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Mike Swift: Pinoy Hoops Personified

You’ve seen the Kobe & Gigi mural. You’ve probably heard about The Tenements. You might even follow Pinoy Hoops on Instagram. But do you know Mike Swift? Homecourt’s Adam McKay meets the man who connects the culture with the courts and discovers that whatever Mike’s involved in, he does it for the good of the community.

As shockwaves of disbelief and despair disseminated around the world, the mural of Kobe and Gianna Bryant in The Philippines quickly went viral – not merely due to its scale and beauty, but as much for its expediency. The piece, based at “The Tenement” – a housing project in metro Manila – was completed within 24 hours of Kobe and his daughter passing in late January, and was unveiled at a time when the world was still coming to terms with the tragedy. It was still raw, and The Tenement mural came almost impossibly quickly – well before anyone had even begun to consider how to memorialise the pair. To understand just how this feat was accomplished, we need to travel to New York City in the early 90’s. We need to meet Mike Swift.

Mike, a Filipino by birth, moved to New York with his mother at age 9, and quickly discovered a love for hip hop culture and basketball. Taping episodes of Inside Stuff, going across the bridge to watch Nets games because tickets were cheap, secretly wishing he was at the Garden watching Patrick, John and Charles, heading to the park for a run while bumping Black Sheep and Tribe Called Quest – the early ‘90s were a golden period for basketball and hip hop, and Mike found himself at the epicentre of both.

Mike set out to forge a career in the music industry as a young rapper mixing English and his native Tagalog, and eventually became the first Filipino-American to establish his own label, Head Bop Music in 1998. It was Mike’s passion for music that ultimately lead to his return to the Philippines in 2004 when his mixtape caught the attention of hip hop heavyweights back home. The Philippines may have given him life, but it was New York City which had raised him, and Mike had to reacclimate to his new environment. What made this transition possible was his passion for basketball – a sport that is not only universally loved in the Philippines, but is part of the national psyche of the country. Way of life, obsession, national pastime… however you want to say, Filipinos love their basketball in a way that is unrivalled around the world.

Mike split his time between hooping on streetball courts and selling his rap mixtapes and DVDs on the streets of Manila. This hustler mentality was instilled in him at a young age after spending time with his father, who made his living through organising cock fights in his home province of Batangas, approximately 100km south of Manila.

Mike’s first big break came in the form of a National Geographic TV show called Pinoy Hoops, which documented Filipino basketball culture. Mike appeared in a number of segments and adopted the moniker of Mr. Pinoy Hoops – a title that helped define him as the voice for basketball culture in the Philippines. During this time, Mike was still in pursuit of a hip hop career. He established a renowned rap battle in 2010 which helped cement him in the scene and began promoting events in Manila. His most ambitious project came in 2013 when Mike promoted the Araneta Dreams concert with hopes of filling the 16,500 capacity Araneta Coliseum. This endeavour did not play out how Mike envisioned, and left him hurting financially and mentally for years to come. But sometimes failure is the mother of opportunity, and this was true in Mike’s case as he shifted his focus from music to basketball. It was at this time that Mr. Pinoy Hoops began a movement that would reach a global audience of millions, and far eclipse the mere 16,500 heads he was looking to reach with Araneta Dreams.

Pinoy Hoops was no longer a National Geographic TV show; it was Mike’s platform to show the world the beauty of basketball in the Philippines. Mike started an Instagram account and began sharing scenes that were authentic and unique to the country.

Mike recollects, “Pinoy Hoops became a place to see what Pinoy basketball culture looked like. I would just take pictures of people playing, what they’re wearing, where they’re playing, what the basketballs looked like… a lot of things that were connected to Pinoy basketball culture, you could find it there.”

What they were wearing were often flip flops and knock-off NBA jerseys. Where they were playing was commonly a street with a plank of wood and rusty hoop nailed to a tree. What the basketballs looked like was usually not great. But it was authentic and almost crossed over into art. Mike was able to recognise the beauty in these simple scenes, and captured them to share with the world. The world responded… big time, and Pinoy Hoops blew up to become a social media staple for any true fan of the game and its culture.

Mike acknowledges that growing up outside of the Philippines in basketball-heavy New York helped him see the beauty of Pinoy basketball culture from an outside perspective,

“When you’re here everyday, people see these basketball courts everywhere – it’s normal to everyone. But when you’re someone who grew up in NYC, the courts are in the parks, they’re never in public the way they are in the Philippines. That’s one thing that I knew for sure – I could articulate the difference.”

Mike and Pinoy Hoops caught the attention of Nike, which offered him a spot in their 2014 commercial titled Play Pinoy – a 90 second cinematic journey that can only be summed up with “goosebumps.” Although no one knew it at the time, Play Pinoy put something in motion that would ultimately see Kobe and Gigi memorialised. Enter The Tenement.

The Tenement is a 7-story public housing estate which is home to over 1,000 families and dates back to the 1960s. Residents currently deal with not only poverty and a lack of running water, but threats of eviction from the government. The Tenements’ basketball court provides a centrepiece to the monolithic structure, and is the heartbeat of the estate with residents perpetually hooping from morning to night. This is where Mike found himself every Sunday playing pick-up, and started to forge strong relationships with the residents through a shared love of basketball and hip hop. So, when Nike approached Mr. Pinoy Hoops to appear in the Play Pinoy commercial, it was a given that The Tenements would be used as a location.

Mike’s bond with The Tenement and its people became stronger, and he saw an opportunity to bring joy to the community through events. Araneta Coliseum required an exuberant amount of pesos to hire, but The Tenement was a blank canvas on which Mike could paint his vision of basketball, music and culture free of charge. This realisation gave rise to the Picnic Games in 2014 – a New York style block party fusing basketball, food, music and art that provided a welcomed source of community, local pride and relief from the everyday struggle to residents of The Tenement. Through the success of the event, Mike was able to expand and build the Picnic Games, and eventually introduced a key element – graffiti.

Despite having no budget to work with, Mike was able to mobilise those around him, including visual artists who turned the court of The Tenement into a canvas on which large-scale murals could be painted. It quickly became apparent that these epic murals were prime content for Mike’s Pinoy Hoops Instagram account, helped in part by the correlating rise of drone photography. This motivated Mike to forge ahead and do more, however the pace was not always to his liking, with funds for paint a constant barrier. It was around this time that LeBron James was scheduled to visit Manila. Leveraging his Nike connections and the promise of a LeBron mural, Mike made a bold play to bring the biggest name in the NBA to The Tenement.

The mural did the job, and the impossible happened in 2015 when a global superstar stepped onto a housing project that was seen as a blight on the city by its government. The day LeBron James came is referred to as “The Miracle at The Tenement.”

Despite this triumph, Mike still did not have the resources he needed to continue painting the court and improving living conditions for residents of The Tenement. Mike laments, “We were considered a shithole of a place. Now, [The Tenement is considered] a monument – a historical basketball tourist spot. Internationally, we were hailed, but locally we were not being supported financially.”

Unperturbed, Mike pushed ahead, organising more Picnic Games and court murals with the support of whichever brand would lend a sympathetic ear. The mantra was always “bigger and better,” with each event and mural needing to outdo its predecessor. The attention garnered by his efforts and the Pinoy Hoops account continued to grow, with many making the pilgrimage from outside the Philippines to experience The Tenement first hand. Mike’s patience and dedication paid off in late 2019 when he received exactly what he needed to fulfill his vision – paint.

Nippon Paint from Japan, which claims to be one of Asia’s largest paint manufacturers, bought into Mike’s vision and resourced him with all he needed to take his murals to the next level. He and his team were able to paint with the frequency they had always dreamed of. In fact, Mike and the group behind the court murals – The Tenement Visual Artists – had painted three murals in the two months leading up to the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. They were in the rare position to mobilise quickly and direct their feelings of shock and grief into something beautiful that would capture the hearts and attention of the world.

Mike cites the death of Kobe as a turning point in his life. He now sees The Tenement as a group able to make its own decisions and choose its own path, thanks partly to the attention attracted by the mural of Kobe and Gianna. The Tenement has grown up, and Mike now sees an opportunity to take the model of community-building through art and basketball to other locations around the country. 2020 hit him hard, as Mike sustained a severe Achilles injury earlier in the year, followed by the challenges surrounding Covid-19. Mike has now taken time to return to his home province of Batangas and reflect, as well as consider his next move. This time of transition has given birth to a whole new wave of creative ideas for Mike, including developing a plot of land owned by his family and creating what he terms his “Dream Court.” Mike sees this court as a sanctuary, not only for himself, but for his local community, and hopes to use it as a platform to discover local basketball talent that can one-day represent Batangas on the national or international stage.

With his partnership with Nippon Paint solidified, Mike can now approach the future more strategically rather than simply jumping from opportunity to opportunity. He has embarked on a campaign to paint 1,000 courts over the coming years, and – despite the challenges thrown his way – is on his way with 84 under his belt already. Mike had just completed a project in which he and his collective, which he affectionately refers to as the Nippon Gang, painted a kindergarten to bring some colour to local children. Although basketball courts will always be part of his plans going forward, Mike also sees an opportunity to expand the scope of his painting to include schools and small businesses

While excited about the future beyond The Tenement, it is clear that a piece of Mike’s heart still remains with the place that he made and helped make him. He still has strong relationships with residents, and will continue to support them by advocating for them and their conditions at every opportunity. Fulfilling a promise of achieving running water for The Tenement still remains on Mike’s agenda, and he plans to push for this until a resolution can be found. In fact, Mike is not merely an altruistic outsider adopted by the community; he is a member himself having purchased a room at The Tenement and renting one more to this day.

When standing back and looking at all that Mike Swift has achieved, we can start to see common themes: it all comes back to people and community. Whether it be painting murals recognised all over the world, organising events to bring joy to residents of The Tenement, or sharing the cultural phenomenon of basketball in the Philippines to the world, Mike has always used his efforts to connect people and make things better for those around him.

As the paint dried on the mural of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, a chapter was ending in the story of Mike Swift. The book, however, is still being written, and is far from over.