Women's National Basketball League Gives Rise to Aspiring Pros in the Philippines

The WNBL's upcoming debut breaks barriers as the country's first-ever professional women's basketball league

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Filipina athletes from around the world said they hope the Philippines’ first-ever professional women’s basketball league is another step forward for women to continue to gain prominence in the country’s favorite sport.

More than 700 aspiring female basketball players in the Philippines applied to enter the inaugural draft for the Women’s National Basketball League, proving the excitement Filipina ballers have to build on the country’s momentum in the women’s game after the women’s national team won its first gold medals in 5x5 and 3x3 basketball at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

Camille Nolasco, a two-time Jr. NBA All-Star and a ninth grade student at Miriam College, a high school in Quezon City, says she’s seen widespread excitement for the new league on social media and is looking forward to seeing the women’s game gain more popularity.

“Hopefully the exposure for women's basketball doesn't just stop there,” she said.

A new opportunity for the Philippines’ favorite sport

Basketball is everywhere in the Philippines. The sport was first introduced to the Philippines by American colonizers in the early 20th century and gained more popularity after it was embedded in the physical education curriculum. It’s been a large part of the culture ever since.

Basketball is also a source of pride and community in the Philippines. It’s a way for families and friends to gather together and watch, play, and compete. Walk around any barangay — a village or district — and it’s common to find a crowd watching a pickup game.

Locals gather to play basketball and other games ahead of a neighborhood festival in January held at a basketball park in Binalbagan. The festival raised money for new basketball uniforms for the community’s students. Photo credit: Jacqueline LeBlanc

NBA teams and athletes are plastered on store walls, homes, and jeepneys, and the face of many advertisements. Filipino Artists have gone viral for full-court portraits of legends like Maya Moore and LeBron James, and Gianna and Kobe Bryant. NBA figures with Filipino heritage, including Erik Spoelstra and Jordan Clarkson, are celebrated by the media.

Nolasco started playing basketball when she was six years old. She would watch her dad and older brother play outside for hours until she eventually picked up a ball herself.

“My dad didn’t expect me to become a basketball player because I was the only girl in the family, but I'm the only one who really loves to play basketball,” she said. “Basketball runs in the blood for every Filipino, and basketball really makes me happy.”

Photo courtesy of Camille Nolasco (@camillenolascoo)

Nolasco admired professional athletes abroad like Bryant and Michael Jordan, but the player who inspired her most was a family friend who lived down the street.

“There is one girl ... she's my idol because she's the first girl that I saw playing basketball and she inspired me to be like her and I followed her footsteps,” Nolasco said. “She’s inspired me a lot because here in the Philippines, the exposure for women’s basketball is not that big yet. So when I started playing basketball, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I want to be like her.’ I’m happy that she helped me become who I am today.”

Until the WNBL, professional basketball was not a career option for women in the Philippines. There have been a few opportunities through amateur and semi-professional leagues such as the Women’s Phillippine Basketball League and the Pinay Ballers League, but neither lasted long.

The only avenue for women to play competitive basketball in the Philippines has been through the national team, which limits roster spots to the dozen or so best players in the country. Military service was the only stable career path where players could earn a salary while also representing the Army, Navy, or Air Force in minor leagues, as detailed by Filipina reporter Ceej Tantengco for the Go Hard Girls podcast.

“There are actually a lot of female ballers that can really ball. And just because of the lack of opportunity here, we don't get to really show our talents,” Nolasco said.

Nolasco has a long list of goals for her basketball career, including playing abroad in the WNBA. She’s not ruling out playing in the NCAA, but with the addition of the WNBL, she’s looking forward to seeing where the league takes women players in her home country.

“Finally we get to be able to show our talents to many people,” she said. “This is the very first big step for Philippine women's basketball.”

Reaching the big stage

Nolasco and other young Filipina players have had recent success in the U.S. and internationally that has brightened the spotlight on their skills.

A 5-foot-3 point guard, Nolasco has qualified to try out for the Jr. NBA’s Asia Pacific girls team twice, competing against 33 other girls from countries including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea. During the 2019 Asia Pacific selection camp, Nolasco impressed international coaches with her intelligence and shot-making ability and earned a spot on the 10-person roster to represent the region at the Jr. NBA Global Championship in Orlando, Florida.

She was one of four Filipinos to travel to Orlando in 2019 and the only girl from the Philippines to represent Asia Pacific in the tournament’s history. While her team didn’t make it far, Nolasco showed out as the team’s assist leader and was one of three leading scorers.

“I'm actually very thankful because I've experienced a lot in this journey,” she said. “I learned a lot from Jr. NBA, not just as a basketball player, but also as a person. … I gained friends from other countries, not just in Asia, but also from different continents like USA and Europe.”

Some of her other favorite Jr. NBA experiences include winning the girls three-point shooting contest in the World division and asking one of her basketball heroes, Kobe Bryant, a question for a Jr. NBA video.

“I didn't actually think that I was going to interview Kobe. I thought that I was going to interview someone like a college player here named Kobe and not Kobe Bryant,” she said.

Nolasco’s main goal, however, is representing the Philippines as part of Gilas Pilipinas Women, the national team, in international competition, a goal that most Filipina basketball talents aspire to reach.

Ella Fajardo won a bronze medal with the Gilas U18 team in 2019. She is a first-generation Filipino American and a senior at Gill St. Bernard’s School in New Jersey who has committed to Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Photo courtesy of Ella Fajardo (@ellafajardooo)

Like many Filipinos, basketball is part of her everyday life. She grew up spending almost every summer in the Philippines and would train at the Milo BEST Center, where she met Gilas assistant coach Julie Amos. The two kept in touch, and Amos encouraged Fajardo to try out for the U18 3x3 team last year, which she did on her 16th birthday.

Fajardo remembers the pride she felt when returning to the Philippines with a bronze medal from the FIBA Asia World Cup – and recognition from National University women’s basketball players, the country’s most dominant college basketball team, as well as media, kids, and other Filipina athletes.

“A lot of Filipina athletes, youth, were actually always (direct messaging) me or always (private messaging) me on Facebook, saying how much of an inspiration we were and that was kind of crazy,” Fajardo said. “I didn't really think of the impact in the moment, but right afterwards, it was immediately felt.”

Despite the women’s team’s recent successes, Fajardo says there is still an imbalance between how men’s and women’s basketball is treated in the country. She thinks the WNBL’s debut is the first step in fans recognizing the potential that women’s basketball has to offer.

“It's just really sad to see that people don't appreciate us as much as the men's (teams), but then again, my message to them is just try and watch us because you're gonna see how much you've missed. ... There (was) nothing to look forward to almost until the WNBL came along. Because that's something that is income and is really a stage for people to watch us play,” Fajardo said. “I'm just so thankful that it’s a relevant thing right now because it’s about time. … now we're making a change.”

Photo courtesy of Ella Fajardo (@ellafajardooo)

Vanessa de Jesus is another highly regarded Filipino American who is a freshman on the Duke Blue Devils women’s basketball team. She is the first Asian American to play for the program, and her status as a highly-recruited Division I player has spurred more excitement for the future of Filipina athletes in her parents’ native country.

“I just can't wait to see the future of all Asian players, all Filipino American players, like in college, professionally, or wherever that is,” de Jesus said. “I know that we're here, and now I can use my platform to express this and just show and start it off for us. Whatever it is, build off of it, which I'm excited to see it grow later on.”

Fajardo said she believes that she and de Jesus playing at the Division I level will raise the profile of young Filipina athletes. She hopes their representation will inspire others to achieve their dreams and play the sport they love.

“Right now, I think I'm just focusing on just really pushing them and assuring them that hard work does pay off,” she said.

Although her college career hasn’t begun yet, Fajardo is eager to see where the game takes her. She wants to join the WNBL at some point in her career, whether that be as a player or a coach.

“I think my plan after college, though, is to really coach and to learn more about coaching,” Fajardo said. “I really want to take everything that I learned from America and bring that to the Philippines just to give back for all that the Philippines has given me.”

Nolasco said she’s excited about the representation and spotlight that the WNBL will bring to aspiring professional athletes like herself, and that it will hopefully lead to a culture shift in her country.

“There are still a lot of people who can’t accept that girls can ball. So as a female baller, that's actually one of my goals, to change the mindset of the people when it comes to looking at women's basketball,” Nolasco said. “I’m just so happy for (the WNBL), and I’m just excited about what will happen.”

The Women’s National Basketball League is expected to hold a scouting combine for 177 eligible draft pool candidates in November, and the inaugural season is reported to kick off in January 2021. For more information about the WNBL, follow NBL-Pilipinas on Facebook for draft and league updates.

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