By Levi Verora

While in the middle of news surrounding the CJ Cansino-UST controversy shitshow circus and the PBA’s planned “bubble,” the Philippine basketball community finally received some good news.

The Games and Amusements Board (GAB) approved the professional status of the National Basketball League here in the Philippines, a regional hoops competition that is essentially the third-tier league behind the PBA and Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL).

And since the NBL is the only league with a women’s basketball competition as well, that means we just welcomed the first-ever official pro-basketball competition for the ladies.

AIN’T THAT BIG NEWS?

I’ve long campaigned for this since the early parts of the previous decade: having legitimate pro-basketball competition is the only way the Philippines can advance in the women’s basketball department like their male counterparts.

When Gilas Pilipinas embarked on a memorable journey that saw them make the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the women’s national team, then called Perlas-Pilipinas, showed how much the program was lacking.

I can still recall how they would practice inside a deteriorated Rizal Memorial Coliseum. But when that same venue was being used by the PLDT-sponsored volleyball teams at the time, they were forced to rent different venues like the Ronac Gym, and the Makati Coliseum.

That’s a stark contrast to Gilas’ support with an abundance of sponsorships pouring in and the team being of utmost importance in media and TV coverage.

Perlas Pilipinas? Nothing. Breadcrumbs. Nadah. Not even a personal strength and conditioning trainer or a competitive naturalized player.

You can argue that the Philippines, supposedly a “basketball-loving country” wherein the sport is considered a religion, only patronizes men’s basketball specifically.

The only attempt by the PBA to even introduce a women’s league, an idea openly considered by then Board of Governors chairman Mon Segismundo of the Meralco Bolts, failed miserably.

The PBA introduced a 3×3 league, but women didn’t get that much attention. Games ran during halftime where fans didn’t really bother watching. Women were forced to wear shorter shorts than they preferred, and short haircuts were even banned.

Worse: Baller Hotties. An attempt to market the league by featuring players based on their looks instead of skills, drew criticism from the community.

This happened in spite of the national team, under new head coach Pat Aquino, moved to Division 1 of the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup where they joined the elites of the continent like Japan and China, and eventually Australia.

But the national team has had their share of failures as well. After consistent podium finishes in the Southeast Asian Games, the squad failed to win a medal in the 2015 and 2017 stagings.

Such timing of events in the decade made the immediate future of the program look unclear. What’s next for Philippine women’s basketball?

We have long been lagging behind in the women’s game. We need not look far: China, Japan, and other contenders in Asia have their own leagues.

In Australia, the Opals have been more successful internationally. Even India has thrown in a lot of investment in the women’s game, consistently hosting FIBA competitions.

That’s India, a country where conservative patriarchy has made it difficult for women to find a place in society yet its feminist movement has fought hard for equality throughout the years.

Here? Almost nothing.

But during this era, if anything ever was impactful, it was that a basketball powerhouse was born: The National University Lady Bulldogs, a collegiate basketball varsity program full of support and hope that they could change the hoops landscape here forever.

Six titles later (and counting) and producing some of the best sports athletes the country has had in recent history like Afril Bernardino and Jack Danielle Animam, women’s basketball in the country was given a new image.

With NU’s greatness on the hardcourt came more coverage, more attention, and more support. Then, a ripple effect would just be felt.

The past decade was capped by a memorable double-gold medal finish by our Gilas Women in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games here.

That historic feat would put women’s basketball on the map for good. You can argue that the events of the last decade led us here.

Suddenly, more and more people are talking about women’s hoops. More fans are appreciating the game and the way players play (not just their looks).

The success of the national team was also key to finally popping the bubble (pun intended) women’s basketball has been in for so long.

Now, let’s focus on the WNBL. A league ran by the same officials who once handled the PBA 3×3 league has now turned pro, and they have changed it for good.

Just a few conferences after NBL’s birth, the WNBL was born. It gave a platform for players to showcase their talents in a bigger stage.

And true enough, all the best players in the country suited up: national team players, former UAAP, WNCAA, and NAASCU stars, and even members of the Navy, Air Force, and Army.

What’s ideal about the NBL format is that cities or provinces back the squads, which means support should be the least of priorities if sustainability is concerned.

Now, there are many things to process here and look at, from an individual player’s standpoint to a collective point of view.

What it means for the players turning pro is that they would have an opportunity to make basketball as their main form of living.

In a way, that might motivate youngsters to pursue basketball dreams since it is now a realistic possibility, although there are still a few other factors involved. At the very least, that should get more Filipinas getting started on basketball early in their lives.

Having a league that will run consistently for months gets these players in great shape and conditioning. That gives the national team a bigger pool to choose from and a final 12 that’s fit and ready for international competitions. 

While we’re at it, they should introduce imports soon to raise the competition bar even more. There have been a handful of foreign student-athletes at the collegiate level in both the UAAP, WNCAA, and NAASCU, so why not give them opportunities to continue playing post-college?

From a national awareness level, having a league around attracts more attention. Although it will start from the bottom, getting more people involved in the sport and aware of the idea that women’s basketball is a thing here, that should catapult us to greater heights.

That could also draw more Fil-foreigners joining the league, even if that is somehow contradictory to NBL’s “Tunay na Homegrown League” mindset.

Think of it like the Philippine Azkals’ rise to popularity and success in the last decade. What began as a “Miracle” in Hanoi during the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup led to success in the international stage just 8 years after.

The nation was able to reach the semi-finals of the ASEAN championship consistently. More support in terms of media coverage and sponsorships came in.

The country eventually hosted the AFF Suzuki Cup itself in 2016. More players came in to play because they knew of the possibility, and the Azkals just set records and won historic games. The PFF also introduced a new top tier professional league in the same period.

To top it all, the Azkals made the AFC Asian Cup, which is essentially the “World Cup” of the continent.

Perhaps their run could be replicated in women’s basketball as we have already had success in the ASEAN level as well as good local collegiate competitions in place.

With a pro league existing, the possibilities are endless. But it is also a matter of pushing the right buttons to be able to keep the momentum going and for the sport to be further recognized.

Women’s basketball getting the share of the limelight they deserve won’t be about the looks or “Baller Hotties” this time. What will make women’s basketball recognized is their greatness on the course, and looking at the roster of athletes available now, that should come easy.