Chris Ross alighted from the podium to celebrate with the Philippine women’s basketball team during the awarding ceremony before a packed crowd at Mall of Asia Arena.
The Filipino women had always taken the back seat to their ever-popular male counterparts. But on Tuesday night, the two squads got to share the stage after completing a golden sweep of basketball competitions in the 30th Southeast Asian Games.
The Philippines expectedly cruised its way to a 13th consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball, while the women’s team, playing with a chip on its shoulder, took down all three back-to-back SEA Games medalists to win a historic gold.
“I think that’s the story today. I think the women winning the gold is really the story today, not us,” national team coach Tim Cone told Inquirer.net after steering Gilas Pilipinas to a 115-81 romp of Thailand in the men’s final.
“It’s a shame that like coach Tim had mentioned, that they don’t really get the recognition that we do—but they work just as hard as we do and those girls put in the time and those girls are out there fighting and trying to get better every day. So I just wanted to put a smile on their face and just let them know that I was there with them,” said Ross, one of eight first-time SEA Games gold medalists on the men’s team.
Unlike the men’s team, which was a cinch to win the gold medal, the odds were stacked against the cagebelles, who were coming off successive fourth-place finishes in 2015 and 2017.
“We were overwhelmingly expected [to win it], but the women winning it is just fantastic. It’s just great for the country, great for women’s basketball, people are excited about it,” Cone said.
“It was just a big surprise first, having to beat Malaysia and then turn around and having to beat Thailand, both having been gold-medal winners. So I think it’s just awesome. I think it should be talked about more, even more than us winning.”
Before every victory is adversity, and the Gilas women encountered plenty of it.
“For the past two SEA Games, we were always one game away from getting that gold, but now we didn’t let that happen again and we got it, we finished the job,” said center Jack Animam, whose near-flawless performance of 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field led her team in a 91-71 rout of Thailand in the gold medal match.
Winning the gold in 3×3 and 5-on-5 competitions is just striking out one number off Gilas women coach Pat Aquino’s bucket list for women’s basketball in the country.
In 2015, Aquino was tapped to take over the women’s team from Haydee Ong, who guided the squad to a pair of SEA Games silver medals in 2011 and 2013, and one of his goals is for female players to gain more exposure and eventually have their own stage to play in after their collegiate careers.
“Well, that’s the dream I want. Now that I’m the program director for women’s basketball, I really want women’s basketball to grow. Hopefully, a sponsor will come in next year and help us out to have a league of their own,” he said.
“I think they’ll be proud of it. These girls really work hard, no prima donna. They’re gonna play as hard as they can. As you saw earlier, they really dove for the ball, really fought on defense, fought for that box out or rebound. Hopefully, that dream of mine continues,” Aquino added.
“I always think that sport empowers women, I love to see women in sports. My wife is a marathoner, and so I’ve always been a big believer of women in sports,” Cone said. “The fact that they did it now is going to, I think, turn on the country to women’s basketball. And there’s just so much room to grow. I think that we can be a force in Asia, not just Southeast Asia.
“It’s just nice to see everybody get so excited about it.”
Ross took out his phone and focused it on the country’s basketball heroines.
“Just like what they all say, game recognizes game, so I think this is really it. They’re now starting to appreciate us,” Animam said. “We’re players from college teams, and everyone looks up to them because they’re PBA players. But making history with them (Gilas men) is just such a great feeling that they’re starting to appreciate us. Even coach Tim Cone.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.