MUCH BUZZ has been generated by Jane Umana last March 19 when she made the trivia books as the very first female to referee a PBA D-League game. However, she was not the first female to blow the whistle in a major men’s basketball league in the Philippines.
In 1998, the professional Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) opened its first season with three females in its referee pool – Sheila Petalio, Elenora “Jigs” Habaradas and Corazon “Len” Macalalad. Having females referee at the highest level was unheard before in the male-dominated Philippine basketball landscape.
There was no questioning the ladies’ sports background. Habaradas was a Physical Education teacher and coach while Petalio and Macalalad played for the Adamson University Lady Falcons and were part of the 1993 UAAP champion squad.
Petalio had the honor of working the MBA’s first official game on March 7, 1998 between the Manila Metrostars and the Cebu Gems at the Narciso Ramos Sports Center in Lingayen, Pangasinan. Habaradas did the main game between the visiting Socsargen Marlins and host Pangasinan Presidents while Macalalad debuted the following game day.
Actually, the gender barrier in basketball officiating was broken a few months earlier when Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired as referees by the NBA for the 1997-1998 season. It was not surprising that the Filipinos would eventually copy their American counterparts.
Since game assignments were always determined by lottery, the three never got to work together. However, it was later decided that the trio would combine for the first Battle of the MBA Stars after the successful 1998 season at the Bren Z. Guiao Convention Center in San Fernando, Pampanga.
All the ladies proved just as capable as and perhaps at times better than the male referees. They were not afraid to slap technical fouls on anyone whether it is on a utility man or on a team manager.
Refereeing in a community-based league where passions can run on overdrive is no joke. Suddenly, the fans, players and team officials forget that these are women and these brave ladies have had their share of physical confrontations.
Despite the haters, the three also had their share of fans and admirers. They attracted enough attention to rival the players as they travelled from city to city.
The change in the MBA’s commissioner from Ramon Fernandez to Atty. Gregorio Narvasa after the 1999 season meant an end to the league’s female referees. The three had to move on.
Habaradas eventually migrated to the United States where she works as a caregiver and photographer while Petalio is currently the sales and marketing manager of a company that deals with audio and lighting systems for concerts and other events. Macalalad remained in the hoops circle to this day by coaching the varsity squads in Philippine Women’s University and University of the East.
After Umana’s first game, fellow female referees Janine Nicandro, Edith Boticario and Mau Orioste were tested in the succeeding days with a couple of others in the training pool awaiting their turn. If they continue their good work, any one of them could be the first female referee to work a PBA game.
As a pioneer, Petalio offers this piece of advice to the new generation: “Focus on officiating, enjoy your job and always protect your integrity.” Meanwhile, Habaradas reminds them to “Keep doing what you love, take all challenges, don’t get intimidated, study hard and always stand your ground as long as you’re right and always take care of yourself”.
Perhaps more young girls could consider taking up one of the toughest and thankless jobs in the world. The trail has been blazed and is now being continued.