In ending a 22-year NCAA juniors’ basketball championship drought, the current Letran Squires brought not only glory to their alma mater, but also made fans remember the legacy of the 2001 iteration of the squad.
PBA veteran guard and former Letran Knight RJ Jazul spoke about how proud he is of the 2023 Squires, who have been paying tribute to their kuyas since the start of their Season 98 campaign.
“Sa akin, nakaka-proud personally (ang ginawa nila). Akala mo limot na. Kikilabutan ka rin eh, kung sino man nakaisip no'n, binalik nila eh,” Jazul said.
“They realized how important 'yung ginawa namin, na-realize nila gaanong kalaki 'yung ginawa namin,” the current Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters playmaker said.
Notably, the Squires played Season 98 all with shaved heads. It was head coach Allen Ricardo – Jazul’s contemporary – who came up with the idea to pay homage to the 2001 super team which included Jazul and eventual collegiate stars like JC Intal, Jay-R Reyes, and Rey Guevarra.
The Squires went go on to sweep the College of St. Benilde-La Salle Green Hills Greenies in the best-of-three finals series, clinching the title with a 77-61 win last Thursday.
The high-flying Andy Gemao was named Finals MVP, as he averaged 17.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in the series. The Muralla side also drew solid performances from Jovel Baliling and Jonathan Manalili in Game 2.
Jazul said he had the opportunity to personally talk with the Squires as early as before the NCAA tournament began, reminding them to stay grounded in spite of the hype.
“Na-check ko 'yung bata, I told them medyo hype kayo, malakas raw kayo, sabi ko sa kanila, sana you live up the hype. Iba na ang NCAA. Marami ang fans, ang eskwela. Fortunately, naayos naman nila,” he said.
The now 36-year-old elder statesman added that he always saw how dedicated the Squires were in their pursuit of ending a two decades-long dry spell.
“I went to their practice, grabe 'yung practice nila, sobrang intense, kaunti lang nakakakita ng practice, siyempre. Ang coaching staff, grabe rin ‘yung energy sa practice, nagulat ako,” Jazul recalled.
“Detailed (sila), alam ang mga ginagawa first group, second group, ang bilis ng pacing, attentive, hindi ka pwede tutulog-tulog, ‘yun ‘yung na-observe ko.”
It isn’t too difficult to notice the parallels between the 2001 and 2023 batches. When Letran won in Season 76, it snapped a 16-year title drought in the process.
At the time, the Jing Ruiz-coached selection also had to weather a formidable San Beda Red Cubs side that had JVee Casio, Ford Arao, and Yuri Escueta, to name a few -- like how Gemao and company bested regular season MVP Luis Pablo, Seven Gagate, and Josh Coronel of the Greenies.
Jazul is thankful that their successors reintroduced their legacy to the present generation through their platform, celebrating the juniors title without forgetting the men who blazed the trail for them.
“Before Game 1, pumunta ako sa kanila sa practice, nagpasalamat, told them ‘You made us proud,’ lalo na ‘yung batch namin,” he said.
“Well-deserved nila ang suporta ng management. Kapag makita nila ‘yung fruit ng labor nila, lalong gaganahan ‘yan maglaro. And they deserve that.”