Big Heart. Big Dreams.
by Rick Olivares
by Rick Olivares
It’s a none too fancy press conference for the Philippine Women’s Basketball team at Dulcinea along the restaurant row that is Tomas Morato in Quezon City. But the 14-strong team and their coach Fritz Gaston are grateful for every bit of help that comes their way.
“As you can see, we’re trying to build something beautiful along the way,” said the be-medaled former Ateneo and Philippine Basketball Association star. “We are definitely on to something. In fact people are looking into the possibility of a pro league for women. And these girls are the right ones to make the sport popular here in the country.”
While Gaston was sharing his views on why it’s a welcome and nice change to be coaching women instead of men with other guests, his players seated on the adjacent table gushed and smiled at a picture that veteran photographer Tony Lu circulated among the them. It was a picture of Gaston dating back to his days with the Crispa Redmanizers back in his Philippine Basketball Association years in the early 1980’s (he wrapped up a successful four-year stint with Tommy Manotoc’s giant-killing U-Tex Wranglers prior to the move). When he wheeled around to check on his wards, national team mainstay AJ Adriano laughed, “Okay sa shorts, coach.”
Despite the light mood at the press con, everyone knows the game is serious business. Fresh from a silver medal finish in the SEABA Games in Phuket, Thailand, the RP-Cebuana team, as they are known, have been working on their conditioning and their game in preparation for the 24th Southeast Asian games in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. If teams took them lightly in Phuket, they sure won’t for Nakhon Ratchasima.
“Thailand immediately scheduled us for their first match so we can’t scout them,” related Gaston. “But it works both ways. They can’t scout our reinforcements either.”
In the last SEABA, the team played for a grueling six straight days. “I don’t think I’ve ever played competitively for six straight days back in college (with Maryland) or in the pros (in Australia with the Sydney Flames),” said Vicki Brick, the team’s secret weapon in Phuket. “The last time around, we had like seven or eight days to blend, but now the team is more familiar with one another, better conditioned, and better prepared. But we still have to find how to integrate MJ and Amira (Melissa Jacob and Amira Issa; the team’s Fil-Am reinforcements). It’s all going to boil down to execution.”
Bucking a mild back injury that has kept her from going full throttle, Jacob was optimistic about throwing her weight around, “I’m in the learning process. I’m getting to know everyone’s sweet spots on the floor. Hopefully I can contribute in anyway possible.”
The SEA Games will have only have a four team field as other countries have backed out of the competition so every game is critical. A loss can immediately jeopardize one’s medal hopes. When asked of the team can win SEA Games gold, Brick deadpanned, “Heck, I dream about it every night.”
The RP team although not yet trimmed down to its 12-member roster, will be leaving for China this coming Monday, November 26 to train. There they will be playing a combination of youth, college, and military teams as part of their preparations for the SEA Games. The team will be back on home soil on December 2nd and depart with the rest of Philippine delegation on the 5th.
The team pool is composed of Joan Grajales, Emelia Vega, Adriano, Pixie Valencia, Diane Jose, Mae Narciza, Chiko Matsuno, Fats Tolentino, Tin Chua, Pipay Villanueva, Cassy Tioseco, Brick, Jacob, and Issa.
Considering the lack of popularity of women’s basketball in the country, every member of the team immediately jumped at the opportunity to play for flag and country. Pipay Villanueva quit her job just to play. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. Not everyone gets to do this,” said the former Ateneo Lady Eagle who was a part of the school’s team that won its first ever UAAP Women’s title in 2005.
Grajales, who played for the University of Iloilo and has been with the team since 2003, was clearly excited about this team’s chances. “Sa palagay ko, ito na yung pinakamalakas na team na kasama ako. Sana tuloy tuloy na.”
Summed up Gaston, “We have the skills to compete. The other teams –like Thailand have been around for about four years now. In fact, they’ve been in training for the last eight months just for SEA Games gold. But I’ll say this, this team has got a big heart. And any day, give me players with big hearts and I’ll show you what we can do.”
Side story: The UAAP throws in its support
The press conference was sponsored in part by the UAAP. “For the last 15 years, the UAAP has been sending athletes and teams to compete in the World University Games,” said Ateneo’s Jun Jun Capistrano. “Since we have a lot of our players on the women’s national team, we really wanted to support them.”
And the show of support has come in from gracious individuals and corporations like Manny Pangilinan, Pato Gregorio and the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas, Alex Wang, Cynthia Tiu, Robin Tong, Cebuana Lhuillier, Burlington, Nike, Gatorade, Petron, and Victory Liner among others.
“We are definitely happy about the support we’re getting,” said Gaston. “Like I said, every little bit counts and they know we’re onto something good here.”
Should the collegiate Champions League be the premier college competition in the land?
Yes. But the SBP should heavily promote and sanction it. 36 votes.
No. The UAAP & NCAA are the better leagues and don't need any other league to steal their thunder. 17 votes.