MANILA – Once the only overseas-based player on a Gilas Pilipinas Women lineup, returning combo guard Sofia Roman is glad to see that the women’s national basketball team’s Fil-foreign talent identification program has gone mainstream.
“I’m honestly very happy about that. That is something that I wish we had even before I played for the national team,” Roman said.
"We wanted more exposure, we wanted people to know that hey, you can (represent) the Philippines even if you live abroad and play abroad, that potentially, you can play for the national team could be a possibility.”
The 29-year-old former Dartmouth College and Wagner College stalwart saw action for the Philippines back in 2015, when the country was promoted to the top division of the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup following a historic run.
“I’m so happy now that it has gotten more mainstream and that’s exciting for me to see the younger generation stepping up that way,” Roman added.
With the help of Fil-Am Nation, a group spearheaded by coach Cris Gopez dedicated to recognizing Filipino heritage athletes across all sports overseas, and the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP), which has been conducting tryouts abroad consistently, an influx of talents has been noticeable in recent years for Gilas Women.
Among them were members of the 2021 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games’ gold medal-winning group -- Ella Fajardo (Fairleigh Dickinson University), Stefanie Berberabe (Westmont College), and Gabi Bade (California State University Sacramento/University at Buffalo).
Back in 2019, head coach Patrick Aquino also brought in Kelli Hayes of University of California Los Angeles to be part of the Gilas Women lineup.
Recently making waves are Vanessa De Jesus of Duke University, and Mai Loni Henson, who played collegiate hoops for the University of Washington Huskies and is now in the French professional circuit.
“I’m really glad that people are starting to take notice of the talent that we have, and that we are stepping into those roles. I’m really proud,” Roman continued, adding she sees something unique about female players of Filipino descent.
“There’s a little something different about Pinays that play ball, that just stands out to me outside of everyone else.”
Except for De Jesus and Hayes, all Fil-foreigners are currently part of the 24-woman selection submitted by Aquino to the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) for the upcoming 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia in May where the Philippines vies for the gold medal three-peat in the 5-on-5 event.
Youngsters who suited up in the FIBA Asia U18 Women’s Championship -- Louna Ozar, Kristan Yumul, and Kate Bobadilla – were also included.
Roman is one of the names vying for roster spots, marking her return to the pool after eight years.
“I hit up coach because I knew he was in the States. I told him I really wanted to play again, and that I would be training up until I came back here to prepare myself for this. He said, yes, comeback, there are going to be tryouts until they solidify their 12-woman team,” she shared.
The 5-foot-7 guard said she wanted to play for Gilas Women again as early as in 2017, but unfortunately tore her ACL during her graduate year for the Seahawks.
“I honestly have been wanting to come back for a while. It kind of got delayed because of working for the NBA which I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, and also the pandemic which delayed a lot of things,” she shared.
An academic standout herself, Roman was able to pursue the career of a lifetime when she was hired as a social content publisher for the NBA in 2017. In her three-year stay with the world’s premier league, she specialized in curating and producing content for the social and digital platforms of both the NBA and WNBA.
A rendezvous with Aquino, who regularly visits the United States for Gilas Women tryouts, allowed Roman to reconnect and finally rejoin the squad after a long wait.
“So I’m here every day trying to grind it out and taking each day as if it’s my last practice, and really trying to make that squad,” she added.
Roman currently resides in San Juan with her family. Determined to make the final roster, she said she feels more efficient and wiser on the court given her experience.
“It's all mental. It’s all a mindset. Every day, I got to come in here knowing that I’ve had this experience before. It gives me confidence. I’ve played Division 1 basketball, I have a lot of basketball experience, and also years of life that translates to the court,” she relayed.
Whether or not Roman gets the call-up, to see the sport flourish locally side by side with the men's game is already a meaningful takeaway -- with her helping pave the way for the next generation.
"I have a lot of pride for Pinoys playing basketball, especially female basketball players," she said.