People fight for their lives on Asia’s most famous basketball court

For Carlo Belvis, the basketball court is literally the center of his world. The 26-year-old calls home the Fort Bonifacio apartment building in Manila, which is a public housing block surrounding perhaps Asia’s most famous basketball court.
At any time of the day, residents gather on the balconies of the seven-story complex to watch what is happening below.

“Basketball brings happiness. You forget about all your problems when you play basketball. You can show all your emotions, that’s why I love this game,” says Carlo.

Aerial view of an apartment building.

Basketball is played at any time of the day on the court of an apartment building. Source: SBS news / Aaron Fernandez

The residential area, known to locals simply as “the tenement house”, looks like a scene from a movie. On the balconies, gas stoves roast meat on a spit. There are no elevators, so people use motorbikes to go up and down the ramp to get to the upper floors.

The building’s soundtrack is a mix of basketballs and karaoke played from personal stereos at high volume. Life in the area can be tough and the constant noise and activity is a pleasant distraction.
“There are a lot of temptations. There are people here who use drugs and do nothing good,” says Carlo. “They live here like a big family. You just have to respect each other.”
Like soccer in Brazil, basketball in the Philippines has an almost religious following. in January 2020, local artists turned the courtyard into a memorial that went viral around the world.
The viral tribute boosted Tenement’s profile as an icon of world basketball.
The handprints of American basketball player LeBron James are oriented towards the court walls when he visited the apartment building as part of the Nike Tour in 2015.

Every other day, foreign travelers come to the apartment building on pilgrimages to see the sacred courtyard.

Living here is like a big family. We just need to respect each other.

Carlo Belvis

“I knew about Tenement for many years and told myself that if I ever go to the Philippines, I will definitely go there,” says Jeremy Lubsey, a 34-year-old traveler from Maryland to the United States.

“It’s special. It’s all about the history of this courtyard and this complex. It’s all about the people, you can see their passion while playing.”

Close-up of a man in a pink shirt.

Jeremy Lubsey visited the court while on vacation from the US. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandez

Today, Bryant’s iconic painting is no more. During COVID-19, residents lost their jobs and struggled to find work. The famous courtyard was sold to commercial enterprises as advertising space. But to preserve the memory and honor the memory of their idol, local artists from the Tenement Visual Artists group painted a copy on a large canvas that is hidden in an apartment building.

“This is a replica. All people, if they want to see it, they can see it here. The apartment building appreciates this,” says Chris Pachcial of Tenement Visual Artists.

Canvas copy of the famous mural by Kobe Bryant.

Canvas copy of the famous mural by Kobe Bryant. Source: SBS news / Aaron Fernandez

But the apartment building’s viral prominence hasn’t solved the housing crisis looming over the courtyard and the roughly 3,000 residents who live in the building. In 2010, the housing project was declared unsafe and vulnerable to natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes by local authorities.

Tenants were issued eviction notices and a small number accepted the government’s offer to relocate. Since 2015, a total of 57 out of 712 families have relocated with financial assistance provided by the local government of Taguig. But most residents refused to leave.

It’s all about the people, you can see their passion while playing.

Jeremy Lubsey

Jennifer Corpin is president of the Tenement Owners Association, a community group representing tenants.
“This building has a rich history,” she says.

“From then until now, we have been constantly buzzing locally and internationally. It’s the only way for us to survive.”

A woman stands in front of empty shop windows.

Jennifer Corpin runs an association representing the residents of the house. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandez

Today the eviction notices have stopped, but the building has not yet been secured. Huge cracks are visible in the walls, and there is no water on the upper levels. Residents drag buckets upstairs to drink and wash.

The Philippine National Housing Authority says it still plans to relocate residents, but nothing has been done for years, SBS News has learned.

The residents, their ruined building and beloved basketball court are largely forgotten.

Residents outside their apartment buildings cook food.

Life in Tenement spills out of apartments onto balconies. Source: SBS news / Aaron Fernandez

“Residents still want to stay, but of course we don’t know about the integrity of the building,” says Ms Korpin.

Of course, we understand that we cannot stay here, but we need to know what their plans are. We are not illegal settlers, they can’t just throw us wherever they want.”

Ms Korpin says residents know that if a building is about to collapse, they won’t be able to stay there. But the main problem is the lack of housing in the metropolis of Manila.

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“Most residents of the apartment building work in the area, in Makati, in the nearby city of Taguig, and most of the students study here in Taguig,” she says.

“So the problem with the National Housing Administration is that they don’t have property in the city where we could be transferred or resettled.”

Aerial view of the Tenement basketball court and residential building.

In 2010, the apartment building was deemed unsafe. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandez

SBS News sent questions to the Philippine National Housing Authority about the future of the apartment building and its residents, but received no response.

In a March 2018 public statement, the NHA said the organization took action to keep residents safe by offering them relocation options through NHA relocation projects.

“Despite opposition at the Fort Bonifacio apartment building, the NHA established a Resettlement Action Center there in May 2014 to review relocation and resettlement applications,” the statement said.

A man in a basketball jersey with a basketball in his hand.

All generations play basketball at Tenement. Source: SBS News / Aaron Fernandez

Ms Korpin says residents are willing to move if a resettlement option can be found nearby. But they want to know where they will be resettled and if any heritage and history can be preserved.

“When you say Tenement, people will always say, ‘Oh Tenement, there’s a famous court there.’ We worked hard to be known. If not in our building, then at least in our famous courtyard. Maybe they want to consider those things so we can be saved.”