WITH the renewed interest in Filipino athletes in overseas basketball organizations, from the regional league ABL to domestic leagues around Asia, the spotlight also shines on Pinay ballers who are making their mark with foreign ballclubs.
As early as 2012, Filipinas have been seeing action in overseas leagues as reinforcements for various women's basketball leagues -- way ahead of Thirdy Ravena's much-celebrated signing with San-En NeoPhoenix in the Japanese B.League.
Allana Lim was the first to do it.
Coming off a stellar career in the UAAP and a dream season in her final year in Far Eastern University, the 5-foot-10 center was immediately signed as an import in the Malaysian Women's Basketball League (MWBL).
"Right after ko sa UAAP, Malaysia ang first na bansa na kumuha sa akin," said the UAAP Season 74 MVP as KL Ruby gave the Lady Tamaraw the break of her life.
A mainstay of the Philippine women's team, Lim was easily one of the best players of her era. But in Malaysia, she knew she had to prove herself and for Filipina players as a whole.
"Una pa lang, hindi sila bilib sa kakayanan ko at sa mga Filipino ballers. Sa isip nila, pwede naman sila kumuha ng mas angat na bansa dahil ang mga kasabayan ko na import doon, tiga-USA, Australia, New Zealand, at China. Ano lang daw ba ako? Isang 5-10 lang na player at di daw ganoon kagaling," she recounted.
It turns out, the cellar-dwelling KL Ruby squad provided the perfect platform for the Cebuana banger to introduce herself there.
Coming in for the injured Australian import Jessica Fergus, Lim racked up 25 points and 10 rebounds in her impressive debut to carry KL Ruby to a 66-55 win over Bina Puri for its first win that season.
That was only the tip of the iceberg as she made herself a household name in the Malaysian women's basketball scene and earned numerous awards along the way.
"Nahirapan ako i-prove yung sarili ko sa kanila, lalo na yung talent ko bilang isang magaling na player. Pero sinipagan ko ng sinipagan at doon nila nakita na kaya naming mga Filipina ballers makipagsabayan. Pinatunayan ko sa kanilang lahat yun," said Lim, who has been a resident reinforcement in the MWBL for the better part of the past nine years now.
It also opened the doors for more Filipinos to play there.
After Lim, National University standouts Gemma Miranda and Andrea Tongco, and Lyceum's Chack Cabinbin followed, playing as imports in Malaysia and other Asian countries.
Lim herself has played in leagues in Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, with her latest team being Iso Kites in Nepal.
"Nakakatuwa ngayon dahil yung mga bata na players na kasamahan ko sa national team ay nakakapaglalaro na rin overseas," she remarked. "Masaya ako dahil sa wakas, may mga Filipina ballers na rin na naglalaro doon."
It was only a matter of time before Afril Bernardino, the three-time UAAP MVP who laid the foundation for the NU Lady Bulldogs' unbeaten streak, brought her game outside the country.
"Napakagaling naman talaga na player kasi ni Afril," said Lim of Bernardino.
The 5-foot-8 Bernardino admitted she also went through the same ordeals when she came to the MWBL in 2018 before eventually getting the hang of it.
"Yung unang dating ko doon, nahirapan akong matulog. Ang weird ng pakiramdam ko," said the Cainta-born slasher. "Maraming adjustment sa akin, una yung language pa lang nila. Kasunod nun yung pagkain, tapos sa semento kami nagpa-practice."
"Habang tumatagal naman, nasasanay na din ako doon. Malaking bagay din dahil maayos naman yung pagtanggap nila sa akin kaya masaya din yung experience," said Bernardino, who immediately propelled herself as the top dog for the Hatchers Valkyries.
Experiences like those aren't only beneficial to the players' personal growth.
"Malaking tulong din siya," said Bernardino, who has been a member of Gilas Pilipinas Women since 2015. "Nagkaroon kami ng experience sa ibang bansa sa pro league nila and madami din kami natutunan sa paglalaro namin sa kanila."
With seasoned players like Lim and Bernardino in the national team, the Philippines earned promotion to Level I of the Fiba Asia Women's Championship since 2017.
And in the 30th Southeast Asian Games last year, Gilas Women finally took home its first gold medal in the biennial meet.
A big reason for that success is the exposure of the Filipino players to more intense competition overseas in lieu of a stable women's tournament in the country.
"Sobrang laking bagay na naglalaro sila as imports overseas kasi their basketball IQ and experience increases when they are exposed to competition abroad," said Gilas Womens coach and concurrent NU Lady Bulldogs mentor Patrick Aquino. "Sobrang laki ng impact nun for the players."
Discovery Perlas and current University of Santo Tomas Golden Tigresses coach Haydee Ong couldn't agree more.
"Of course, it's always an honor for our Filipino athletes especially our women players to represent our country overseas as imports," she said. "As imports, they will always play at their highest level cause they don't want the teams that got them to be not happy with their performance."
Ong added: "Iron sharpens iron. Having a higher level of competition overseas and compete with elite athletes will surely be a valuable experience to the athletes and at the same time, the athletes will have a vast improvement on their playing skills."
The neighboring countries have also taken notice.
Jack Animam, the UAAP Season 80 MVP from NU, shared that she's also gotten an invite to play as an import in Taiwan.
"Kinukuha ako sa Shih Hsin University," the 6-foot-5 center disclosed.
"Actually, inaayos ko na ang mga requirements ko for visa. Yung transcript of records ko na lang ang hinihintay ko para maipasa ko na yung application ko."
Animam, who carried the torch for the Lady Bulldogs in the UAAP after Bernardino's graduation, will leave for Taiwan by the end of July and will become the first Filipino import there for Shih Hsin, the defending champion in the women's side.
To the Bulacan native, her offer speaks volumes on how neighboring countries have seen the growth of Filipino women's basketball players over the years.
"Siguro hindi naman sila magsasayang ng oras kung hindi nila nakikita yung galing natin at kung hindi sila naniniwala sa kakayahan natin na makatulong sa kanila," she said.
It's a proud sight to see our Filipina players hoisting our flag high and proud overseas.
Yet as great as the feeling is, Lim just hopes that the same could be said locally.
"Ang problema kasi wala tayong grassroots sa babae at hindi consistent," she rued.
"Paano magle-level up yung women's basketball dito sa Pilipinas? Pag sinabing national team player ka, di ka pinapayagan maglaro sa mga liga dito dahil unfair daw at maraming restrictions.
Attempts have been made over the years, from the Women's Philippine Basketball League (WPBL), the Pinay Ballers League, to the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL).
The PBA has also dabbled in the women's game, albeit in a 3x3 format, for a lone season in 2015-16, holding the games during halftime.
To Lim, a women's league will truly help Philippine women's basketball reach the next level.
"Hindi dapat yung bawal kami dahil ganito-ganyan. Dapat nga paglaruin kami para sila ang pumantay ang mga local players natin sa level ng paglalaro namin," she said.