Ball so hard they can’t ignore us

The sound of the buzzer marked the start of a new era: the Philippines’ first ever gold medal for women’s basketball in the 2019 SEA Games. Gilas Pilipinas linked arms in a circle in the middle of the court. They hugged each other. They cried. We’ve seen these moments before in a highlight reel of any champion team, but this is no ordinary medal. Even by the standard of first medals, this carries a different shine.

The weight of their historic achievement can only be felt when you understand the past they overcame. In the post-game press conference, Coach Patrick Aquino alluded to the struggles of women’s basketball in the Philippines: “Sana ngayon mapansin niyo na kami.”

The story of Gilas Pilipinas is the story of female ballers all over the country. It’s a story that will be familiar even to women who have never played. It’s easy to congratulate women for the medal, but they’ve been breaking barriers even before they stepped onto the court.

Jack Animam missed out on the sixth straight championship of the NU Lady Bulldogs this year after suffering an orbital fracture while repping Gilas in New Zealand. She more than made up for lost time in the SEA Games, winning gold in 3×3 and 5×5 Basketball.

The beauty of Jack’s game is in her intelligence. It’s the little things that feed into one another: she knew exactly when to help and when to get back, and that made the whole team better. She was everywhere on the court.

Around this time last year, Jack was crying at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup. “Walang suporta para sa women’s basketball,” she said, calling out the disparity in youth development and opportunities to play for boys and girls.

This is personal for Jack—she almost never played basketball because of Filipino gender norms that see the sport as “panlalaki.” She didn’t question these norms because she didn’t see women’s basketball on TV, and she picked up a ball for the first time in high school. Since that day at the World Cup, she has evolved into a vocal ambassador for female ballers, encouraging girls to try the sport.

“Sana huwag silang mabulag kagaya ko at isipin na panlalaki lang ang basketball. Dahil sa basketball, nakapag-aral ako sa magandang school, nakapunta sa iba’t ibang bansa,” Jack told me on the “Go Hard Girls” podcast. “Kaya huwag kayong magpapatalo sa stereotypes o anumang discrimination. Do what you love.”

Jack is the face of the women’s national team, but she is also the culmination of the work of countless women before her. Many of those women didn’t have the opportunity to be as vocal as her; for many, equality wasn’t even up for discussion.

I remember something former national team member Bea Daez told me in 2016. She said one of her personal breakthroughs was overcoming the idea that female ballers needed to present as feminine to deserve support. All signs in local media pointed to an idea that they had to wear shorter shorts, put on makeup, trick men into watching their games. It was so ingrained, she said, that it took her teammates telling her, “Ate, ganito talaga ako. Hindi ko mababago kung sino ako,” before she realized it wasn’t her teammates who needed to change but the system.

This is true for the men who choose to stand with women, as well. Coach Patrick Aquino has gotten offers to coach for men’s UAAP teams, even PBA teams. But in a roundtable discussion at a “Go Hard Girls” event, he explained why he says: “I want to prove a point and do something good for the women’s program.”

Before Jack, the women of the WPBL struggled to keep their league afloat. In 2016, the PBA launched a 3×3 competition called “Baller Hotties” and released marketing materials asking the girls to describe their sleeping positions and ideal boyfriends. Several national team members balked at joining the competition because of rules forbidding short hair and long shorts.

The team that won our first gold medal wore whatever shorts they wanted. Janine Pontejos rained down 11 points in the first quarter with a haircut the PBA would have rejected. The incredible Afril Bernardino, who had to play as an import in foreign leagues because the Philippines doesn’t have a pro league for women, went viral from their penultimate game after logging 18 points, 18 rebounds, three blocks and three steals.

The women of Gilas Pilipinas are the fulfilled dream of the women who spoke of their hopes in whispers, the athletes and coaches who played to empty arenas, the few sponsors who kept investing simply because they believed, and everyone who endured indignity after indignity with the help of Coach Pat’s words: “Ilaro mo lang. Makikita din nila.” Ball so hard, they can’t ignore you anymore.

The most exciting thing about their gold medal win is that while this is a culmination, it can also be the fresh start. The generation of female ballers that follows this team will believe in more possibilities.

Barring the SEA Games, women’s basketball is televised a precious two times a year—only the UAAP finals, which means most people don’t know these women. They don’t know about Jack’s double-doubles with NU, they don’t know that Ria Nabalan’s assertiveness with the ball is only matched by how soft-spoken she is outside the court, let alone that Gilas Pilipinas assistant coach Julie Amos was the best three-point shooter on Ever Bilena’s WPBL team in the 1990s.

You could meet a self-proclaimed basketball fan who could rattle off Thirdy Ravena’s stats, go on about June Mar Fajardo’s viability on the international stage, follow ten Lakers fan accounts, but draw a blank when you mention women. You could meet a longtime sports commentator who can’t even keep their names straight, to say nothing of understanding structural inequality.

But let me tell you who showed up for Gilas Pilipinas Women.

It’s girls like 11-year-old Gracie Reyes, one of only seven girls among hundreds of boys in this year’s Batang PBA camp. It’s 16-year-old Ella Fajardo, FIBA U18 Asia Cup bronze medalist, who follows the news all the way from New Jersey. It’s Nicole Pulido, a DLSU student who watches UAAP women’s games regardless of who’s playing, and was cheering from the upper box. It’s Girls Got Game managing director Mariana Lopa, who threw a viewing party at home; it’s SLAM’s own Val Chua who started tweeting at the WNBA asking for a tryout for Afril. It’s the thousands of people who tuned in to a single livestream.

Next time someone tells you there isn’t a market for women’s basketball, tell them we’re here. Tell them we’re growing every day. They just aren’t looking hard enough.

Camille Clarin, who herself made history in the FIBA U18 Asia Cup, came to support her friends—her big sisters—on Gilas Pilipinas. She stuck her tongue out and pointed to the words on her shirt: “Women don’t owe you shit.”

That’s the next generation right there. Our girls don’t need another man to tell us, “That’s just how it is.” Our female ballers don’t want to hear, “Maybe in ten years,” because in ten years, their playing years will be over. The question is, and should have always been: If this is how it is, what do we do to change it?

So let’s have that conversation about how female ballers are represented in the media. Let’s talk about what it takes to build a pro league for women. Let’s stop assuming that what worked for men will work for women, that the market for men’s basketball is identical to that of women’s basketball. Ask women what we want, ask us what our ideas are, and let’s go from there. Gilas Pilipinas broke barriers but it’s up to us to keep moving forward.

We are emboldened by the sacrifices of those who came before us. Gilas Pilipinas didn’t just take home a medal. They built a legacy. They didn’t just give us a win. They gave us hope.

Women have always been self-starters. Tell us we can’t vote, and we take to the streets. Tell us a woman’s place is at home, and we juggle motherhood with thriving careers. Tell us basketball is man’s game, and we overcome.