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Where do old cagers go?

/ 02:23 AM March 09, 2015

Fifty years ago, 12 bright-eyed, excited Filipino girls headed for Seoul to play in the first women’s Asian Basketball Championship tournament. The men were already a dominant force in the region but the women had yet to test their skills against a then small field that had Japan, Chinese-Taipei, Malaysia and host South Korea.

Internet research failed to unearth who the members of the team were but a visit to the microfilm section of the Ateneo Rizal Library brought up a 1965 copy of the Manila Times (The Inquirer was yet to be born in the 1960s).

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I spotted a very small article that revealed the lineup of Coach Gabby Fajardo:

Enriqueta S. Hawkins, Dan Ruiz, Guillerma T. Magno, Elvira Rivera, Alma Rivera, Carmen Apostol, Edna Garovillas, Jane Cuenco, Alicia Juatco, Delia Lagroño, Lolita Lagrosas (yes, the track star) and the person who led me to this search, Rosario Bayona.

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I met Bayona a week ago in Kanlungan Ni Maria, a home for the elderly in Antipolo. My Ateneo events management class had a project where we treated the old folk to songs and impromptu dancing. During our simple merienda, one of the staff members told me that they had an athlete in the house that played in Korea on the first women’s basketball team.

I asked to meet her and upon doing so, Nanay Baby Bayona says, “I know you.” She’s a relatively healthy 74-year-old and she immediately recounts to me what happened in Korea.

“We beat Malaysia twice,” she recalled and my further scanning of the old newspapers revealed that the team won, 54-50 and 64-60. “But the others were too strong and taller.” The team was beaten badly by the three other participants and the lopsided scores showed the games were not even close.

She was known to her teammates as Cherry back then. She had gone to school in Far Eastern University and was 25 years old when she joined that maiden journey to Seoul. She still follows the game today and the PBA even made her a special guest on one playdate where she got to meet her favorite player, Mark Caguioa.

Like most people in these homes for the elderly, the memories of the past are cherished in worn-out photo albums made when people actually had photos printed.

Bayona has a special album dedicated to those days in Korea. She told me she was a sprightly point guard who loved to hustle, and the pictures show her doing layups against Asian opponents. We scan these memories away from the other elderly residents, as this was a moment she wanted to share with someone she could talk shop with.

Bayona is in this home by choice and has no bitterness about sports. She longs, though, for the days when she was actually working and earning, just as she had for the longest time in a printing press. For a former athlete, the ennui of a slower pace of life can indeed be a departure. But Cherry or Nanay Baby, plays on and lives by the rules of her current game of life.

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Women’s basketball simply needs a better shot in the arm, hopefully in the same way volleyball got its own healthy dose of television coverage and social media. For now, women’s hoops remain basically a college or school sport and the development of a truly competitive national team has been stalled since Bayona played for the country.

Maybe it’s about time we do a little more for women’s basketball so that the legacy of Cherry Bayona and her teammates will have a better, more competitive future.

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