a helicopter crash had killed nine people. Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were dead, J-Hon explained. Swift refused to believe it. He hung up the phone and got online. There it was. Kobe. Everywhere.
“I was in complete shock,” Swift says. “I just began bawling.”
It was a little after 6 a.m. in Manila, some two hours after news of Kobe’s death started to spread. Swift rolled out of his hammock, made a cup of coffee and tried to pull himself together. He opened his door and allowed the morning light to hit him in the face. On the basketball court below, people already had gathered. Mops already were out. The unspoken goal was clear: Produce a tribute to Kobe and Gigi that the world would never forget.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY Kobe Bryant meant so much to the residents of the Taguig Tenement, you must first understand the Philippine love affair with basketball. In the Philippines, you can find the game everywhere, from tiny fishing villages to congested urban intersections. Basketball is played in cemeteries, amid rice paddies, along train tracks and on street corners. Courts come in all shapes and sizes. Full courts, half courts, quarter courts. Sometimes a hoop with no court. On the best courts there are fading free throw and 3-point lines, but more often there are ankle-wrecking cracks and curbs and an edict to watch out for cars — both parked and moving.
“Basketball is a religion to us,” Swift says. “We put basketball courts wherever we want to, wherever we please. On gates, on trees, on top of sand, concrete, dirt, whatever. All you really need is a ring and a basketball and you can be by yourself and play this game peacefully and enjoy.”
In election season, local politicians host basketball tournaments and fix crumbling courts to gain favor with voters. Officials have even postponed local elections that clash with the NBA Finals. As of last year, the NBA’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts had more combined followers from the Philippines than from any other country outside the United States.
What soccer is to Brazil, basketball is to the Philippines. The sound of a bouncing ball is the country’s unofficial soundtrack. Wagers are often placed on games, even by children. Many of the kids play barefoot — some pour drops of soda pop on the playing surface to help their traction.
“When they win, of course they’re happy,” says Eddie Barbuena, who has lived his entire live in the Tenement and coaches the local basketball teams. “They have food. They feed their families.”
So it makes sense that in the 1960s, a few years after residents first moved into the seven-story, 671-apartment concrete maze that is the Tenement, they used their own money to build the only thing they wanted in the building’s courtyard: a basketball court. Since then, the court has become the social and recreational hub for the building’s more than 1,500 residents.
“At the Tenement, basketball is life,” Barbuena says. “This place is not perfect. But on the basketball court, we are one family, one community. Then you can forget your problems when you go home.”
Tenement life is not easy. The rooms are less than 250 square feet. There are no elevators. There is no running water. The plumbing system broke years ago, forcing residents to traverse one of two sets of ramps to fill plastic water jugs. The jugs are put on carts and pushed back to their apartments, where they are emptied into large plastic drums, allowing residents to cook, clean, use the bathroom and bathe.
“Your first impression is a vertical slum,” says Rommel Trinidad, who works as an engineer for the National Housing Authority and is a district manager responsible for the Tenement. Most of the apartments are roughly the size of an NBA lane and often are home to multiple families.
But on weekend mornings, basketballs begin bouncing by 5 a.m. and don’t stop until a 10 p.m. curfew. Players are young and old, male and female. With a ball in their hand and the Tenement court at their feet, they are Kobe, Jordan, Kyrie, LeBron. One Tenement couple named two of their children Antawn Jamison and Anfernee Hardaway. Hardaway’s dad even calls him “Penny.” “For me, my everyday life is not complete without basketball,” says the dad, William Victore, who has lived his entire life in the Tenement. “Even before we had our first child, I told my wife, ‘I will use the name Anfernee Hardaway Victore for our first child.’ She didn’t even disagree.”
LIKE JAPAN, NEW ZEALAND and the U.S. Pacific Coast, the Philippines sits in the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur. Worse yet, the Tenement sits directly above the West Valley Fault, where seismologists say a 7.0 or greater earthquake occurs every 350 to 400 years. It last happened 362 years ago, in 1658.
In 2010, the government conducted structural tests on the Tenement’s beams, columns and flooring and said that more than 60% of the samples came back as unstable. That prompted the government to condemn the building, cease its lease agreements and demand residents to vacate the property immediately out of concern of a “tragic disaster.” The National Housing Authority planned to transfer the residents to another government-owned housing complex 30 miles outside Manila.
But the majority of residents didn’t budge. Their home was here. Their jobs were here. They wanted to stay closer to the city. Many believed the government wanted to push them out to gain access to the Tenement property, a parcel of land whose value had increased thanks to plans for a nearby retail and residential complex. Tenement residents say they were told by the Japanese company that built the building that it would last another 30 years. The builders, they say, acknowledged that the Tenement wasn’t in perfect condition but insisted it merely needed some retrofitting and rehabilitation, not a complete teardown.
“We were told the building would last at least 80 years,” says 59-year-old Lorenzo Calaminos, one of the Tenement’s elder statesmen. “So we have 30 more years to go. If it was true the building was going to come down, I would be the first to say everybody needs to leave. But every time there is an earthquake, the building only shook a little, unlike other areas where earthquakes collapse the building.”
Four years after the first notice, the government added more teeth to its warning, giving residents 30 days to remove their belongings and vacate the premises before it would forcibly remove them. Tenement residents dug in for a battle.
“I live here. I die here,” Barbuena says. “We fight for it. They said they bring lots of soldiers to take us out of here. If they do that, we fight. We fight for our rights.”
BY THE TIME Mike Swift made it down to the Tenement court the morning Kobe Bryant died, his team of visual artists had begun prepping the court for a mural of Kobe and Gigi Bryant. Swift grabbed a mop and began squeegeeing, removing dust and ash that had accumulated on the court since the Taal Volcano, some 35 miles away, erupted two weeks earlier.
“I was tired. I was crying. I was still kind of hazy from the night before,” Swift says. “But my mind was racing. ‘What are we going to paint? What are we going to paint? What type of paint do we have? This is the f—ing Tenement, man. We are going to be expected to paint something. What are we going to do?'”
Swift, himself, created those expectations over the previous six years through a calculated social media campaign that put the Tenement on the worldwide basketball map, transforming it from a building that was all but buried to one that is beloved.
The idea was born in disappointment. Swift, a respected Filipino hip-hop artist, had failed in his quest to host an all-Filipino hip-hop show at Smart Araneta Coliseum, home of the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match. The failure gutted him and left him deep in debt and a punchline in the music community. He found solace by roaming the basketball-crazed country and photographing unique courts for an anonymous Instagram account he started, @pinoyhoops. (“Pinoy” means Filipino.)
The account, which included shots of the Tenement, quickly gained traction. When Swift heard about the government’s forced eviction order in October of 2014, he organized a celebration at the Tenement he called “Picnic Games.” It was part basketball tournament, part hip-hop festival, part dance competition and part barbecue.
“My initial thing was not ‘Yo, save the Tenement, politics, we ain’t going nowhere,'” Swift says. “My thing was to help those people get their mind off everything they were going through.”
The event was a huge success. Tenement residents lined the court and filled the building’s walkways to take it all in. The eviction never happened. Four months later, in February of 2015, Swift hosted a second Picnic Games. Two months after that he did it again, this time working with others to paint the 4,600-square-foot court pumpkin orange with a massive white swoosh in hopes of catching Nike’s attention.
At the time, Nike was preparing to launch its first prime-time television show, “Nike Rise Philippines,” following 24 Filipinos as they moved to Manila and chased their basketball dreams. Swift knew the visually stunning Tenement, with its stark cement walls closely surrounding the court, was too unique of a backdrop for Nike — and the basketball world — to ignore.
He was right. In July of 2015, Paul George visited the Tenement to play ball and promote “Rise.” One Tenement resident even swiped the ball from the NBA All-Star during a game of one-on-one.
“When he tried to cross over, I waited for him, tapped the ball away, and he was running without the ball because the ball was in my hands,” John Carlo Belvis says. “I felt goosebumps all over and the crowd was deliriously screaming with delight.”
Swift shared all of it on social media, and momentum continued to build. Later that summer, Swift and his team set their sights even higher and painted a giant mural of a dunking LeBron James on the Tenement floor. “We were getting people’s attention by doing Nike stuff even though it wasn’t a Nike project,” he says. “We wanted to make a statement. We took that shot in the moon.”
And on Aug. 21, 2015, surrounded by security, LeBron James walked into the Tenement. Residents flooded the court and stood four- and five-deep on every one of the building’s seven floors, marveling that the NBA legend had come to see their court.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Belvis says. “Just overwhelming. He passed right in front of me … I was able to embrace him.”
Before James departed, he made handprints on a slab of wet concrete, cementing the Tenement’s status as a place that mattered. In May of 2016, Jordan Clarkson, the only current NBA player of Filipino heritage, dropped by to continue the hype. Over the next several years, with the help of local tattoo artist Maya Carandang, Swift and his team covered the court with rotating murals of everyone from Michael Jordan and Manny Pacquiao to Jimi Hendrix and Steph Curry. Extra paint was used to brighten the Tenement’s fading interior walls. Each holiday season brought with it a Christmas-themed mural, be it NBA stars wearing Santa hats or a full-court Christmas tree. With each mural and accompanying photo, the Tenement became a must-see destination for any hoops junkie.
“Basketball was the turning point,” Calaminos says. “If basketball is not with us today, we would probably have been thrown out and relocated in far distant places. When the basketball enthusiast and basketball world come here … people realize the government is tearing it down. And they want to join the cause, to save the Tenement.”
In 2017, Nike released a low-top version of its Hyperdunk sneaker called “The Tenement.” The next year, the Tenement became the setting for a Filipino daytime soap opera. The opening scene of the pilot featured police fighting with residents during a forced eviction. That same year, EA Sports featured the Tenement as one of 14 street courts where gamers could compete in the video game “NBA Live.”
More recently, the Nippon Paint company sponsored Swift, giving him the directive to paint more than 1,000 courts as part of an “Every Court Can Dream” campaign. Another paint company has sponsored Carandang, who already has moved on to other projects.
“That court saved me,” Swift says. “No matter how much people say that I’m part of why it got saved, no way. My gratitude is to that court because it saved me. Nobody was believing in the things I was doing, and that court changed everything.”
ON THE MORNING Kobe Bryant died, Swift’s new primary artist, Jerry Gabo, narrowed down his mural options to two before settling on a picture of Kobe holding Gigi in his arms during the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto. Swift, Gabo and the rest of the group, who now called themselves the Tenement Visual Artists, would paint Kobe and Gigi in black and white. Swift knew there wasn’t enough paint. He called the local Nippon warehouse, fixed a flat tire on his van and drove 45 minutes to get additional supplies.
At the same time, Gabo began making the on-court grid he would use to transfer the portrait to the court. That’s the secret. The artist breaks the 92×50-foot court into 4,600 equal squares. That same grid is then applied to the photo the artist wants to use. From there, the team snaps screenshots of the grid and then replicates the photo on the court square by square.
With four guys working 10 to 16 hours a day, the average job takes three to seven days to complete, depending on the complexity of the design. It takes roughly 35 gallons of paint to cover the court, at a cost of roughly $400. During one reporting trip, ESPN purchased the paint so residents could demonstrate the process.
With the mural of Kobe and Gigi, the group worked around the clock, except for a break during the hottest part of the afternoon. Swift said they finished the portrait in 24 hours before surrounding the image with handwritten tributes around the sidelines.
“All these years we had trained for this,” Swift says. “But this time the energy was different. There was this purpose. Emotionally, you’re so up and down. People are celebrating what you created, but at the same time you’re mourning. It’s not fun. It’s not cool. And then all of the sudden it’s world mainstream.”
Almost instantly, images of the portrait went viral. It even was shown on the Staples Center video board in Los Angeles during the Lakers’ tribute to Kobe prior to the first game after his death.
Strangers started flocking to the Tenement to pay their respects to Bryant and his daughter. One young woman named Britney stuck with Swift. She lived in Los Angeles and was visiting Manila for work. The photo found her. She knew she had to come by.
“The emotion she came in with, that’s when I knew we touched a lot of people,” Swift says. “This was not just a Filipino thing.”
Even Taguig government officials visited, placing “I love Taguig” benches around the court and bringing a purple floral bouquet. The government would later add purple disco lights as well as loop “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth. There were some residents who welcomed the government and others who found it disingenuous — that officials showed up now for what they saw as nothing more than a photo op.
With all the commotion on the floor, Swift eventually put on his headphones and headed for the Tenement roof, where he painted the basketball jerseys of Kobe and Gigi as well as nine roses, one for each of the victims of the helicopter crash.
Swift says the Kobe mural will be his last project at the Tenement. He looks at the work of Gabo and the rest of the team with pride. To him, the Kobe and Gigi tribute proves they no longer need his leadership. He wants to focus on helping other courts across the country as well as other ignored parts of the Tenement.
“The biggest thing to me is the water,” he says. “Some of these folks are really old, dragging this water all the way up. The cement is bumpy. We’ve got to figure out a way to help these people with their water. On one hand, I don’t want to use somebody’s death for that sort of thing, but I won’t be ashamed if that’s the case. That’s how much I f—ing love this place.”
What will become of the Tenement from here is anyone’s guess. Nearly a decade has passed since the government first told residents to leave. Since then, everything has changed. The court has become the heartbeat of basketball in this hoops-crazed country.
It’s easy to say that basketball saved the Tenement and its residents. But what if the opposite is also true? What if the game and this hallowed court have actually put thousands of lives in danger? The government has all but neglected the building since terminating its lease agreement a decade ago, prompting a different set of fears among the building’s residents.
“There is no more talk of eviction,” Barbuena says. “They are totally quiet. But that’s not really good either. There is no plan for us. And there are things that we need. But maybe now that is their way. Maybe they want to make this place so it is eventually unlivable.
“Then what will we do?”