It was something that had surprised the world. One of the first things rebuilt from the rubbles of Yolanda were basketball hoops.
In an essay by the Associated Press, it wrote:
“They found the hoop in the ruins of their obliterated neighborhood. They propped up the backboard with broken wood beams and rusty nails scavenged from vast mounds of storm-blasted homes.
A crowd gathered around. And on one of the few stretches of road here that wasn't overflowing with debris, they played basketball.”
Try as foreigners might, they could not seem to fathom the kind and depth of obsession Filipinos have for the sport. But I do. We all do.
I come from that generation that lived and breathed basketball, that now-middle-aged group of men and women that had repeatedly been made to listen to their elders' tales of Philippine supremacy in the sport – of consecutive Asian gold medals, back-to-back FIBA Asia championship trophies, and that FIBA World Championship bronze medal finish of '54.
I grew up to the Crispa-Toyota rivalry; listened intently on the radio for a play-by-play narration of every game through the intermittent crackle of the late '70s broadcast; later, sat huddled with family and friends, glued to the oversized wood-enclosed television set that easily took up a third of the sala; and relished the Fernandez-Jaworski battles all the way to the days of Purefoods-Ginebra when TV sets evolved to have just a little less heft and a lot more color.
Through those years, Philippine basketball maintained the resilient character of the Filipino, that “never say die!” attitude ingrained so deeply in our collective consciousness.
Looking back, I guess this is why the sport has always been close to our hearts. Filipinos have always cheered for the “underdog” because that's what we are—underdogs.
Dehado kung dehado. Pero palaban. Lumalaban. Walang inuurungan!
Our youth build their dreams atop makeshift hoops tied perilously to electric posts or nailed to trees. At one time or another, we had all scuffled about, dribbling on uneven ground, disturbing the dust below, in pursuit of each goal.
Grit before glitz. Valor over glamor. The passion to Win, against the temptation to win easily. Precisely, the kind of attitude why I had, as a UP freshman, gotten hooked to Collegiate basketball; exactly why I am now drawn back to it like the Isko who was part of the community of the brave cheering for a team that had embodied its ideals.
Those where the days. UP was at the zenith of College basketball just as it was at the forefront of student activism. Our Maroons took the championship in '86 in the same year our countrymen won back their freedom.
I don't know if it was something that reflected the “mood” of the times. After the jubilation, the “ultimate victory,” we seemingly grew complacent. We were the best but had stopped getting better. '86 was UP's last championship. Every year since was a disappointment, in varying degrees. We had built up leads in the first half only to squander them in the dying minutes. We surged on early but could not follow through 'til the end.
UP has been crown-less in 27 years and winless in the last three.
Recently, when I met somebody from the Maroon's coaching staff, I got to learn why: our team has been playing hungry, literally.
I talked with the players and also heard it from them firsthand. Asked what they needed the most, they replied: “We need more food.”
They have been going to practice on empty stomachs, playing competitive games without the nourishment required of a student-athlete. They've been walking on foot from one class to the next, one destination to another to save a coin or two for their education. They have not been receiving their allowances, the measly sum of anywhere from P5,000 to P10,000 – a pittance considering what they have to go through to play for the country's Premiere University while measuring up to its stringent academic standards.
Recently, electricity in their quarters was cut off because of “unpaid bills.”
The game has grown sickeningly “commercialized,” I know. UP stands by its ideals, I know, too. The University rewards integrity and excellence, but if its meager budget does not allow it to, should not the Alumni step in?
Other Universities invest shamelessly in their athletes. Should we not share a little if only to afford our fellow-Isko the modicum of self-respect?
One of our players was offered what would translate in any parlance as a “bribe” - allowances of all sorts, housing, and the spot cash of P1 million – just to play for another school. He is 17, young, impressionable and impoverished like most of his teammates, saying “yes” would have been the easier and more lucrative response. True to his UP education, I was told, he gave an emphatic “No!”
But like I said, basketball has grown shamelessly commercialized these days. The other school went directly to our player's hometown to talk to his parents. If the kid won't agree, perhaps, the parents will be a tad less uncompromising, they must have thought.
Our Maroon, having learned of what happened, borrowed money, practically begging for airfare so he can convince his parents otherwise. Back in his hometown, he pleaded with them: “I am staying in UP. I will get my UP diploma. UP is my team, my second family, my community!”
Of course, every parent would want the best for their children. The offer was tempting, sure, but the kid's plea was also unbending. The father requested only one thing: one win, one win out of several games in a season; not the championship, not the MVP, just one win; not the sun and the stars, just a ray of hope that this adolescent does not waste away his future on something so abstract as the “UP way.”
Hearing the story evoked a feeling similar to what I had felt when I first set foot in Guian, Samar after the great storm. Right there and then, only one question loomed in my head: What can I do to help?
There, amidst the ruins, they play the game for the sheer joy of it, like any sport should be, competitive or otherwise. Here, despite poverty and the allure of the “easy buck,” one of ours needs help so he can continue pursuing a childhood dream.
If basketball can help a nation cope with devastation, surely its people can give back to those who live only to honor the game.
This kid, or rather, this man of 17 years, has reminded me of what I have long learned – though sometimes forget – from UP. It is not so much about winning as it is about playing to deserve the victory.
Sa kanyang mumunting paraan, sa tatag ng kanyang paninindigan, ipinaalala niya sa aking hubad ang tagumpay kung hindi nagmula sa pagmamahal – pagmamamahal sa komunidad, at pagmamahal sa bayan.
I had dinner with him at my home. He finished all the leftover desserts in the fridge and I could not be happier. At least, those would be a few more calories to burn during practice, a little more energy to bring the team closer to the goal of “1 win.”
I did not promise him what other schools offered. I had neither the resources nor the disrespect for that grease. What I have are friends, fellow alumni, whom I know have the generosity to justify the varsity's faith in its school. I committed to begin passing the hat—for decent meals, for Ikot fare, for lights in their sleeping quarters. I promised I would be part of a community—the UP community—that has never been known to abandon its own.
Right now, like his father, all I want is 1 win. Where we are, where we have been, and how we have defiantly bounced back from adversity, I know we have nowhere to go but UP.
But mostly because our Maroons want nowhere else to be, deserve nowhere else to be, but UP.