No longer the poor sisters

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 03 2008 01:27 AM | Updated as of Mar 03 2008 09:27 AM

THE GAME OF MY LIFE
By BILL VELASCO
The Philippine Star

Women’s basketball in the Philippines is on the verge of a big breakthrough, just as US women’s basketball was back in 1995. The American women toured the world, playing men’s teams and any competition they could find to drum up attention, compiling a spotless 50-win record before hitting the Atlanta Olympics like a storm. Immediately after, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was born, bringing the sport fully into the mainstream.

If you watch basketball in the Philippines, you’d think no women played it. Only men’s UAAP and NCAA games are televised, except for the women’s finals. In one instance, an exhibition game had top women’s teams using men’s size basketballs. (Men use a size 7, women a size 6.) Last year, the Philippine women’s team finally got some attention, but was it because they had talented Fil-Ams joining the team, had good-looking players, or because they were talented? Those questions are now being answered as the Philippine women’s hoops team prepares for the 2009 Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) and Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) competitions.

After two years of suspension, the Philippines was given back full active membership by the FIBA (the international governing body for basketball). One of the goals of the new BAP-SBP was to win gold medals in the women’s SEABA and SEA Games. We had hardly ever beaten Thailand and Malaysia, unlike in the men’s competition, where we regularly trounced them. To make things worse, in our absence, they had gotten stronger by playing against tougher Asian competition.

"SEABA was really intense. The level was so different from college," admits Cassy Tioseco, the six-foot forward-center from Ateneo’s champion UAAP team. "Everyone’s emotions were so high. But I think we did surprisingly well given the short time we trained."

In that competition, they beat defending champion Thailand in their opening game, and were suddenly expected to sweep. But in the finals, Thailand got even, and relegated the RP women to second.

"Considering the team was formed barely six months before the SEA Games in my opinion we played good enough last year," declares new head coach Haydee Ong, a former assistant who took over from Fritz Gaston after the SEA Games in Thailand in December. "Everybody was expecting to get the gold medal after the silver medal finish in SEABA but unfortunately we failed to deliver the gold."

The team had gained a lot of attention with the arrival of 5’7" Fil-American guard Vicki Brick, a former US high school all-American. As a freshman for the University of Maryland, the do-it-all guard had 3.1 steals and 4.3 assists per contest in 26 games as a starter, the second and third best efforts, respectively, by a first-year player in NCAA history. Brick also suited up for Sydney in Australia’s WNBL, where she shot 40 percent from beyond the three-point line.

"At the SEABA, we were almost all new, and younger," says AA Adriano, a swift forward from FEU. "Vicki hadn’t been with us long. At the SEA Games, the expectations were so high. Our defense fell apart, and our offense didn’t click.

The hosts tried everything in the book to unsettle the Filipinas. This writer arrived in Nakhon Ratchasima right before the opening ceremonies to witness a shouting match involving basketball officials, who were surprised when the organizers suddenly switched schedules without FIBA’s approval. Then-coach Fritz Gaston was informed on opening day that they would be playing the next morning, instead of two days later. And their first opponent would no longer be Thailand, but lightweight Singapore, giving the hosts a precious opportunity to scout them.

"They were surprised that we had three new players in our roster, including two more Fil-Ams. That’s why they arbitrarily changed the schedule," Gaston said at the time. "They’re scared of losing to us."

The changes in schedule threw off the team’s tight preparations, and deflated their morale, since the uncertainty in schedule kept them from joining the parade of athletes in the opening ceremony, which would have been a memorable first for almost all of them. They settled for playing pusoy at the athletes’ village and watching the opening on TV. Again, we fell short, losing to Thailand and eventual champion Malaysia. But to be fair, the referees consistently made bad calls against any team that was a threat. And the Philippines was the biggest threat out there.

"Usually, you have a set sked that you follow," Tioseco says. "We were really excited. I’ve never been to an opening ceremony. We knew it would be a distraction. It may have affected some people. We expected to play two days later. You have to learn to adapt to those things."

After the losses in Thailand, rumors surfaced, rumors that there was discontent and disagreement among the players, and jealousy over the supposed preferential treatment (and bigger allowances) the Fil-Am players were receiving.

"No there is no issues about the Fil-Am players and allowances," Ong affirms. "Basically, the core of the team is still intact; only the Fil-Ams went back to the States. Basically the strength and weakness of the team will depend on how athletic and skilled the Fil-Am players will be, and to what the team needs in the future.There is nothing wrong in getting Fil-Am players."

Because of the success of the V-League, which includes national players reinforcing school-based teams, and great TV coverage from ABS-CBN, women’s basketball now has a template to follow. And a commercial league will be born in April, the Filipina Basketball League.

The timing is now perfect, because many of SEA Games champion Malaysia’s players are retiring, and Thailand is also going to change its roster. At least two of our Fil-Ams are coming back, full-time, and many new, younger and taller players are trying out for the RP team.

Vengeance will be sweet in Laos.