For some, the love for basketball begins with the first bounce, the sound of the ball swishing through the net, and the thrill of playing with teammates. For 2016 Jr. WNBA Finalist Azel Agatha Sebastian, it began from the love of her family.
Basketball was in their genes, from her father Roland Sebastian who was a journeyman in his college days, playing for the Jose Rizal University in Manila, University of Assumption in Pampanga, University of Manila, and Colegio De San Lorenzo, to her grandfather Rolando Sebastian who was an NCAA Champion playing for Mapua in 1965 – 66.
“When Azel was still young, she always wanted to watch me play in games,” Roland told PlayPH, on his daughter’s love affair with the sport. “I also allowed her to watch and shoot some hoops when we would have games in the court near our home.”
For Azel, Roland, mom Anna, and younger brother Dan, basketball became their favorite family bonding activity. One day, Azel approached her father as the best person she knew who could help her grow as a player and individual.
“I was surprised when she told me that she really wanted to learn the game,” said Roland. “My wife (Anna Belle Sebastian) and I hesitated at first because we didn’t want to her to struggle balancing basketball and her studies. Also, she’s our princess and we don’t want to see her get hurt. After discussing with her the pros and cons of being a student-athlete, we saw that she really wanted to pursue it, and that’s the time we agreed.”
Today, Azel is a student-athlete and scholar under the Home Study program of Angelicum College in Quezon City, with modules built on 5 exams a day, 2 to 3 times a week. According to Roland, this setup helps a lot in terms of time management since Azel only needs to go to school if she has practice.
“Azel knows that if she works hard she has a good future ahead of her,” said Roland. “We always tell our children that this is the only thing we could pass on to them. We’ll work hard together so they can get quality education and make their dreams come true.”
Supporting a student-athlete is no easy feat, especially for Roland, who is taking maintenance medicines for his type 2 diabetes, and his wife Anna, who is taking medicines for her brittle bones that required her to stop working. Regardless, they are determined to do everything they can to further their childrens’ growth in pursuit of their passions. In 2014, Azel was able to get into the Spalding Basketball Camp thanks to a sponsor. In April of the following year, Azel, together with her younger brother and cousins, joined the Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA programs, where Roland was able to enroll in the Coaches Clinic.
“Honestly, we didn’t have the budget, since I’m the only one working,” shared Roland with PlayPH. “If not for the help of her ninong who buys her shoes and other basketball needs, and also those who sponsored her when she needs money so she could attend all her events and practices, she probably wouldn’t be in the Jr. WNBA.”
When PlayPH asked Roland what the best part of being both father and coach to his children was, he said, “Communication is much easier. With just one look, I know if they are still okay. I can push them to their limits but after that, they can lean on my shoulders, or I can hug them to make them feel that they did great. I am proud of them and we’re always here to love and support them.”
Following the Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA Regional Selections, Azel received an invite to join the Alaska Basketball Power Camps in Ateneo, which led her to become one of the representatives for the Jr. NBA and Jr. WNBA National Training Camps.
“In addition to the Power Camps, Azel has practice at school which means she trains twice a day for 2 to 3 times a week,” said Roland. “She cries at times during training because her body isn’t strong enough yet to keep up with the grind. But she never wanted to miss practice. Even if she’s not feeling well, she still goes. She never gave up. Because of that, me and my wife also never gave up. As long as we can find a way, we’ll keep on fighting. She’s a true warrior. Pusong Alaska eh.”
Azel turned 14 last March 22, and this year’s Jr. WNBA National Training Camps was her last shot to get into the All-Star team. Carrying with her all the hard work and sacrifices that she and her family made to get her there, she played with her heart on fire, powering through despite two swollen knees and a busted lip due to an accidental headbutt. She kept on playing until the referees and her coach had to stop her. She knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Although she didn’t get into the All-Star team, she gave her all and shined.
“We’re so proud of her,” says Roland. “No matter how tough it got, she never quit.”
For the Sebastian family, Azel’s opportunity to have learned from some of the best in the Alaska Basketball Power Camps and the Jr. WNBA are a blessing. Although her time with the Jr. WNBA has ended, Azel looks forward to joining future Power Camps with the intention of growing her game. With a passion for basketball, the support of her loving family, and her heart on fire, it’s certain that she could, in time, become one of the stars of tomorrow.