I don’t know why Ateneans care so much that we win championships in UAAP basketball. I didn’t care in my grade school and high school years, and only in college did it matter. We somehow won back-to-back titles then, in 1987–88, the second over rival La Salle, and it seemed all was right with the world.
But decades as a sports fan have taught me that glory fades, that titles change hands as easily as the seasons turn. Challengers turn into champions, and champions easily turn into also-rans. Between 1988 and 2002 were years in which we were happy to lose only as many games as we won and to take the occasional win over our rivals over on Taft, who had transformed into the league’s 800-pound gorilla.
Perhaps it’s only natural, this being a basketball-crazy country. If Auburn and Alabama bloody each other on the gridiron playing a quirky sport beloved only in the United States (American football, one of the few sports I have absolutely no interest in following), Ateneo and La Salle bring out the best in each other on the hardcourt. I suppose if we were in Europe, our soccer teams would be our pride and joy.
Our delight in basketball success can’t be matched in other realms. True, the recent success of our volleyball teams (the Alyssa Valdez–led women’s team won two straight, breaking La Salle’s stranglehold on the crown, while the men’s team led by Marck Espejo recently completed a three-peat) brings us pride, but only in the success of our men’s basketball team do we feel the deepest satisfaction. ’Twas always so, and I’m afraid (with apologies to athletes in other sports) will be for a long, long time.
It was no surprise that discontent among the faithful in blue ran higher and higher in the years after the Slaughterhouse Five era ended. Between the last championship with Kiefer Ravena in the fold and the first with younger brother Thirdy, six years went by. A championship drought, perhaps, but nothing compared to the 32 years U.P. has wandered in the parched wilderness.
Bo Perasol, who had the unenviable task of taking the reins when Norman Black, architect of that stretch of dominance, stepped down, walked into a minefield. He was never Atenean enough, it seemed, and he rode the comet named Kiefer Ravena as it flashed brightly across the night sky. Perasol’s time with the Eagles will forever be remembered (fairly or not) for isolation-heavy basketball, the rock in his star player’s hands, to win or lose the game with last-minute heroics (or failure). After three years, Perasol took his wares up the street to UP, where the expectations were far lower. This was a school, after all, that lit a bonfire after it won a single game to break a long streak of futility. The pleasant surprise is that success has indeed come. The Maroons are in the finals after an upset of second-seed Adamson.
Too bad their Katipunan brethren have done even better. After the departure of Perasol, Tab Baldwin came aboard just months after leading the Philippines to an unlikely but exhilarating run in the 2015 FIBA Asia Cup. Expectations weren’t high, as a good number of players were left off the team because of academic deficiencies. Players need to be good students too, in this school. Damn, this school’s adherence to excellence.
After a lackluster start, the team won six straight games to make the playoffs then barged into the finals. There they got clobbered by old rivals La Salle who, with Ben Mbala, the Rivero brothers, and new coach Aldin Ayo, had once again transmogrified into a behemoth. The next year was different. The Blue Eagles topped the league in wins and beat La Salle in three tense games. The drought was over.
Meanwhile, our brethren just up the street have always seemed to care less about athletics. Or at least about basketball, maybe because their run of ineptitude has been much longer than ours. We probably didn’t care too, or pretended not to, during those long dark years when we couldn’t get within sniffing distance of a trophy.
But nothing succeeds like success, and nothing energizes like winning. Suddenly all my UP friends have lit my Twitter and Facebook feeds alight with their chatter. They’re all excited about the finals, about the “Battle of Katipunan,” about the possibility of the fairy tale actually coming true.
The odds are against it. This season the Blue Eagles have looked every inch like champions, dismantling (after early-season hiccups) everyone in sight. Something extraordinary would have to happen for the Maroons to prevail in two of three games. But then, strange things happen all the time in sports.
And frankly, I don’t think Ateneans will feel torn up if their team loses to the underdogs in maroon. I know I won’t. I’d rather win, yes, but I can’t bring myself to despise the opponent, the way I might if Adamson, or FEU, or La Salle had gotten through. I think I’d feel rather pleased for them. They do so well in other fields, might as well allow them their moment of glory in basketball. This is, after all, the university of the nation, the one that attracts young hopefuls all across the land with dreams of a better life.
Wait, no. I’m happy for the UP Maroons, and for the school’s alumni and fans who have waited so long for their team to get this far. But as one Atenean eloquently said on Twitter, it’s good that Ateneans are happy for U.P. but “it’s freaking ON on Saturday, OBF pa rin mga ulol.”
I know it’s been 32 years since your last championship, but I want the wait to last a little longer. We Ateneans wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to be the best at this. It’s in our (blue) blood.