The heart of the UP Fighting Maroons has seen it all.
Paul Desiderio, like veteran team members still playing, Diego Dario, Gelo Vito and Jarrel Lim, he started with almost nothing. They have gone through the humiliation of winless seasons, and being the laughingstock of the UAAP.
Yes, the laughingstock of the league! Except that it’s not funny. Call it tragi-comic.
They commuted by public transport and went hungry during games. No post-match recovery meals for the boys. They practiced in a gym that has no insulation; it is an oven in summer. When it rains, they play half-court. The roof leaks on the other half. In the team’s dormitory, water was once cut off because of unpaid bills. Worst, their dorm itself got burned down. For a time, they were homeless. Homeless!
In fact, at one point, Desiderio got so despondent he contemplated going back to Cebu. But not because of the team’s condition, miserable as it was, but because he almost got left out, after taking a year off. He wanted back in. That was about three years ago.
Today, with fresh reinforcements, he leads a scrappy Fighting Maroons that has just reached the finals of the UAAP Season 81 in bruising, rollercoaster fashion.
They went through the early rounds like kids groping for the ball in the half-light. Some say they hardly looked like a real team at all. After miserably chalking up three wins and five losses, elimination hung in the air like past demons haunting. No one seriously hopes to reach the finals with such a record. But they doggedly played on, kept the faith, their wits, adjusted, and never lost a game after.
When UP finally beat the De La Salle Green Archers, the much promised Final Four goal that eluded the Fighting Maroons for 21 years happened. The UP community was totally mesmerized. Support at the stands shifted to high gear.
But it was one thing to beat the Green Archers that is without a Ben Mbala, and another thing to beat a Soaring Falcons that was equally title-hungry. Outside of UP, the smart money was really on the Falcons. With good reasons. They had a deep bench of really great players and had their eyes on the championship from the start. They had the twice-to-beat advantage, too. They were not second seeded for nothing.
But in two games that had all the elements of high drama, in two games that glitteringly displayed why competitive sports commands such profound human fascination, in two games that in fact might as well be the true championship match of UAAP Season 81, UP prevailed where it could have easily been otherwise, over the much favored Adamson Soaring Falcons.
So, on Saturday, It faces a better-rested defending champion, the Ateneo Blue Eagles, the league’s winningest, some say fanciest, most well-heeled team.
For a team that just a few years ago had nothing fancy at all to wrapped around their heels (one of the first things they got from the alumni was a pair of sneakers, courtesy of Senator Chiz Escudero), the Fighting Maroons' road to the finals was a miracle run.
This is the most compelling narrative of the UAAP’s Season 81.
To the UP community, even the halo of 1986 seems to have already receded into the mist of legends, like the Diliman Commune of the early 70s so consecrated in the memories of UP activists, as if that was where it belongs. Until recently, it’s like, O, we have basketball team, they’re playing out there, somewhere.
It’s not that the school’s mandarins didn’t care. As the premiere state-funded university, the nation’s best, and only national university in fact, there were just so many other pressing priorities, so many demands place upon its shoulders by a nation much in need of what it can give to make competitive sports, read basketball, a priority at all.
This is on top of its usual function as research and teaching institution across all eight constituency units in Diliman, Manila, Los Baños, Baguio, Iloilo, Cebu, Mindanao and the Open University, and running the mammoth Philippine General Hospital, the nation’s premier public hospital. All these make up the so-called UP System.
In short, UP is more than just a school and, even as a school, it is practically more than just one.
But the one thing that makes the UP really unique among all schools in the country, even among state colleges and universities, is that it is the only one with public service (also called extension services) as a key function enshrined in its Charter.
The University drums into the head of all its students the values of honor and excellence. But it’s really service to the public defines its true mission. As an institution, it inculcates the values of giving, and one can only truly give if a sacrifice is involved.
This is the reason why the saga of the Fighting Maroons is universally inspiring for all Filipinos. Given its woes, the bigger question at this point is no longer how they played, but why they play.
Take Paul Desiderio. After all he went through, he could have easily been forgiven if he called it quits and join the PBA draft where a lucrative career surely awaits him. But he did not. In his own words, he wanted to play one more season to give back to the UP community.
Whether he is aware of it or not, he is giving back to more than just the UP community. This is being UP in the highest sense. Fighting against terrible odds, inspiring hope, believing in oneself, and most of all, sacrifice in giving. And prevailing.
This is also what inspired Renan Dalisay, a UP alumni, when the coaching staff of the Maroons first told him of their woes way back in January 2014. The Maroons had a winless season the previous year.
Dalisay immediately contacted a coterie of close college friends like Taipan Millan and Ags Uvero. In their college days, they were part of an activist organization called Center for Nationalist Studies located at the top floor of Vinzons Hall. Together, they reached out to more friends, and started a purposely inclusive nowhere-to-go-but-UP movement to drum up alumni support from all sectors and organizations.
When they thought of the 2014 bonfire at the UP Sunken Garden to mark the Maroons' first victory (coincidentally, against then fellow bottom-dweller Adamson) after a string of 27 losses, they expected people to laugh. And they did. But they also gambled that it would signal a turnaround for the Maroons and catch the imagination of the UP community. And it did, too. The rest, as they say, is history.
The goal, as Dalisay explained to me, is to change mindsets. And this was clearly echoed by Fighting Maroons coached Bo (Dolreich to his college friends) Perasol who, fortunately, is not shy of bigger ideas. To paraphrase, he is out to get a change in culture to one of confidence, a mindset of winning and believing in ourselves.
After winning against the Soaring Falcons, there are some in UP who are now ready to say mission accomplished. After all, entering the season, reaching Final Four was what the UP MBT, or the 16 Strong as they call themselves, promised the faithful.
They lied. They wanted the championship all along. Go for, it boys!
The mass euphoria that erupted across UP was almost visceral, like the demons of doubt and defeatism were suddenly expurgated from its bowels. They are now giddy with anticipation of the coming finals match. You can expect the Ateneo Blue Eagles fans to respond in kind.
Everyone knows that battle drums are beating on both sides. Some are dubbing it the Battle of Katipunan. It sounds more like total war to me.
Basketball is life after all. But I like the deeper significance, not just to my fellow Iskos and Iskas. Let our boys fight be an inspiration to the country.
Let us believe, for our country, for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
(Editor's note: Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez, is an expert on Philippine labor issues and foreign relations. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He is currently a UP Regent, the highest governing body of the UP system.)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.