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After Manny Pacquiao knocked David Diaz out in 2008, trainer Freddie Roach said it felt like there was something that clicked for the Pacman. Pacquiao was, pound for pound, already one of the best in the world at that point, but in the fight against Diaz, he elevated his game to a whole new level.
The same could be said of Jack Animam, who has already made history as the first Philippine-born baller to be signed by a ballclub in a professional league in Europe.
In her first three games for the Radnicki Kragujevac in the First Women’s Basketball League of Serbia, Animam has shown that she is not content with just being a trailblazer but is also out to prove that she is one of the top international prospects that scouts should pay close attention to.
Those who have followed Animam’s career probably expected her to contribute immediately to her new team. What surprised everyone, including Animam herself, is that she would impress in her first foray in professional basketball.
“I honestly was not aware of the numbers I was putting up. I was merely following what my coach, Nenad Milovanovic, was telling me – score, rebound, play defense,” she told Rappler. “Then, when I had film viewing of the games with my trainer, coach Dante Harlan, I found myself asking, ‘Did I really do those moves?'”
Those moves have led to Animam dropping double-doubles in all her games so far. She leads the league in scoring with 24.6 points per outing. ZKK Vrbas import Kyah Proctor, a former Women’s American Basketball Association MVP, is a close second with 24.3 points. 5-foot-11 forward Olga Stepanovic of Duga is third in the scoring list with 23 per game.
Animam is also the league leader by a wide margin in rebounds, with an average of 15 per game. 6-foot-3 ZKK Vrbas center Natasa Mijatovic comes in a distant second with 11.33 boards per game. while former Serbian under-16 national team star Jovana Boricic, an 18-year-old small forward for Partizan, is third with 10.6 rebounds. Animam has been the lone bright spot for Radnicki Kragulevac, which has a 1-2 record.
That Animam is registering huge numbers in a country that is one of the best in the world and against highly-skilled competition she does not have a height advantage over makes her performance all the more notable. Serbia finished 4th in women’s basketball in the Tokyo Olympics. It is currently 9th in the FIBA Women’s World Rankings.
Raising her game
The 6-foot-3 Animam has long been widely considered the best player in Philippine women’s basketball. She finished an undefeated five-year run with the NU Lady Bulldogs in the UAAP, where she also won Rookie of the Year and MVP. She followed it up with another title when she helped the Shih Hsin University to an 18-0 record and the University Basketball Association championship in Taiwan.
She was dominant in both collegiate leagues. She was sure of herself. She stood out, figuratively, as a vocal, intense leader, and literally, as she lorded it over other frontlines that rarely featured bigs who could stand eyeball-to-eyeball with her.
When she moved again under the auspices of her talent agency East West Private to the United States, she began doubting her ability.
“Could I really make it? Maybe I am just big, that is why I have done well so far in my basketball career,” she recounted the questions she asked herself.
Getting exposed to the level of skills in the US opened her eyes to the world of possibilities she had yet to explore.
“I was amazed to see players who were of the same height as me who could handle the ball and go coast to coast. 6’3′, 6’4 girls who could shoot the three ball. All my life I have been just a post player.”
Training with Harlan forced Animam to dissect elements of her game she did not know even existed. There was untapped potential in her that Harlan made her aware of, skills she thought were not within her realm to develop.
“Coach Dante would always tell me that if I wanted to play professionally, I cannot be just a post player because there are so many girls who are taller than me,” she shared. “I have to learn to attack the basket. I have to learn to play away from the basket. Coach Dante subjected me to different scenarios and taught me how to read the defense.”
The first test of the pudding for Animam came when she suited up in the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League. There, she played against a talent pool that included WNBA players, both retired and active, and draft prospects. Seeing up close the caliber of players in the US led to an important self-realization that stirred her to recapture her confidence.
“It dawned on me that I could compete with these girls,” she said.
Blazing a trail
All the hard work Animam devoted during her training in the States have been on full display in Serbia.
In her first two games, she showcased a variety of moves – facing the basket and driving strong to the hoop, attacking the baseline, and dazzling in the low block with her footwork, pivot, and power.
There was also the Animam staple from her college days – cleaning up the board for putbacks. In their third game against Kraljevo, which was bannered by a number of players who were even taller than Animam, she displayed a new wrinkle in her game. She drew her defenders outside of the shaded lane by shooting from the perimeter and sinking her jumpers.
Animam has been one of the most impassioned advocates of women’s rights and gender equality in sports in the Philippines. She has also been the voice of Philippine women’s basketball. This responsibility resounds more to her now that she is playing in a foreign country.
“I just want to be able to inspire people, not just athletes. I know people back home are supporting me. Just the thought that there might be a young girl out there who looks up to me fuels my motivation to continue on this journey.”
The next logical step for Animam is obviously to pursue a path that would lead to the WNBA draft in 2022. She said, though, that she lets her agent and EWP handle the plans for her career moving forward.
“My responsibility is to keep putting in the work and to improve every day. That is my focus right now.”
For a basketball-crazy country like the Philippines, the dream is to see a local player make it to the NBA. With the way Animam has been slaying it in Europe, it is not unlikely that the first Filipino to make it to the highest level of professional basketball could be a Filipina. – Rappler.com