She is her: Gilas Women’s mission in SEA Games is more than just gold
Two Southeast Asian Games gold medals later, the Gilas Pilipinas women’s team still plays like a team on a mission.
“We still want to prove ourselves,” team captain Janine Pontejos told the Inquirer recently.
Prove what exactly?
That they are exactly where they belong, reigning as “queens of Southeast Asia,” Jack Animam said. That they are a testament to the basketball court being a woman’s playground too. That they deserve a whole lot more love and support in a country that supposedly reveres the sport to religious heights.
“You know we’re working really, really hard—as hard, if not more, as any other team here in the Philippines. We’ve shown time and time again that we deserve to be supported,” guard Ella Fajardo said.
The team will fly to Cambodia looking for a third straight SEA Games basketball crown and proof that the country hasn’t fully embraced the squad yet is that the basketball news cycle is still going crazy over the inability of the men’s squad to hold practices with a complete pool.
That puts an added responsibility on the shoulders of the Gilas women.
And it is a responsibility that Afril Bernardino embraces more than wholeheartedly.
“One of the questions I always get asked is why I continue to play; why I continue to fight,” the 27-year-old veteran forward said.
“There’s my family and God, of course,” added Bernardino, one of the most skillfully gifted players on the team. “But I really want to build basketball for women. I want to do this for women. I really believe basketball isn’t just for men. That’s why we keep trying to prove ourselves. That’s where I draw my strength, from that belief that basketball isn’t just for men, but also for women.”
That goal goes hand-in-hand with the team trying to keep the country at the top of the region.
As long as the women keep ruling the SEA Games, they keep their relevance high. In 2019, when the team won the gold on the same night the men also triumphed, then national coach Tim Cone said: “[The women] are the story tonight, not us.”
For a program that has experienced languishing outside of the podium so recently that some of the members of the team had lived through it, it is understandable that the women want to remain the story.
“This group is so special,” Jack Animam, the team’s top gun, said. “We saw the program from [its] lowest and we’re so happy to be here. [And now that] we’re already here … we want more.”
“Like one of our seniors told us, we’re already here. Let’s not fall back to the bottom because it is a burden emotionally [to return to losing]. So let’s work hard [to retain our position],” center Clare Castro said.
“I’ve been there (during the losing years),” Bernardino added. “I was with the team in 2015, and it hurt a lot, all the losses in the SEA Games. In 2017, same thing. But in 2019, that’s when we built our courage to fight and make sure we no longer feel that kind of hurt. I don’t want to feel that hurt anymore. That’s why I always give it everything I have and encourage the team that we need to have a single outlook.”
That’s why, too, there’s an added hunger within the team to remain champions.
“We want to keep it that way (being on top). It’s not just for us. It’s for the basketball community in the Philippines, especially the next generation,” Animam said.
Like all noble intentions, however, winning a third straight gold—and propping women’s basketball in the process—will not be easy. There will be no shortage of teams in Cambodia looking to tear down the Filipinos.
“I told them every game is going to be a championship game,” said coach Pat Aquino, one of the most brilliant tacticians in the country today.
Aquino said the Philippines’ rivals have been playing in a commercial league of sorts as part of preparations to knock the crown off the Gilas women’s head.
“They’ve been playing almost six months already just to prepare for the Southeast Asian Games,” Aquino said of the tournament participated in by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
Unable to join the tournament, the Gilas women’s program resorted to other ways to whip the national team in shape—they scrimmaged against boys’ teams, including those from powerhouse high school programs like Xavier.
“They’re more competitive in general. They’re more aggressive,” guard Jhazmin Joson, a young standout from Ateneo, said. “They play better so we learn more when we play with boys.”
The games against the boys were played at Aero Center basketball gym in Quezon City. The team practices there for free courtesy of former La Salle Green Archer Lincoln Lim, one of those behind-the-scenes supporters of the women’s squad that, according to Aquino, “give what they can to support the program.”
Indonesia has also beefed up its program, retaining Canadian-Haitian Kim-Pierre Louis as its naturalized player and setting up camp in Australia. Malaysia, Aquino said, has a new coach and a new system while Thailand has kept a young crew together for a long time.
But having come from the bottom has given the Philippines a unique perspective on its title rivals.
“Since the beginning, we’ve always been the underdogs so we know how these other teams feel,” said Fajardo, a product of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “It’s almost like we had that nothing to lose mentality so we already know what to expect, we already know how the emotions are.
“Me and a couple of the rookies from last year already know how the SEA Games goes. I think we have enough experience even emotionally so I think that really helps us.”
That experience has steeled the Filipinos for whatever the opposition will throw at them.
“I know that it’s not going to be easy. Our opponents are not just going to roll [over] and die,” Animam said. “It’s going to be a dogfight and we will fight for it and prove that we’re now the queens of Southeast Asia.”
“We’re ready,” Bernardino added. “The excitement is there. Pressure? Of course, we’re back-to-back [champions] and this [SEA Games], there will be pressure [to defend the title]. But our togetherness is there. [We remind ourselves] not to be defeated by the pressure and instead, help each other out to get the gold.”
What they don’t need a reminder of is the other onus they bear. It’s something even program newcomers like Joson are very much aware of.
“There is that responsibility, especially to the ones who are watching Gilas, the younger generation,” Joson said. “This group of players, we try to set an example that we’re not just girls who play basketball. We’re trying to prove to everyone that we can also play the sport—to show the younger ones that anything is possible.”
Inquirer’s special coverage of the Cambodia SEA Games 2023.