MANILA, Philippines – She was a champion star player in college. She was the longest-tenured national team player in her country’s basketball history. She was on top of her game and had the world in the palm of her dribbling hand.
Little did she know that her true calling would only come when the sound of the final buzzer has faded.
Merenciana Ewonritseorlagha “Ewon” Rosete Arayi’s lengthy list of accomplishments as a basketball player easily rivals that of her name. But beyond the foreign sound of her identity lies a heart made to serve the Filipino, as evidenced by her 7-year long stint with national team Perlas Pilipinas after playing for 5 years in the UAAP with the Adamson University Lady Falcons. That’s not even counting her run as a player with the Philippine Navy.
Despite her long dominance on the court, Arayi, 32, found true fulfillment as a coach on the sidelines, teaching young girls and boys all over the country to also express the love that she felt for the game.
Had she been born of a lighter color, though, all this would probably not have happened. No, really.
Arayi first picked up a basketball as a Grade 3 student in the quaint town of Bolinao, Pangasinan. Born to a Nigerian father and Filipina mother, she learned to love the game thanks to her uncle, who thought that she would be exceptional at it simply because she is dark-skinned like a certain player you might have heard of.
“Natuwa ‘yung tito ko kasi siyempre si Michael Jordan, black, 'di ba?,” she said in a sit-down interview with Rappler. “So feeling nila, nung bata ako, dahil black ako, 'Ah, magiging magaling na player 'to.' ”
(“My uncle was happy because Michael Jordan was black, right? So they thought when I was young, since I’m black, “Ah, she’ll become a good player.”)
“Kaya pala ‘yung tito ko, pinupukpok niya ako, tinuturuan niya talaga ako,” she added. “Nagsabit pa nga siya ng ring sa may puno ng sampalok. Doon kami nag-start mag-shoot.”
(“So that’s why my uncle honed me and really taught me. He even hung a ring by the tamarind tree. That’s where we started shooting.”)
Soon enough, the young Arayi did become exceptional, and left her mostly male playmates in the dust. Years passed and she committed to Adamson, where she led the Lady Falcons to their first back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004. The rest, as they always say, is history.
Photo by JR NBA
Spreading God-given talents
As previously mentioned, Arayi also continued her playing career bannering the country with national team Perlas Pilipinas from 2007-2014. She however, soon realized that while representing the country in international competition brings her pride and joy, nothing compared to the feeling she got in her new venture: coaching kids.
What started from a few invites in small camps under the guidance of legends like Heidi Ong and Ronnie Magsanoc turned to a full-blown passion, which brought her to places she never thought she’d even visit in her lifetime.
“Nakapunta ako ng Bohol, Zamboanga, at siyempre Pangasinan, taga-diyan ako,” she shared. “Ang pinakamalayo na narating ko ay yung Sitio Potia, Ifugao. ‘Yun ‘yung pinakanagmarka sa akin, kasi naglakad kami ng almost 10 hours. Umakyat kami ng bundok para magbitbit ng basketball equipment kasi nagtayo kami ng ring mismo doon.”
(“I got to Bohol, Zamboanga, and of course, Pangasinan, where I’m from. The farthest I’ve gone to is Sitio Potia in Ifugao. That’s what really left a mark for me because we walked for almost 10 hours. We climbed a mountain to carry basketball equipment because we had to build a ring right there.”)
After traveling hundreds of kilometers away from the metropolis and spending nearly half a day scaling the Cordilleras, Arayi learned how eager the children were in learning the sport from her. Even in most remote of places, she still saw how basketball connected her with people she has never met before. Almost instantly, she felt the pain of her trek wash away.
“Doon ipinaramdam ng Diyos talaga ‘yung calling ko,” she said. “Sabi ko, Lord, ang galing Niyo kasi kung hindi ko naranasan ‘to, hindi ko mabibigyan ng importance ‘yung binigay sa akin na talent.”
(“That’s where the Lord made me feel my true calling. I said, Lord, You’re amazing because had I not gone through this hardship, I wouldn’t have given importance to the talent given to me.”)
Being a devout Christian, she has also used her voice to spread to word of God.
“Dahil sa coaching, nago-glorify ko ‘yung pangalan ng Panginoon,” she said. “Hindi ko kinakahiya ‘yun eh. Nae-express ko sa mga bata ‘yung kabutihan Niya sa buhay ko.” (“Because of coaching, I get to glorify the name of God. I’m not ashamed of that. I get to express to the kids how good He has been in my life.”)
Sure enough, her God-given calling brought her to even more places like Naga and most recently, Surigao. She even won the Jr. NBA Coach of the Year in 2016 back in Manila. Because she turned her passion into a full-time lifestyle, one of her longest-standing prayers were finally answered.
Her home came calling back.
Coming full circle
Arayi revealed that starting April 2, she will be coaching the very team that launched her to stardom: the Adamson Lady Falcons. Since her school in San Marcelino gave her an education and a platform to showcase her skills both locally and internationally, she had been longing for a long time to give back in any way she could.
“After college, 'yan ang pangarap ko eh,” she said. “Sabi ko, babalik ako rito. Kahit assistant coach nga lang eh. Sabi ko, makatulong lang ako sa alma mater ko, malaking bagay na.”
(“After college, that has been my dream. I said I’d come back. Even just as an assistant coach. I said as long as I could help my alma mater, that’s already a big thing.”)
However, the former star Falcon was quick to temper expectations with her team, as they are still in the middle of a rebuild. Being a former champion, she knows that all eyes are now on her to bring those trophies back home.
“Siyempre mag-eexpect lahat ng mga sumusuporta dyan sa Adamson,” she said. “Pero alam mo ang natutunan ko 'nung sumali ako ng Jr. NBA? Gawin mo lang kung ano ‘yung alam mong tama. ‘Wag mo ima-mind ‘yung mga nakatingin, kasi minsan, pag mina-mind mo lahat, parang gusto mo lahat i-please.”
(“Of course, there’ll be expectations from all those who support Adamson. But you know what I learned when I joined Jr. NBA? Just do what you know is right. Don’t mind those who look, because when you mind everyone, it’s like you want to please all of them.”)
Not just a man’s game
With her appointment as head coach of a multi-titled UAAP team, Arayi has proved that her basketball skills are simply top-notch, whether on the backboards or clipboards. She is living proof that a woman can also succeed in what has always been perceived by many as a man’s game.
More than anything, she also wants other young women to know they can do it too.
“Sa mga bata, 'wag nilang isipin na ang basketball ang panlalaki lang,” she said. “Kung inisip ko ‘nung bata ako na panlalaki lang ‘yan, baka nasa probinsya pa rin ako ngayon.” (“To the kids, don’t think that basketball is for men only. If I thought when I was a kid that it’s only for men, I might still be in the province by now.)
To help these women realize their dreams, Arayi also founded not one, but two women’s basketball leagues, the Pinay Ballers League (PBL) – the first-ever professional women’s basketball league in the country – and the Philippine Collegiate League (PCL), a women’s college league which has been covered by Rappler in 2015.
“Ang sports, walang pinipiling gender 'yan,” she concluded. “Ang Diyos, equal tayong tinitignan. So sa sports, naniniwala akong ganun din dapat ang tingin natin sa isa’t isa.”
(“Sports chooses no gender. The Lord looks at us equally. So in sports, I believe that we should look at one another in that same way.”)
While women’s basketball has a long way to go in the Philippines before it gains the same popularity as its male counterpart, you’ll see no quitting in Arayi, who just keeps on trying in her own little ways and reaching out to as many people as she can.
Take it from one of her inspirations, coaching legend Pat Summitt:
“Quit? Quit? We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don’t understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do.” – Rappler.com