Perlas Pilipinas, the women’s national basketball team, was on the rise, before a questionable move in January this year resulted into a disaster for the squad. How did the team end up in this state? Women’s basketball beat writer Levi Verora Jr. tells us more.
Even after Perlas Pilipinas defeated Singapore, 82-72 in its final 2015 Southeast Asian Games women’s basketball tournament outing, nobody was smiling from the Perlas side.
The members were visibly stunned by the reality that the win had no bearing.
They knew the hopes of securing a medal in the campaign was long gone even before the match started, and that a win would have no weight in their pursuit of the ultimate goal: at least a podium finish.
Even when the game was all but reduced to salvaging pride and ending the tournament on a high note, Perlas was still pushed to the limit and struggled to put away a team that is not even in the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship.
The Philippines needed a Herculean effort from its veterans to surpass a gutsy Singapore crew, which led by 12 in the first half. The crew finished with a dismal 3-2 card, with losses to Indonesia and Thailand spelling the difference between having a podium finish and winning nothing at all.
Back at home, fans, whose expectations WERE tampered with all the hype and attention, were left disappointed.
How did the team arrive at such disaster?
In 2010, the Philippine women’s national basketball team, monickered Discovery-Perlas ng Pilipinas, shocked the Southeast Asian hoops scene after taking down perennial powerhouse Thailand, at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium, to annex its first ever gold medal in the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) Tournament.
Bannered by Joan Grajales, Chovi Borja, Melissa Jacob, Merenciana Arayi, Cassy Tioseco, Fatima Tolentino, Diana Jose, Aurora Adriano, and Angeli Gloriani, the Filipinas won convincingly in the finals, 76-54.
The win was considered a breakthrough, but unlike the nation’s other teams (women’s volleyball, Philippine Azkals) where a breakthrough usually equals the start of something even bigger or the outpour of support, members of the women’s national basketball team, unfortunately, returned to their daily lives as if no huge achievement was reached.
Through it all, Discovery Perlas continued to train at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum for five years, notwithstanding the lack of support, and sacrificing sweat and time with a goal of serving the country.
Among the missions of the long-term program were developing local talents from the grassroots level, conducting activities to widen the reach of women’s basketball, and to provide a training ground for aspiring national team members.
Rappler.com chronicled [READ: Rappler’s Perlas Pilipinas training: No funding, just willpower] in 2014 the hardships of the Perlas Pilipinas squad, which trains virtually on its own. A team with no allowance, no food, no abundance of equipment, no media attention and major sponsorships, no Jim Sarets, no Rajko Toromans, no naturalized players, and no home.
Their long-time Head Coach Haydee Ong would crack a joke saying they are like informal settlers — they don’t have a permanent training ground.
Ong also told Rappler.com all sectors of Philippine basketball are already getting attention, and women’s basketball is the only part of it left behind.
“Ang PBA, may D-League, may Young Stars. ‘Yung para sa babae na lang ang wala. Tiyaga-tiyaga lang. Hindi naman kailangan malaking liga agad eh. Maski D-League lang tapos magtuloy-tuloy,” Ong told Rappler.com.
Yet the squad, united by a commitment to serve and elevate the status of women’s hoops in the country, never relented and continued to train quietly under the radar.
The author remembers moments where the number of players in attendance do not even reach double figures as some of the athletes in Ong’s wishlist are still playing for their respective collegiate squads.
Ong claims the schools refuse to allow their athletes to join national team training during the thick of collegiate basketball tournaments.
The author also recalls another instance where one of the players, Denise Tiu, arrived and carried along a brown paper bag, which contained pieces of Spanish bread she brought and offered to the rest of the team before formal practice started.
Also, Discovery-Perlas was not able to join the 2014 SEABA Championship (only three teams joined the tournament) due to lack of support.
In November 2014, the build-up toward the 2015 Southeast Asian Games reached new heights. With the collegiate basketball wars already done, more players joined the Perlas Pilipinas pool.
The squad had its team building in Zambales, where it played exhibition matches with men’s squads to become even more competitive, and conducted basketball clinics.
With such roster, the team set its eyes on a realistic goal: bring home the SEA Games gold — a feat never accomplished in the history of Philippines women’s hoops.
Spin.ph first reported about the development [READ: SPIN.ph ‘s NU coach Patrick Aquino to call shots for PH women’s basketball team in SEA Games] where Head Coach Pat Aquino, who recently led the National University Lady Bulldogs to the 2014 UAAP women’s basketball crown, will now call the shots for the women’s basketball. Its main backer, Discovery, had also been replaced by Blackwater, which coincidentally also sponsors National University.
The Discovery Perlas team, whose core has been around for five years, had been scratched off instead of being retained for Aquino to handle. All their hardships and sacrifices for the team were overturned and until now, however, the old side is still looking for answers.
“We got a letter from the SBP addressed to our manager (Cynthia Tiu) informing us na ang hahawak na ng Perlas ay yung grupo nina Diocledo Sy (Blackwater) so we were shocked,” Ong relayed in January.
Ong was surprised about the decision. The former mentor bared Discovery Perlas Team Manager, Cynthia Tiu, received a letter from the SBP regarding the replacement, although no meetings were held prior to the said changing of the guards.
In addition, Discovery-Perlas was endorsed by the SBP itself to the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) in 2014 to continue the program until 2015.
“In-endorse nila kami. We wanted answers from SBP rin pero they are very busy. Aminado naman kami na walang suporta, pero sana bigyan niyo lang ng respeto especially yung players na nag-train all year round. Pumayag na nga kami na walang sweldo at walang nakukuha,” Ong added.
“Mrs. Tiu wanted to know what is the merit bakit pinalitan ang Discovery. Dahil noong huli silang nagusap ni Sonny Barrios, you should honor your word na inendorse niyo kami until 2015. May letter ang SBP to the PSC endorsing (Discovery) Perlas for continuity of program until 2015.”
There are also differences between the revamp of the officials: Tab Baldwin was named Gilas Head Coach mainly because Chot Reyes resigned, and the Gilas program usually takes a “break” when the PBA season is on since all players in the pool are from the pro ranks; the Under-16, Under-18, and cadets teams, meanwhile, are usually formed only when there are upcoming competitions and different coaches have handled the youth teams through the years.
Perlas, however, is an on-going program that trains all-year long for various competitions like the SEABA, SEA Games, and FIBA Asia Championship for Women.
Timing was also questionable as the SEA Games was drawing closer and closer. What’s worse is the Discovery-backed team was given an endorsement by the SBP in 2014 to continue representing the country until the end of 2015.
Despite the said endorsement, the replacement pushed through.
SBP’s Sonny Barrios told Spin.ph later in February [READ: SPIN.ph’s SBP’s Barrios says revamp of women’s cage program, Perlas disbandment went through proper process] there was no politicking involved and the so-called revamp went through the proper process.
“If you recall, when the SBP board met, search and screening committees were formed. Search and screening committee number one for Gilas, and search and screening committee number two, which is the other national teams aside from Gilas. Lahat ng national teams, covered nung search and screening committee. From Gilas, to women’s, to all age-group teams. Lahat sakop doon. Wala tayong pinepersonal doon. Walang sinisino ‘yun,” Barrios told Spin.ph, referring to the search and screening committee.
Ironically, Barrios also thanked the Discovery squad for their efforts in starting a women’s basketball program in the country.
Aquino of the Blackwater-backed squad later appealed in a report by Spin.ph [READ: SPIN.ph’s PH women’s coach Pat Aquino appeals to ‘Perlas Pilipinas’ members to attend tryouts] that he wants members of the old team to try out, in order to form the best unit possible for the SEA Games.
“’Yung mga expected, dumating. Kaya lang, gusto ko rin silang makita (national team members) so that I can pick the best of the best,” Aquino told Spin.ph.
Ong gave the go signal to her wards but members of the past team claimed they were not invited to try out nor did the newly-minted staff reach out to them.
In March 2015, a senate hearing was conducted and SBP claimed it had “the prerogative to change coaches and players.”
Cynthia Tiu, however, still disappointed with the decision, spoke to Spin.ph [READ: SPIN.ph’s Former Perlas backer says politics to blame for national cagebelles’ SEA Games letdown] recently after the Blackwater-backed Perlas fell to Indonesia last week, saying what the SBP did “was really a gamble.”
“Ayaw ko naman maging mayabang na sabihin na kami kaya naming mag-gold, pero we’ve been a team for seven years against their team na three months binuo,” Tiu told Spin.ph.
“I kept asking them (SBP), what was the urgency of changing our team midstream? Nalulungkot ako sa nangyari. Sana man lang kasi nagkaroon ng magandang transition.”
“Willing naman kami ipasa sa iba yung leadership ng women’s basketball eh. Kaso ang sabi ko nga, patapusin na muna sana ang SEA Games sa Singapore kasi we’ve been preparing for it since January 2014.”
Despite the development, Discovery, reduced to a club team, continued to serve the country in whatever way possible and promoted women’s hoops quietly under the radar.
They won the gold in the Third Discovery Basketball Invitational in Davao after besting Turkmenistan and two teams from Papua New Guinea.
Back in Singapore, the new team, which had everything from media attention to major sponsorships to an intensive training camp in Taiwan, failed to deliver, ironically.
After the team dropped its opener against powerhouse Thailand, reality kicked in.
Aquino rued via PhilStar [READ: PhilStar’s Perlas Pilipinas yields to Thailand in SEAG opener] it was the lack of experience that caused them the game.
“Our lack of experience was evident. Lumabas ang pagka-rookies,” Aquino told PhilStar.
“We should’ve handled the ball better. One more thing, our shooting didn’t click. But everybody saw that we didn’t give up until the end.”
The team bounced back and clipped Malaysia, opening the door for a gold medal. However, a stunning loss against Indonesia erased all of those hopes.
“I don’t know, but it’s basketball and the ball is round. Sometimes, you really get unlucky. We’re missing layups. (Aliana) Lim and (Merenciana) Arayi can’t make their shots,” Aquino told PhilStar after the Philippines dropped the Indonesia match.
“Maybe, it’s the fatigue factor. Maybe, the four-game stretch is hard on them. After the loss to Thailand, we worked hard against Vietnam, then we played another hard game against Malaysia (Thursday).”
After impressive finishes at the SEA Games in the past half-decade, and when people taught 2015 would be a perfect time to elevate the status, disaster struck.
The author made numerous attempts to hear from the SBP side during the height of Discovery Perlas’ replacement, but until now, it seems there are no answers to the tragedy — only what-ifs and could-have-beens.
With the FIBA Asia Championship firing off in August (where the Philippines is still stuck in Pool B or the lower tier of the competition) and the team still fresh from a fruitless, agonizing SEAG campaign, how will Philippine women’s basketball ever rise?
A cloud of doubt still envelopes the questionable move made by the SBP in January. And how the SBP will look back at that point and perhaps come up with realizations is up to them.
Should the SBP just let Discovery play through until the end of the year?
Was the decision something that should have never been made?
How will Perlas Pilipinas avert another disaster?
God only knows.