The Fighting Maroons in the 1980s as told by UP legends

Rey Joble

Posted at May 14 2022 08:15 AM

Way before massive recruitment was being done by the college and university basketball powerhouses, players from University of the Philippines had been doing their own little part building up their squad, minus the boosters backing up the program.

These players, who originated from San Beda – including Joey Mendoza, Duane Salvatierra, Mon Celis, Dondie Roque, then Ronnie Magsanoc, Eric Altamirano and later on, Benjie Paras and Jigs Mendoza – established a continuity of the basketball program, which started from Mendiola and ended in Katipunan. 

“Napaka-interesting ng story niyan. At that time, wala pa namang recruiting talaga na ginagawa katulad ngayon. Kami-kami lang ang nagre-recruit sa bawat isa. I think bago kami, ’yung batch nina Joey Mendoza, sina Mon Celis, Dondie Roque, sila ’yung first who decided to play for UP. Kami naman, I think we were third-year, fourth-year high school,” Altamirano said.

“So pinapanood namin sila sa UP. Actually, they were a bit successful, they were able to go to the finals versus UE sa UAAP. And then, napapansin namin, every week, pumapasyal sila sa San Beda. Tapos kakamustahin kami. Sina Joey, sina Duane. Tapos ini-encourage kami, ‘Oh ano ha, next year, sama na tayo sa UP, ha? Ituluy-tuloy natin ’yung championship.’ Eventually, pumasok sa isip namin ’yun until we graduated high school. Si Ronnie nauna sa UP.”

When San Beda took a leave of absence in the NCAA due to uncontrollable off-court incidents happening from the late 1970s to early 1980s, the players saw an opportunity to bring their act to the UAAP. 

“Then, tamang-tama naman at that time, nag-leave of absence ang San Beda sa NCAA. I had a reason to leave and go to UP,” added Altamirano, who formed the deadly guard combination with Magsanoc during the Maroons’ successful 1986 campaign in the UAAP. 

“After that, kami naman ’yung nagri-recruit kay Benjie Paras naman tsaka kay Jigs Mendoza. Pumupunta kami sa San Beda, kinukumusta namin si Benjie. Eventually, he decided to play for UP. So nakumpleto namin ’yung first five nu’ng San Beda (high school).”

Paras played for only a year on San Beda’s high school squad in the NCAA, then the institution bolted out of the oldest collegiate basketball league in the country.

With his team not seeing action in the NCAA, he was salivating to play elsewhere.

“After playing for one year in the NCAA for San Beda, the school bolted out of the NCAA. That’s why coach Ato Badolato formed the Metro Manila Basketball League. During my last year with San Beda, there’s a still a chance for the school to go back to the NCAA. Coach Joe Lipa was talking to me during my last year kasama niya si Ronnie Magsanoc,” said Paras.

“Si Ronnie, sabi niya sa akin, the reason why he’s going to UP was because San Beda is not in the NCAA anymore. Sinabi naman ni Coach Ato na there’s no assurance. I really wanted to play for NCAA or UAAP. Nagkataon lang, my former teammates, sina Ronnie and Eric went to UP. Yun lang. Nung pumasok ako sa UP, tinanong ko si Coach Joe Lipa how is it sa UP? Paano yung pag-aaral ko? Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Bahala ka sa buhay mo.’ Pumasok ako sa San Beda, ganu’n rin sinabi sa akin eh, bahala ako sa buhay ko, so I realized this (UP) is the school for me. So I made the right choice.”

Paras was like a messiah sent to UP and true enough, he powered the Fighting Maroons to that dramatic run in 1986 when he helped his squad in ending the looming dynasty of the University of the East Warriors, who was led by Jerry Codiñera, then one of the biggest stars in the amateur ranks and was already a member of the national team program for two years.

But the battle-scarred squad of 1986 wouldn’t be tough enough to endure all those challenges had it not been for the bitter experience tasted by UP three years earlier.

In the 1983 UAAP championship game against the Glenn Capacio and Harmon Codinera-led Far Eastern University Tamaraws, the Fighting Maroons were two minutes away from winning the crown. 

“I remember ’yung first year namin ni Ronnie, we made it to the finals. We have a lot of very, very good veteran players. Sina Vincent Len Albino, Jojo Villanueva, Dondi Roque, Mon Celis, Ricky Dandan. Unfortunately, we lost to FEU led by Glenn Capacio and Harmon Codinera,” said Altamirano.

“Ang story noon, last two minutes we were up by 10. Everybody was excited. Si (then UP President) Edgardo Angara noon was staying at the hotel (Century Hotel) beside Rizal Memorial Coliseum. Ni-radyo na siya nu’ng kanyang assistant sabi sa kanya ‘Sir, punta na kayo dito, champion na tayo!’ And then, pagdating niya doon, the game got close. It came to the last few seconds and then lumamang pa ’yung FEU ng one point. Then, last 13 seconds, an offensive foul was called on FEU, so bola namin. I think at that time, Ronnie fouled out already. So we inbounded the ball, Coach Joe diagrammed a play for me to get the ball. But unfortunately, I was guarded, so Duane Salvatierra got the ball. We were waiting for him to do something, he dribbled the ball, hanggang maubusan ng oras. Everybody was shocked. Hindi kami naka-attempt, hindi kami naka-atake. We lost that game and it was a disheartening loss for us.”

The next two years was really an uphill climb for the Fighting Maroons.

Back in those days, the Final Four had yet to be implemented by most leagues in the country – be it in the collegiate, amateur or professional level.

“In my very first year, we lost the championship, kasama ko si Eric. Then the next year, hirap na hirap kaming manalo. The following year ganu’n na naman, hanggang sa dumating si Benjie sa roster ng UP Nu’ng araw ang hirap, hindi mo alam kung makakabalik ka sa finals kasi wala namang Final Four noon. Top two lang. In a winning run, there’s always that timing and things should fall in your way para makarating ka sa dulo,” said Magsanoc.

“Pero that was a special year for us, kasi nangyari yung mga hindi dapat mangyari and eventually, we were able to defeat UE.”

For Paras, he felt he came in at the right moment.

“I was looking at the line up, we have complete backcourt players, Magsanoc and Altamirano, tapos andu’n rin si Joey Guanio, Duane Salvatierra, Ramil Cruz. They’re missing one in the middle, No. 5. I was so lucky dahil during that time andun lahat – exposure, playing time, most of the play andun sa akin. It worked out really well for me. Naging maganda ’yung formula,” said Paras.

“Ako ’yung pampuno. Kumbaga ako ’yung takip sa bote kaya hindi matatapon yung laman.”

Magsanoc, who was also instrumental in luring Paras to join them at UP, put it into perspective the inclusion of his long-time buddy in the Fighting Maroons squad. 

“He made a decision to go to Diliman, despite the fact that there were offers for him to join other big schools. That was something we really needed because we had a donut in the middle. Pero si Benjie is a legitimate center and he’s no ordinary center. He solidified the position of one of our weak points,” said Magsanoc.

“Nabuo ulit, more than the San Beda connection, but also the chemistry, the brotherhood, mula noon hanggang ngayon na nadala namin. He was able to impact UP’s run in just his first year. I’m not saying na siya lang, si Joey (Guanio) lang, si Eric lang, kasi wala naming singularized sa basketball. It’s a team sport. Pero he created the biggest impact and he made the biggest change for the team for us to compete against a team led by Jerry Codinera pagdating sa finals.”

But there were bigger challenges along the way the Fighting Maroons had to face outside of their UAAP competition and to the young shoulders of Paras lie the responsibility of keeping his team afloat.

Magsanoc, Altamirano and even head coach Joe Lipa were key members of the Philippine men’s basketball team and for the most part, they missed crucial games, making their 1986 title drive a lot more challenging. 

“Ang hirap nu’ng 1986 season na ’yun. If you remember, Eric Altamirano, Ronnie Magsanoc and Coach Joe Lipa are in the Asian Games for the national team. They missed some games and they’re very crucial for us. Natalo pa kami ng UST and doon kami nagkaproblema and then dito sa FEU. Eventually nanalo naman at umabot sa playoffs against kailangan naming ma twice-to-beat ’yung FEU, which is not an easy team to beat. Imagine mo andun sina Jack Tanuan, Dong Postanes, Andy de Guzman. Ang lakas ng team na ’yun,” added Paras. 

UP was hoping to pull off a miracle as it found itself on the ropes and need to beat Adamson in order to set up another playoff match with title contender FEU. 

“Galing kami nina Ronnie noon sa Korea. We were part of the Asian Games team. At that time, feeling namin parang wala na kaming pagasang makapasok sa finals. Mayroon kaming playoff game against Adamson. Wala kami ni Ronnie, so si Benjie ’yung naiwan. But for some reasons, nanalo kami sa game na ’yun. That win set us up in a playoff game against FEU,” said Altamirano.

In the playoffs, an unsung hero rose to the occasion and keyed UP’s entry to the finals.

Enter Ramil Cruz, an unheralded forward and the unlikeliest guy to come up with big plays in big moments, but he showed nerves of steel and the presence of mind to preside when mattered the most.

“Si Ramil Cruz ang nagpanalo against FEU. At that time, ang rule noon sa game kapag na-foul ka, you have the option to wave (the free throws). Ganun ang ginawa ng FEU. We kept on fouling, I think we were down by one rin yata noon. We kept on fouling pero ayaw nilang mag-free throw. Finally after the third try, they were inbounding the ball and we were trying to defend them, we were able to get the steal. Si Ramil, kunyari hindi niya nakikita ’yung inbounder, pero nu’ng nag-throw lumabas siya to intercept the ball,” recalled Altamirano.

“Ang nakakatawa doon, halos madapa-dapa siya going to the basket kasi ang bilis ng takbo niya. He made that lay up to win the game. That was an unforgettable experience for us. That set us up for the championship against UE.”

The Warriors were standing on the way of the Fighting Maroons.

UE was already back-to-back champions and entering the championship round, UP needed to beat its rival twice in order to win the championship.

“UE, at the end of the eliminations, they were No.1 and then, twice-to-beat nga sa finals. Tapos, almost all of their players were playing in the PABL. Iba talaga ’yung mayroon kang Jerry Codinera at that time. He was dominating. It was a good match up for us, actually, dahil andu’n si Benjie who could match up with Jerry, but during the eliminations, tinatambakan kami ng UE, hindi kami manalo sa kanila. They’ve got our numbers. It was very evident para kaming namama. Veteran-laden sila,” added Altamirano.

The marquee match-up, of course, was Paras versus Codinera.

Paras was the budding star while Codinera was already a more established one, but the former got the better end of the match up in the championship round. 

“Going to the finals, mahirap. It’s not an easy game. Unang-una si Jerry Codinera, he’s not only a good post up player, he also has a good medium-range shot. ’Yun ’yung nagiging problema namin. If you give him an outside shot, I need to go out to pressure him. If I go out, nawawalaan kami ng rebound. Doble kayod kami sa depensa. Pero it’s a good thing our outside shots were sinking in. ’Yun ’yung naging key rin sa amin. Isa pa, we ran the plays tapos we controlled the game,” said Paras.

Magsanoc could only agree with Paras’ observation against the more experienced Warriors.

“Jerry was the leader of UE, pero hirap kami talaga kami sa kanila kasi they have bigger guards – Boycie Zamar and George Ella, tapos sina Wilmer Banares, na mga mama na yung katawan at mga sanay na manalo. Tapos mga big men nila, may mga shooting sa labas,” added Paras.

But the Fighting Maroons were able to pull it off and it was a great moment for Salvatierra to redeem himself from the endgame meltdown three years earlier.

“I’m glad that we were able to win it after three years. Si Duane Salvatierra, talagang hindi niya makalimutan ’yun. For four seasons, tiniis niya ’yun and he was able to redeem himself in 1986,” said Altamirano.

More than anything else, Altamirano believed that Lipa should also be given much credit for coming with an excellent game plan that surprised UE.

“Hats off to our coach, he really had a very, very good game plan against UE. It was something na hindi pa nakikita ng UE. I think the game plan was something Coach Joe got when we were in the Asian Games. Nobody expected us to beat UE, but when you talk to Coach Joe, talagang mananalo kami. Ganu’n ’yung confidence niya. We just looked up to him, follow him, kasi he gave us that confidence that we can beat UE,” said Altamirano.

Altamirano capped his big day with another victory as hours after winning the championship in the UAAP, as he went straight to play for his mother team in the PABL, YCO.

“We played our championship game sa ULTRA, around 12 noon. So natapos siya, around 2 p.m. Talagang I didn’t have time to celebrate with my teammates kasi we have that 3:30 game something like that, sa Rizal Memorial naman. So right after our game, I have to travel and go straight to our PABL game. I think I was late by a quarter. Dumating ako doon almost matatapos na ’yung first quarter,” said Altamirano.

“Very memorable siya kasi during that game, it went to overtime. I made the three-point shot to send the game to overtime and helped us win that game. Kalaban namin noon was Purefoods. Napaka-blessed ko naman nu’ng araw nay un, kasi I played well pa in both games (UAAP and PABL).”