OPINION: Thoughts on Ateneo's woes from a gutted man

Rick Olivares

Posted at Jun 07 2016 04:45 PM

Someone asked me how I felt in the wake of the 32-point thrashing by La Salle. I told Rolly Manlapaz and Joey Guillermo before the game that I didn’t think we’d win. I just didn’t think we’d lose by that much.

I think I was more irked that Ben Mbala smirked at the Ateneo bench every chance he got. But I guess, it’s like that. We want to shut him up or wipe that sneer from his face — then beat them. That simple.

I tempered my expectations since the team only earnestly returned to practice two days prior to their match with Letran last Thursday. In their four FilOil matches before facing La Salle, it was clear that the FilOil Flying V Premier Cup was a tryout for a large pool of players who was going to make the lineup. The coaching staff was trying combinations and some things they had worked on in practice. Furthermore, I didn’t think Chib Ikeh could match up or even stop DLSU’s Ben Mbala who is clearly the Big Difference for their squad.

There are two players who can match up well with him — Mapua’s Allwell Oraeme and San Beda’s graduated Ola Adeogun (technically, he can still play this season but I think both parties have moved on). I think NU’s Alfred Aroga could. The last time I know they met up, Aroga was beaten but he wasn’t himself that day as he was bothered by a family problem. So I await their next battle with baited breath.

Having said that, Mbala makes La Salle a massive favorite to win not only the FilOil tourney but even the UAAP as well.

As a whole and at this time of the year, people expect the Blue Eagles to be somewhat in the middle or close to the final product during the tourney even with all the experimenting and tinkering. But that changed when the academic calendar was adjusted by the school to conform to the international schedule. Even the FilOil tourney was pushed back to accommodate many schools. In turn that means adjusting the training, practices, and fitness and conditioning so they peak at the right time.

And more to my not being upset by the loss — most of the time, Ateneo loses to La Salle in the pre-season. What has happened in the past is that we got them in the UAAP. The one time we beat them in FilOil, we lost in the UAAP (during Bo Perasol’s first year). I trust in the coaching staff to whip this team into UAAP-shape so I won’t even bother commenting about strategies, substitution patterns, and whatnot.

I am fine. I’d rather win where it matters.

What gutted me more was losing those seven Blue Eagles to academics. And word is, there could even be more.

The night that I was informed of the development (two days before the news broke out), I couldn’t hide the hurt and the disappointment. I even cryptically posted about it on FB: "I feel effing deflated.” Many people thought I was tired from work. No. I was actually devastated by the news. I didn’t sleep well at all.

It isn’t because we went from a sure contender to a middling team. FAR FROM IT. I felt gutted for the players affected and their families, the team, and the school.

You cannot and should not simply say that “they boys did not make the grade.”

It isn’t that simple. You cannot simply distill this into Quality Point Indexes.

This is as loud a statement as there ever is that there is something wrong. Not only basketball but also other sports. For many years running, the men’s football team had the biggest casualty rate. When was the last time the basketball team suffered these many casualties? I can only think of the 1969 NCAA champion Blue Eagles wherein all the personnel lost were recruits. In essence, pundits viewed them as mercenaries hired to win a title and when accomplished booted out unceremoniously.

You can say that we don’t give a rat’s ass about what they say. Except you should. Because this tragedy will affect recruiting from here on.

Take a look at CJ Perez, for example. His career was put on hold for two years — one where he served out his residency and now, this year where he is out. He could have finished his playing years at San Sebastian where he would be a bonafide first round PBA pick. He still might. But what a bummer. Life interrupted.

Did we know that he also encountered assimilation problems while at San Sebastian? He left and went back home to Pangasinan. He eventually returned. And it happened a second time.

If you read the book "Soccernomics" (by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski), there’s a chapter on why football transfers fail or at least they used to. The authors researched that many footballers — uprooted from African, Asian or other European countries -- are brought to a new country, say England for example, and once deposited there, are expected to IMMEDIATELY PERFORM. Hit the ground running. Some do well, many do not.

Much to many teams’ regret, they found out later that they should have helped the recruit assimilate into the new country’s culture, ethics, language, club policies etc. More and more football clubs have since invested in this, ensuring that the newbies are not only squared away but also guided in their first years in their new country and team.

In the NBA, they have what they call the "Rookie Transition Program" where for four days, first-year players from the United States and overseas attend classes aimed at helping them make the jump to the professional ranks. They are given vital information on league rules, financial planning, media relations, retirement plans, and even ways of handling relationships with women.

It is no different from the recruits’ situation in Ateneo.

Sure we have the bridging program. That’s great. But I think aside from the academic tutors, I would like to respectfully recommend that they should also be provided MENTORS. Qualified ones who they can relate, confide, and learn. That should help immensely.

How many stories have we heard about recruits wanting to leave because they found it difficult to adjust and assimilate? We’ve heard that first hand from many many people you’d be surprised to know who they are (you can ask me and I will tell you who). This usually occurs in the first year however, it gets better after that. Nevertheless, it does affect them emotionally and academically.

But hold that thought for a moment.

In 1974, Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan resigned as head coach before the season ended when Conrad Banal and his son, Toy Dalupan, were knocked out of the Blue Eagles because of acads. Dalupan was incensed and decried the lack of academic support. Next year, placated, he returned to Ateneo.

In the past years, tutors were provided for student-athletes and that’s great. Now not every student-athlete takes it seriously and that’s their own lookout. This is where you separate the lazy and those with attitude problems from those having a tough time adjusting. Remember the data from "Soccernomics" -- you pull people from a different environment and think they should adjust. Yes, they should. But you should also protect, help, guide, and mentor your investments. We aren’t suggesting babying them.

Years ago, a swimmer informed me that some of their prized rookies who had led them to the championship were thinking of leaving at the end of the school year because they were homesick. The first thing I did was inform athletics officials who were shocked at the revelation. What happened? I do know one of their prized recruits left.

Sure, some student-athletes do not go to class thinking their being on the varsity team makes them untouchable. More so since they are blue-chip recruits. They could not be more wrong.

Putting them together in one dorm room has its pros and cons. In the case of the seven casualties, they all had the same problems and shared the same thoughts and feelings. Misery loves company. As such, they have no one to turn to. No one to guide them.

Mentoring is not the be-all and end-all. It is but one component outside the bridging programs and academic support. Equally important is the recruitment process.

I think that in recruiting we should not forget that first word in the term student-athlete. Are they willing to study? Do they really want to go to the Ateneo? Or is it because they are asking for a package so they can move?

Look. There will always be casualties. Nothing is perfect. There will always be people who cannot see the forest for the trees. There are those who can hack it and there are those who cannot. There are those who are lazy adn those with attitudes. That is fine. That holds truth anywhere in this world. However, at the end of the day, there is a obligation to see them through. Let me clarify that — NOT BABYING, NOT GIVING THEM A FREE PASS - but helping them in many ways. THIS ISN’T POINTING FINGERS TOO. I just think that maybe one bit of help is providing them with proper mentors to guide them. If that doesn’t work, well, that’s their lookout.

I know that some programs are in place designed to help them. Some of this recently installed before this problem. And that’s good. We have good people looking out for them too so you know. But like any “machine” it has to be re-tooled, re-jigged, refitted for new and spare parts every now and then.

This is a painful lesson and one everyone would do well to learn from.

Some time late in the third period of the Ateneo-La Salle match in the FilOil Flying V Premier Cup, a familiar figure walked around the corridors of the Filoil Flying V Centre. He wore a baseball cap that was pulled down low. Whether he was trying to be inconspicuous or not, it was impossible. His height gave him away.

Arvin Tolentino paused by the entrance that leads to the court, glanced at the score that indicated a blowout. Then he went back in, slumped against the wall and bowed his head.

There was nothing to say.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.