WNBL: Turning pro is 'dream come true' for Filipina players

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 02 2020 06:20 PM

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Gilas Pilipinas Women's star Afril Bernardino (3) played for Cleon and Clyde in the first season of the WNBL. Photo courtesy of the NBL-Pilipinas Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines -- Filipina players had one response to the news that the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL) has been given the approval to turn professional -- "finally."

For the country's female basketball players, this is a development that has been a longtime coming. For years, they have sought for a venue to showcase their talent once their collegiate days are over. For some, that platform came in other countries, with players like Allana Lim, Afril Bernardino and most recently, Jack Animam plying their trades as imports in foreign leagues, for lack of opportunities at home.

With the WNBL now a professional league, however, the Filipina players finally have what they have long sought after. 

"Finally," says former Ateneo de Manila University guard Trina Guytingco, of her response to the WNBL news. 

"Finally, because there's so much talent in the Philippines, and I believe that we have so much to offer, so much to show, so much to approve," added the host of the "So She Did" podcast, during a recent episode where they featured the organizers of the league.

"And finally, we have a chance to show the Philippines what Filipina ballers can do," she added.

"I think it's a dream come true for all of us female ballers," said former University of the Philippines star Bea Daez, for her part.

 

Protecting players

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The Philippine Air Force Lady Air Defenders ruled the first season of the WNBL. Photo courtesy of the NBL-Pilipinas Facebook page

The WNBL was founded in 2019, with seven teams participating in its inaugural season. The Philippine Air Force Lady Air Defenders won the inaugural title. A second season was planned but wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

By going pro, the WNBL is raising the stakes. They are making a genuine investment in women's basketball in the Philippines, with the league's founders determined to elevate the sport's profile in the country while giving the players a livelihood. 

Rhose Montreal, the executive vice president of the NBL, points out that there are plenty of recreational and amateur leagues for women in the country, but the way they run the WNBL will be different. She recalled being told by some players that they had to pay for their own jerseys, and their games were barely promoted on TV and on social media. 

She said that in professionalizing the league, the players will be "protected."

"Allowances and the per game (payment), it won't be implemented anymore in the WNBL. Everybody, all the players will be getting a contract. They will be protected by a contract, they have to be paid a salary," she explained.

"Once you say 'professional,' you have to get a salary already. It cannot be a per game payment or a per practice thing anymore, or allowances," she added. "Basically, it's really professionalizing the league management, and professionalizing running the team."

The Filipina players are welcoming the bigger spotlight that the WNBL will give them. For many of these athletes, it's an opportunity they have long waited for, and they are ready to embrace it.

"There have been a lot of attempts to make women's basketball big in the country," noted former Ateneo center Danica Jose. "For example, in the UAAP, whenever the Final 4 starts, leading up to the Finals, ABS-CBN would cover and broadcast the games."

"But we need to have some sort of continuity, so that a lot of people will see the story behind women's basketball," she stressed.

PBA Women's 3x3

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In 2015, the PBA held a 3x3 tournament for women, but it would soon run into controversy. PBA Media Bureau

As excited as the players are, they are also somewhat wary -- and understandably so. After all, this is not the first time that a women's basketball league has been thrust into the spotlight.

In 2015, the PBA made a first attempt to highlight Filipina players with a 3x3 tournament, usually played during the halftime of regular games. Unfortunately, the PBA Women's 3x3 became notorious after it was reported that the Filipina players were subject to questionable rules -- including not being allowed to have "boy cut" hairdos.

Montreal promised that the WNBL will give their players the freedom to present themselves the way they want, and will not police their looks. When the WNBL was granted its professional license by GAB, she said that the league will sell the players' skills, and not their skin.

"We don't care what your gender preferences are, we don't care whether you want to wear longer shorts, we don't care whether you have a boys' haircut or something to that effect," she also said during the "So She Did" podcast, while warning that the WNBL will be "very physical."

It's a promising start for the league, which also features a female commissioner in former Emilio Aguinaldo College hooper Bujoy Magno. The WNBL's potential players are just hopeful that they can continue to deliver on that promise.

"I hope that this league will be very much sustainable," said Jose. "It really opened a lot of doors to Filipina ballers, now that the league is here."