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Gilas Women head coach Pat Aquino bullish on WNBL's talent pool

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Gilas Women's head coach Pat Aquino believes the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL) can "definitely" attract more than enough talent from all over the country to maintain balanced and competitive play.

In an interview on former PBA commissioner Noli Eala's Power and Play radio show on Saturday, Aquino said the Philippines' first-ever professional women's league won't have a problem in terms of gathering a wealthy player pool capable of keeping the WNBL up and running for the long run.

"There's a lot of talent," Aquino said. "Every time na lang na gumagawa ako ng national team, there are still more and more talents coming in."

"Five years ago when I held that tryout in Cebu, there were just 20 women who tried out for me. But this year alone, for the first time, almost 200 plus girls [ang nag-tryout]. And they not only know how to play basketball, but they have talent. I was just amazed about it."

Aquino also shared how players abroad have expressed their interest in playing in the WNBL.

"There are a lot na nagtatanong sa akin from around the world na mga Fil-Am kung pwede ba sila maglaro rito. And then [players] also from other countries na [nagtatanong] kung pwede ba sila maging import dito," he said.

The WNBL's ability to translate enthusiasm into actual numbers will be tested in the coming week, as executive vice president Rhose Montreal said the league will begin to receive draft applications once it puts up the form on its Facebook page.

"The very first thing we want to do is to conduct an inventory of the talent. Basically kahit sa mga lalaki rin karamihan ng scarcity natin is sa big men. So we really want to distribute the talents equally sa mga teams," she said.

The Air Force and Philippine Navy teams will not be joining the draft since they are getting players from those who enlisted within their ranks.

Montreal also said teams can retain six players and complete the rest of their rosters as they go along the dispersal draft set in October.

"We're going to have a draft except for the Air Force and Navy, who are coming in as a team already because 100 percent of the rosters are enlisted in the personnel of the Navy and Air Force. But the rest po, we call it a Protect 6. If you have a ready team, you just have to protect six of your players and the rest will go to the draft," Montreal explained.

Sustainability is key

Much has been said about the newly-minted pro league's ability to boost the development of women's basketball in the Philippines, but Aquino said the WNBL will still have to prove it can continue sustaining itself as time progresses.

"It's a good development for women's basketball, definitely. Ang question na lang natin is how to sustain it as of the moment," Aquino noted. "With the pandemic coming in, how would we have a fan base? How would the sponsors come in?"

As an example, the national team coach cited the Women's Philippine Basketball League (WPBL), a defunct semi-pro league that ran from 1998 to 1999 before closing shop after an attempt at running another season in 2008.

"Noong 1998 to 1999, when we held the WPBL, it was composed of the owners also from the PBL," he recalled. "'Yung men's team, may women's team kaya nabuo ang WPBL at the time. Pero at the end of the day, 'yung funds na dapat na mapupunta sa men's, napupunta sa women's. So 'yung mga owners biglang nagsabi, 'Let's just focus on men's na lang muna ulit.' Kaya nawala."

But these concerns may prove to be a little premature at the moment, as Montreal said the league has the backing of numerous sponsors and relevant voices from the women's basketball community who have long clamored for a pro league of their own.

"Marami naman pong nagba-backup sa amin. Having WNBL as an amateur league... what will make it different from the recreational leagues other than having a TV partner and putting it on different broadcast platforms?

"The only way to level up is to go pro," she added. "The reason why we also wanted WNBL to become a pro league is because para maging aspiration po siya for the women ballers. We've talked to a lot of women ballers and lagi po nilang sinasabi after college basketball, ang aspiration na lang po nila is to be part of the national team. But the national team can accommodate x number of players. So what will happen to the women ballers all over the country?"

Aquino, who admitted that officials from the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) were planning their own women's league before the WNBL beat them to the punch, said the league will go a long way in helping players develop for the national team while making a living of their own.

"I'm so happy that ma'am Rhose (did this) and the WNBL has been formed not just to prepare for the national team but also for the levelling here in the Philippines of women's basketball. I know there's a lot of talent out there na talagang gustong-gusto maglaro ng basketball. And it's good for me as the coach of the national team," said Aquino.

Montreal added: "Ang question na lang po rito ay papaano tatanggapin ng mga tao ang women's basketball? Sa tingin ko po ito na 'yung time para ipamahal sa mga Piliipino ang mga manlalarong kababaihan.