FORMER Manitoba Bisons point guard Eric Garcia couldn’t get enough court time as a 12-year-old.
When he realized his love of the sport was becoming an obsession, he joined the Winnipeg Athletic Association for Youth (WAAY) basketball league in Grade 7. This gave him a chance to stay immersed in the game well after the junior high gym closed or it became too dark to keep throwing balls at the rim in friend's driveways.
"We just wanted to play more basketball," recalled Garcia, who finished his five-year CIS basketball career in 2011. "It was something different, having a chance to compete against other Filipino players. Plus, it was a great way to build up your game."
WAAY was formed in 1997 with the intention of giving Filipino kids an opportunity to play basketball while fostering relationships within the community. The league started as a modest loop of 12 teams and 120 participants.
Now, there are 31 teams in four divisions with roughly 300 athletes participating -- numbers at the threshold of what the small volunteer base can effectively handle.
"Basketball is a big deal in the Philippines," said Arsenio dela Cruz, who has been overseeing WAAY for the past seven years. "It has translated over here, and with new immigrants coming in all the time, it gives them a chance to reconnect a bit.
"A lot of times, when people do come from the Philippines, the first thing they do is ask: Where can we play basketball? If they come here in the summer, they ask: Where can we play basketball? If they come to Winnipeg in the winter, they ask: Where can we play basketball?
"It surprised me when I first got started, but now it's just the way it is. It just goes to show the popularity of the sport in the Philippines."
WAAY is just one of a handful of Filipino leagues in the city. Another popular loop, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA Winnipeg, formally Lipenos) started with seven teams in 2001. Catering to a slightly older crowd, it has grown into a one-stop shop for a family's basketball needs with various age divisions ranging from 15 and under to men's senior (32 and older), plus a ladies' open division.
Thirty-six teams are a part of PBA Winnipeg -- a number that would have exceeded 50 if volunteer Manny Aranez had more time to organize a men's open group this season.
"It was too difficult to keep up with the demand," he said.
Aranez is the Canadian deputy commissioner for the Filipino Basketball Association of North America, an outfit that holds a continental championship in various age categories annually. He says Winnipeg typically does quite well at the events.
Winnipeg sent 10 teams to Houston last year. Seven reached the finals.
"We are nicknamed the City of Dominance," dela Cruz added. "Every time we bring teams down to something like this, we do very well.
"The biggest thing for us is that because the Winnipeg Filipino community is so tightly knit -- we're so small a city compared to other places -- so we get a lot more time together and build the chemistry."
Garcia, a former Manitoba high school champion and most valuable player (Sisler, 2006), says his time in WAAY and the PBA Winnipeg had a lot to do with his maturity on the floor.
Now playing in a men's open division in the International Kabayan Association of Winnipeg league (IKAW) to maintain his basketball fix, he says the extra court time -- working around his high school and university commitments -- was invaluable in becoming a well-rounded player.
"Going up against players older than you -- the age gap was huge for me," he said. "That's usually something you don't get a chance to do most times in high school, because you're stuck in your grade. You can only get better playing against higher competition.
"(The Filipino leagues) gave me that opportunity."
"(The Filipino leagues) are a place where you can work various things in your game," added current Bison guard Jonar Huertas, who just finished his fourth year with Manitoba. The local product has been an active participant in the Filipino leagues since the 2005 season, when he was with Garcia at Sisler High School.
"I've worked on my shot and on my defence over the years," he added. "And in the Filipino leagues, you can play a little out of position, so your game can grow that way, too. With the club team, you get a chance to try a different spot, work on the ball handling skills and mess around a bit."
Aranez says people keep coming back to the leagues -- as players or later as parents -- because of the community experience associated with the games.
He laughed at the suggestion it might be difficult for the leagues to keep the momentum up and the dribble going, especially if future Filipino generations born in Canada find themselves tempted by the increasing number of off-court distractions.
"No way," he said, matter-of-factly. "Basketball is in the blood."