WPBL: SLAM BANG REVIVAL, NEW HOOPS HEROINES
By Joseph w. Buduan
(January 7, 2009)
A basketball movement has been revived in the country, and as usual it was the Philippine Basketball League that was instrumental in making it happen. Late 2008 saw the return of the Women’s PBL, a league that went on hiatus for a good 10 years or so. In the recently concluded WPBL Cup, a lot of hardcore hoops fanatics got a taste of the women’s game in the mainstream for the first time.
“We really wanted to attract attention to the women’s game, to get as many of the women players out there a chance to show their game,” said Albert Tirona in a cable television interview at the start of the WPBL conference. Indeed, the WPBL showcased a lot of talent perhaps not yet well known to the general basketball public. “It was also our way of helping develop women’s basketball in our country in general,” added Tirona.
Organizing the teams that featured the core of the best women’s collegiate basketball teams in the country was a brilliant strategic move on the part of the WPBL. It saved a lot in terms of overall organization, familiarization and gelling on the part of the respective teams. Starting teams from scratch would have made it a whole lot more difficult. Basketball after all is a team sport that puts a premium on how well the individual players and the coaches can come together and be competitive.
Arguably the biggest star of the recently concluded WPBL tournament was conference MVP Marichu Bacaro, the spitfire guard from the Santo Tomas Tigresses. Bacaro led the Ever Bilena Gandang Pinay to the title, giving the Patrick Aquino-mentored squad a rare grand slam. Ever Bilena won the first two editions of the WPBL 10 years ago making the 2008 crown their third straight. “This is really a very special championship for us, a grand slam is very rare, especially since this was 10 years in the making,” declared Dioceldo Sy, the very affable former PBL Chairman and the team owner of Ever Bilena. “I am very happy that the WPBL was revived,” he added during a post-championship interview at the Guadalupe Viejo sports complex.
Bacaro however was not the only star of the tournament. Smart Buddy, featuring the core of the UP Lady Maroons, gave the Gandang Pinay all they could handle in the Finals. Sai Sadorra and RP Team center Fatima Tolentino, were the 1-2 combination for head coach Eric Castro. They joined Bacarro on the Mythical 5 Selection. Sadorra, the lovely and long-limbed forward, showed her versatility playing as many as four positions all throughout the tournament. Tolentino on the other hand was a force underneath with her relentless rebounding and low post scoring. Both Sadorra and Tolentino were among the statistical leaders of the WPBL in both scoring and rebounding. More than the numbers though, they provided leadership in tough game situations for Smart Buddy.
Also on the Mythical 5 Selection was Nutri-C Ateneo center Cassandra Tioseco, a two-time UAAP champion and most valuable player. She was the tournament leader in rebounds and blocks. Tioseco was also hands-down the crowd darling, towering literally at 6-feet tall and ruling the low blocks with a unique combination of power and agility. That she often showed up before games dressed in glamorous corporate wear and changing into trendy casual wear after games made her the unofficial “crush ng bayan” at all the venues. She was often mistaken as just another pretty face to those unfamiliar with her until they would see her leading the round robin for Nutri-C. She was also very accommodating to the press photographers giving them the model’s pose even while getting her feet taped.
Rounding out the Mythical 5 is prized recruit Aiumi Ono from Cebu. Before the WPBL very few people had heard of the 5-foot-4 swingman who did everything at a high level. Brought in by Ever Bilena assistant coach Julie Amos, Ono quickly showed everyone that the pretty lass from the countryside had more than enough game for the big city, outplaying even the best of the varsity stars. She provided the critical points in Game 1 that allowed the Gandang Pinay to get that critical first win of the best 2-out of-3 series. When she wasn’t scoring she was usually defending the best player on the opposing team and also crashing the boards.
Two national teams also took part in the elimination rounds of the tournament. Coach Haydee Ong’s Elite Senior Team and Coach Mon Celis’ Girls’ Team got valuable tournament play against some of the toughest teams around. Perhaps not too well known is that the women on Ong’s Elite Team also played double duty with their mother teams. Tioseco and Tolentino are just two examples. Lyceum Muscle Tape superstar April Tolentino, St Benilde Oracare mainstay Leonette Salvacion and FEU Oracle veteran Chovi Borja were among those who pulled double duty for flag, school and hoops.
There were times when some of the women would be playing back to back games for their mother team and then the Elite Team. On one game day at the Lyceum Gymnasium in Manila, Tioseco had just battled Salvacion tooth and nail in a Nutri-C – Oracare game and the two simply changed into their national team uniforms to go up against Lasalle Sunkist Orange right after their tussle. From slamming each other in the low blocks they went to setting screens for each other as teammates.
Players weren’t the only ones who pulled double duty though as Ong herself coached both the Elite Team and Nutri-C. When the two teams went up against each other though she stayed put with Nutri-C while her assistant Ron Camara handled the national team. “OK lang naman na maglaro ang girls for both the RP Team and their mother teams, they’re still young and they can handle it,” Ong said with a little laugh in one interview at the FEU Gym in Manila. “Buti nga there is now a WPBL na ulit so we could get exposure and good competition as part of our preparations,” she added. Indeed their WPBL stint led to a championship last December at a Southeast Asian international tournament in Singapore. Ong feels confident of the team’s chances in this year’s SEA Games.
For the Girls’ Team of Celis it was an opportunity to go up against bigger, stronger and more mature competition. They took a lot of hits from the more veteran players but they hung tough and gained valuable lessons. “Maganda din na may ganitong exposure and mga bata, because the competition here is almost like international competition in terms of the strength and size of players,” he said in one interview. Celis and his team figured in a controversial loss in the 2008 FIBA regional qualifier late last year won by Malaysia. “Babawi tayo,” he just added with a sure smile when asked about that loss.
Of course the superstars, the award winners and the national teams were not the only ones who caught attention in the WPBL. Fans were also excited with the likes of Oracare’s Julie Ann Paras, Nutri-C’s Treena Limgenco and Saki Del Rosario, Sunkist’s Kristine Prado and Amina Dimaporo, Machiko Matsuno and Jessica Polindey of Muscle Tape. From the two national teams there were Aurora Adriano and Diane Jose, and Kat Sandel and Joan Leviste. All of these players were combinations of both baller and beauty that won over the crowd and steadily attracted more and more fans to come and watch the WPBL live.
“We hope we can attract more women players out there to try out and play for the WPBL,” said PBL Chair and FEU Oracle team patron Dr. Mikee Romero during one interview at the Ynares Sports Center in Pasig. “Biruin mo marami pala talagang magagaling na players na dito natin madi-discover sa WPBL. Sana mga magtuloy-tuloy tayo,” he added.
All told it was indeed a grand revival of a league that hopefully will become a permanent institution in the country’s unfolding basketball story.