Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, February 3, 2020

My Favorite NBA Player per Team

Okay…. finally wading in with this….

Name your favorite player of all-time from each NBA team 
Copy and repost for this challenge

1. Atlanta Hawks – Dominique Wilkins
2. Boston Celtics - Larry Bird
3. Brooklyn / New Jersey Nets – Jason Kidd
4. Charlotte Hornets - Glen Rice
5. Chicago Bulls - Michael Jordan 
6. Cleveland Cavaliers - LeBron James
7. Dallas Mavericks - Dirk Nowitzski
8. Denver Nuggets – Alex English
9. Detroit Pistons – Isiah Thomas
10. Golden State Warriors – Chris Mullin
11. Houston Rockets – Moses Malone
12. Indiana Pacers – Chuck Person
13. LA Clippers – Blake Griffin
14. LA Lakers – Kobe Bryant
15. Memphis Grizzlies – Pau Gasol
16. Miami Heat – Dwyane Wade
17. Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo
18. Minnesota Timberwolves - Kevin Garnett
19. New Orleans Pelicans – Anthony Davis
20. New York Knicks – John Starks
21. Oklahoma City Thunder – Russell Westbrook
22. Orlando Magic – Shaquille O’Neal
23. Philadelphia 76ers – Julius Erving
24. Phoenix Suns - Steve Nash
25. Portland Trail Blazers – Clyde Drexler
26. Sacramento Kings – Chris Webber
27. San Antonio Spurs - Manu Ginobili
28. Toronto Raptors - Vince Carter
29. Utah Jazz – John Stockton
30. Washington Wizards – John Wall

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Liverpool’s 2019-20 campaign in perspective

Liverpool’s campaign in perspective
By Rick Olivares

One of the biggest stories in sports these days is Liverpool Football Club’s pursuit of its first Premier League title, the trophies and records they are taking and smashing, and their undefeated run. That makes for plenty of copy and talk show fodder just about anywhere. 

Let me wade in.

I find it a bit surprising that lately -- week after week – football pundits talk about Liverpool not playing well and winning games by the skin of their teeth.

In my opinion, it is doubly harder for Liverpool because of the following: 
-       They are reigning UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup champions and combined with their being title favorites, it all adds to the pressure. 
-       There is the burden of the keeping the streak going. Yes, they may not talk about it, but there is immense pride in keeping it going. 
-       And everyone wants to knock them off their perch even if to deny them a season of being invincible. Every team has circled those Liverpool dates in red; no pun intended. 

Let’s compare this Liverpool 2019-20 season to Arsenal’s 2003-04 season when they were undefeated and won the Premier League title.

One Goal-wins from Aug-Jan.
Draws from Aug-Jan
Goals for Aug-Jan
Goals against Aug-Jan
Clean Sheets
Goals for last 20 mins by team Aug-Jan
Goals against in last 20 mins by opponent Aug-Jan

What can we infer from this data?

Thus far, Liverpool is better. They have more wins and fewer draws than Arsenal. The Reds also have more goals, more clean sheets, and more late goals. Liverpool has won two cups in this season – the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. They were runners-up in the FA Community Shield.

Arsenal scored more goals early but conceded slightly more in the last 20 minutes. At that point in time (January of 2004), Arsenal was in contention for the League Cup, FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League. The Gunners reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the League Cup, were runners-up in the FA Community Shield.

Entering the 2003-04 season, Arsenal were the defending champions, but crucial losses late in the season to Blackburn and Leeds plus three draws saw Manchester United move past them for the title. They were five points off United in the final tally. So entering the 2003-04 season, they were still favorites. 

Liverpool on the other hand, even if they won the UEFA Champions League had lots of questions. They lost the Community Shield to Manchester City at the start of the season. In all the previous seasons when they finished second in the Premier League, they disappointed in the next.

This one has been much different. They have a 40-match unbeaten run dating back to the 2018-19 season. They need to cap the season with their first Premier League trophy.

An undefeated season is gravy. What they are after are more trophies. More silverware further validates what they are doing and will help in attracting more and better players to the club (not to mention more revenue).

However, going back to my initial premise, I think the reason why they are not at their free-flowing best is the opposing clubs have been trying to play them better. They are also a little more pragmatic on defense. During manager Jurgen Klopp’s early years with the club, they leaked a lot of goals because they committed more players forward. They are selective in their press now and have placed a premium on defense.

They have a 16-point lead against defending champions Manchester City and have a game in hand. This has been their best stretch of December and January matches in all the seasons where they challenged for the title. 

In those failed campaigns past, it is these months is where their dreams came crashing; where they coughed up leads. Some might point to the slip of former captain Steven Gerrard against Chelsea several years ago (and the loss to Crystal Palace) or the loss to Man City last year as what killed their chances, but in my opinion, it is the December chill and the January brain freeze that has let them down.

Now they are past that. A new set of challenges await them.

This remains an interesting season and I am not listening to those who say that, “It’s over!” I hear you Alberto Moreno.

Monday, January 6, 2020

A shift in tactics for UP?

A shift in tactics for UP?
By Rick Olivares

Have the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons changed their team tactics?

Looking at the past four years during head coach Bo Perasol’s tenure, at the most, they had three or four players (Diego Dario and the Gomez de Liaño brothers with Will Gozum coming in) coming up from the Junior Fighting Maroons to add to the recruits. For the longest time, UP has stuck to the players who came up from their first year. However, in the last three years, they have gone for transferees.

In Season 80, they picked up Jun Manzo from the University of Visayas and Rob Ricafort (who started out with De La Salle then transferred to the University of Santo Tomas before changing his zip codes to that of UP Diliman). 

In Season 81, It was Manzo, Bright Akhuetie (University of Perpetual Help System Dalta), and JD Tungcab (Adamson University).

This past Season 82, in addition to Manzo, Akhuetie, and Tungcab, they added Kobe Paras (Cal State Northridge), Ricci Rivero and Jayboy Gob (DLSU), and Jaybie Mantilla (University of San Jose Recoletos). 

In this off-UAAP season, they have brought in Centro Escolar’ University’s Malik Diouf and one player who cannot be named right now from another UAAP college team.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, some of these players left their previous schools of their own volition or were jettisoned for one reason or another. It is to UP’s advantage and fortune that they were able to scoop up all this talent.

Does this represent a shift in putting together a team that will bring home that elusive title back to Diliman? Possibly. They have spent a lot of money in making this team very competitive. I think this also signifies that Perasol has been very good at recruitment. He has shown this also during his three seasons in charge of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

Many schools have resorted to acquiring transferees because you are getting players who are tried and tested.

Letran made good use of that this past season when they upset San Beda for the NCAA Season 95 title behind Larry Muyang (who transferred from DLSU) and Bonbon Batiller and Fran Yu (who were left out in the cold at the University of the East by their former coach). They were also able to pry away rookie Paolo Javillonar who gave a good account of himself during the summer leagues with College of St. Benilde.

The time is now for UP to win while La Salle is in the process of re-arming and while Ateneo has lost vital cogs in their three-peat charge. UST has soaked in a lot of experience, but they will need to find a couple of players to fill in the slots vacated by Renzo Subido and Zach Huang. FEU also is in a state of flux having lost the remnants of their last title team as they have completed their youth movement. 

There is nothing that says that one needs a homegrown program to win. Ideally. But it isn’t a prerequisite even for all of Ateneo’s success or to a certain extent, San Beda. 

National University has beefed up its high school team and have seen a number of them move up to the seniors ranks.

The Mapua Cardinals have gone that route in the last few years since they brought in local hero, Randy Alcantara, first to coach the juniors team, and now the seniors squad. The homegrown route though isn’t a standard. It is the exception.

Back to UP… the Fighting Maroons finished Season 82 with a 9-7 record. In Season 81, they were 9-8. In Season 80, they finished 6-8, and in Season 79, during Coach Bo’s first year at the helm, they ended with a 5-9 slate.

Yes, they have definitely gotten better over the years, and having accomplished that, I think Perasol deserves another shot at the opportunity to win his alma mater the big prize.

And UP – all schools in fact -- being competitive is good for college basketball. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Last Dance

The Last Dance
by rick olivares

Recently, there was this trailer for a 10-part documentary series titled, The Last Dance. It is about the sixth championship season of the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98. That documentary is supposed to premier sometime in 2020.

I have noticed in the last couple of years all this renewed love for Michael Jordan while this Greatest Player of All Time debate with LeBron James on the opposite side rages on. And true enough, we will see a lot of new interviews with key figures during that era. 

I have previously written about that GOAT debate and do not see the need to discuss that again because my arguments have not changed. 

I will say this though… in about 10 years or so…. LeBron James will get a lot of praise. He will not overtake Michael Jordan as the GOAT. There is this video on YouTube that specifically zeroes in on Michael Jordan’s two-year stint with the Washington Wizards and while that club never made the play-offs, MJ’s stats were even better than many of today’s stars. And how old was Michael during that time? How long was his lay-off from competitive basketball? The results are astounding.

As for LeBron… even as a fan of the King, I think that not only does he need to win more titles to even be in that same sentence as Jordan. However, I am sure that in a decade or so, James will be celebrated. 

Back to The Last Dance. I have DVDs and books about the Bulls from their pre-title days to that fateful season. I have all the books and magazines too. Yet, I do know that for that entire NBA season, a camera crew followed the Chicago Bulls everywhere and recorded a lot of footage with a lot that many will not be able to see. I am even sure that lot of that footage will end up in the cutting room for this 10-part series. That doesn’t change the fact that I am excited for this. It revisits a totally different era when hand checking was allowed and the least of your worries.

Speaking of cutting table. How come in that trailer, Toni Kukoc was nowhere to be seen? Ditto with players like Luc Longley?

I remember Bulls forward Jud Buechler saying in one of those interviews from that season that 25 years from that title run, everyone will know where each one is. And maybe so. That was a special team. Coaches included. And they had some colorful coaches during their ride from Phil Jackson himself to Johnny Bach to Tex Winter. And hopefully, they do show where each and everyone one of those Bulls is now.

Lest someone say that I am living in yesterday, let me just say that I do enjoy today’s NBA or even international basketball. While in the last two seasons, I gravitated back to my childhood team of the Philadelphia 76ers, I still follow the Chicago Bulls. They do have an interesting line-up as well.

Furthermore, there have been a lot of interesting storylines that sprung up in the wake of The Last Dance. The Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron in Cleveland. The Decision. The Miami Heat. The rise of the Golden State Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs’ success. And there’s more.

But in terms of drama factor and controversy, it is the Kobe Bryant Lakers and LeBron James that will make for interesting documentaries 20 years from now. But that’s for later… The Last Dance is on deck. And that’s some of the best sports news in this old year of 2019. 

When my column returns in the new year, we will hand out our traditional Brewskies Awards.

Thanks for reading. Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League 2019-20

The Round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League. We are playing Atletico Madrid.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Iloilo United Royals: A love for the game and the region

The Iloilo United Royals: A love for the game and the region
by rick olivares

The streaking Iloilo United Royals are gunning for their sixth consecutive win when they take on the Rizal Xentro Mall Golden Coolers on the 16th of December at the Imus City Sports Complex. The Royals, at 14-8, are just as flush with confidence as they are with the Holiday cheer.

Why not? They are the hottest expansion team in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League.

Although an Iloilo team is always a possibility, how this current team was put together is a story onto itself.

The germ of the idea for the Royals was hatched on the golf course with current team owner JJ Javelosa and current team assistant coach Nash Racela. The plan proceeded when Racela’s longtime coaching assistant Eric Gonzales was invited to join them at the golf clubhouse a week later. 

Racela and Gonzales had a pool from which to tap players (Far Eastern University) while Javelosa would bring in his son, Jay Javelosa who played for Ateneo. Basketball was in the elder Javelosa’s blood. His father was a teammate of Moro Lorenzo in the post-World War II Ateneo Blue Eagles squads. Jay won a juniors title with Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal and later played for Ateneo Team B in college. 

JJ was disappointed that his son was unable to suit up for the UAAP team. The Iloilo MPBL team would give his son a chance to showcase his wares (Jay also played for the youth national teams). 

The idea was broached to Manny Pacquiao who greenlit the plan. Except that it hit a snag when the initial sponsor backed out. Luckily for Javelosa, he was able to secure some other help to make the Iloilo team a reality.

“The reason why we added ‘United’ to our team name is because we want all Illongos to get behind the Royals,” explained JJ who is from Jaro.  In fact, the majority of the Royals hail from Iloilo making each game more personal. 

The word “Royals” was a reference to the city’s being known as the former ‘queen city of the south” before it was accorded to Cebu.

Filipino-American Jasper Parker’s parents hail from the area. John Mahari’s mother is also from Iloilo. Ditto with Boy Sinco, Aaron Jeruta, Andrei Pantin, Jesery Pedrosa, Jason Li, Gerry Abadiano, and Leo Guion. 

The team has been a hit with the Illongos which says something as football is the local sport. 

Furthermore, the team runs on the tightest of budgets yet makes everything work from payments to operations. They aren’t the most moneyed team, but the Iloilo United Royals play like it has something to prove and a people to represent.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Winners, Sleepers & Questions from the 2019 PBA Draft

Winners, Sleepers & Questions from the 2019 PBA Draft
by rick olivares

Another cast of hopefuls has come and gone. And truthfully, there aren’t enough teams in the PBA. The talent pool is just too much. I’d say it is just right to have an 18-team league. That is for an article for another day. 

In the meantime, here is how we look at the just-concluded PBA Draft.

The Big Winners are… Columbian Dyip and Ateneo de Manila
Columbian Dyip added two quality players in Isaac Go and Roosevelt Adams to an exciting roster that just needs to mature. The excitement levels just went off the charts when you think of how CJ Perez will team up with Adams. Go on the other hand provides smarts, shooting, and rebounding. They already have some keepers in Rashawn McCarthy and Jackson Corpuz. All this team needs now is to mature.

All six Blue Eagles in the draft pool were selected by a team  - Isaac Go, Matt and Mike Nieto, Adrian Wong, Aaron Black, and Vince Tolentino. Had Thirdy Ravena been available, that would have been seven. 

They are the most successful college program since 1999. Since that time, they have sent more than 50 players to the pros. Only one was not drafted since 1999. 

Big picks up but how do they fit in? 
Barangay Ginebra selected Arvin Tolentino and Jerrick Balanza in the first and second round respectively. They have a stacked and loaded line-up. How the two fit in remains to be seen.  Unfortunately, both need the ball to be effective. 

Tolentino is in the same mold as former Ginebra player Kevin Ferrer. If they couldn’t fit Ferrer (who is a better defender than Tolentino), I don’t know how this former FEU Tam will manage.

Balanza is such an incredible story after his comeback from a near-career-ending illness.  He can be like CJ Perez; a person who can create and wreak Havoc WITH HIS Athleticism. 

Methinks they will be good.
Sean Manganti (NorthPort) and Aris Dionisio (Magnolia) will be better than advertised. Manganti will be like the second coming of Arwind Santos. A tall and talented athletic player who can create his own shot and for others, can post up, and defend. He has thrived in an offense where other players were the first or second options. 

Dionisio will be the linchpin of Magnolia’s defense and become a huge part of their offense. This kid is a winner. He has won everywhere he has played. I am surprised he fell this far. But that is Magnolia’s gain.

I like Alaska’s selection of Lyceum’s Jaycee Marcelino. They have a player who is Jason Castro fast and Jason Castro-pest. I just wonder if their system is a right fit for him.

A huge step for Philippine men’s volleyball

A huge step for Philippine men’s volleyball
by rick olivares pic by arvin lim

There is no denying that despite the power game that characterizes men’s volleyball, it has taken a far backseat to women’s volleyball. Maybe because you’ve got dozens of pretty lasses playing the game and the long rallies make for roller coaster excitement. The men’s league – Spiker’s Turf is played to almost no fanfare and believe it or not – save for the finals – in non-air-conditioned setting (there isn’t much of a crowd to begin with).

But that could all change after that huge semi-finals win over defending Southeast Asian Games champion, Thailand, in five nerve wracking sets (17-25, 25-20, 23-25, 27-25, 17-15).

That win sent the Philippines in a finals encounter against Indonesia that defeated them in the group stage. Now the Filipinos have a chance for payback. If not, the lowest they can get is a silver medal. And this will make the best finish ever.

In the Philippines’ best ever showing in the biennial regional competition (3-1 thus far), there are already a lot of heroes and great stories. Then men’s volleyball team just crowded that storyline and list of heroes.

That tandem of Bryan Bagunas and Marck Espejo has really caused opponents problems with terrific contributions by Ave Joshua Retamar and Kim Malabunga. The rest of the roster is no slouch as head coach Dante Alinsunurin getting good performances out of Rex Intal, Ran Abdilla, and Ricky Marcos. 

The core of this team has won the last five UAAP men’s volleyball titles with players coming from National University and Ateneo de Manila University. They have two of the biggest names in the game in Bagunas and Espejo who has also played abroad (in Japan). 

The fact that Espejo and female wunderkind Alyssa Valdez (who has also played abroad in Thailand) and Jaja Santiago are breaking new ground says something about the local game. That it is getting better and we are starting to export players.

Imagine. In the Asean Basketball League (ABL), Filipino players are imports as well. And now, following football, we are seeing Filipinos go abroad to ply their trade. And that is good. This will inspire the young to know that there is a future in the sport.

And to think that the Philippine Men’s Volleyball Team isn’t done. There is a gold medal game to play. Who knows what will follow?

I can only look laterally. When the Azkals booked that historic semi-finals seat of the 2010 Suzuki Cup, one of the biggest beneficiaries of that was the old United Football League. 

Hopefully, after this, Spiker’s Turf attracts new crowds, attention, and media scrutiny. And maybe then, they can start playing in air-conditioned gyms.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Torchlight and Bonfire: An Ateneo celebration

Torchlight and Bonfire: An Ateneo celebration
by rick olivares

Around 10:40 in the evening of the 23rd of November, 2019, several Ateneo student-athletes – all champions in their respective sports in the first semester of the year – made their way down from the stage at the Ateneo Grade School parking lot. They were all going to light the bonfire.

When the wood was set ablaze, a cheer rose up and the alma mater song was sung.

And thus continued an 82-year tradition of championship celebration by the school’s varsity teams.

Where did this is begin?

When a fire razed the Ateneo campus inside Intramuros on the night of August 13, 1932, a defiant and proud group of students, led by their American Jesuit professors, began singing school songs and hymns.

When it looked like the Ateneo seniors team was going to win the NCAA crown in 1937, Fr. John McCarron, S.J., the school’s varsity teams’ chaplain and later, athletic moderator, thought back to beach bonfires and how people talked and shared stories and experiences. And he also remembered the fateful night of the 13thof August 1932 when a fired razed the Ateneo campus inside intramuros. 

No one knows how it all started, but as the building were eaten up by the flames, students, faculty, and Jesuit mentors began singing school hymns. Whether it was in defiance or merely putting on a brave front, it was cathartic. 

Just like sports.

The score was 36-22 with two minutes left in the game when “Roll Up the Victory” erupted from the Ateneo side of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. It might have been a lot of time left in the game for Jose Rizal College to catch up, but to the Ateneans in the gallery along with their cheerleaders – Raul Manglapus, Luke Paredes, and Frankie Romualdez – knew it was over.

True enough, the score ended in a 40-26 triumph for the Ateneo blue and whites. And on September 30, 1937, Ateneo was NCAA champion for the fifth time. They had played eight games and won seven of them.

After the match, the school’s Rector, Fr. Carroll I. Fasy, S.J., organized the student body. They patiently waited for their heroes led by head coach Totoy Bautista, Jess Arce who was a high school senior already playing for the college team, star guard Simon LaO, forwards Fermin “the Black Fury of Zamboanga” Fernando and James “Wonder Boy” Hampton, and Cesar Basa among others to file out. 

When the blue and whites (this was a good two years before Ateneo sports team formally adopted the Blue Eagle moniker) got out of the RMC, a raucous cheer greeted them as some 500-plus students yelled their hearts out.

With school officials and their cheerleaders leading them, the Ateneo throng with several dozen holding up torches turned left into Taft (and right in front of De La Salle College) then right into Herran (now Pedro Gil) then to Dakota along Mabini then all the way to Padre Faura. Normally, the walk from Vito Cruz to Ateneo’s new campus in Padre Faura would take 30 minutes. But with this route, it took them a little over an hour.

This was the first ever torchlight parade in the school’s history.

During the parade, the Ateneans erupted into their three new cheers that year – Halikinu, Swinging, and Jamming. The new cheers were created to inject life into the Ateneo crowd. School reporters criticized the lack of spirit by the Ateneo crowd – “the spirit-less cheers are like the fall of the Bastille,” decried one upset Guidon writer.

The new cheers and songs had literally lit a fire. And for the man known as “Rah-Hul” Manglapus, he wasn’t done penning cheers and songs for his school. Two years later, he would introduced “Fly High” as the first ever Ateneo Blue Eagles squad was introduced over KZRH (today known as Radyo Pilipinas).

Once inside the campus, those carrying their torches, one by one, threw them into the shrine of wood and literally lit a fire. That was how they lit the bonfires then.

Four years later, on a sunny Sunday, September 28, Ateneo’s college team defeated their counterparts from JRC. The school had to wait for five more days – on October 3rd -- the juniors team that lost to La Salle and needed one more game to dispatch their newfound nemesis, 17-16, to complete a double victory.

Noted Fr. McCarron, “We needed everything in our arsenal to win. Our team captain, Tony Montenegro played well as did Jess Coruna.”

Fr. Vincent O Beirne, S.J. declared no classes the next day for the entire high school and college beginning a tradition.

This time, there were five different parades that set off from five different points to converge at Plaza Lawton before making their way to the parade grounds of Luneta Park (as it was called before it was renamed Rizal Park) for the bonfire. After the bonfire the Blue Eagles and some key supporters were served a banquet at the Aristocrat Restaurant along Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard). 

Both teams had their group pictures taken at the nearby Sun Studio. Each photo cost 30 centavos. 

Their reward for the senior squad for winning the title – a trip to the Summer Capital, Baguio, on October 9. 

Fr. O’ Beirne reflected about the win, “The bleachers were sardined with humanity, surprises, disappointments, cheer-mad rooters and the hush of defeat. These are all the matter of historians -- after the cheers and tears for some – to write about because we all know how it feels. For three years, we cooled our heels by the side of the road and cheered as the winner passed by. Now that we are tripping along the highway ourselves, that long rest will stand us in good stead, for we intend to stay on that road for a while.”

And it looked that way for a moment as a little over two months later, Ateneo defeated La Salle in the dying seconds of the NCAA football title game when Simon LaO fired the game winner past their goalkeeper, Louie Javellana (who later transferred to Ateneo). 

Reflected Fr. McCarron after the game, “Like it or not, Ateneo is not a football school. This is a fact. Basketball has ruined it.”

But another event would ruin the football celebrations. Scant hours after the title win, air raid sirens broke out as the Japanese began bombing the Philippines and the world truly plunged into a global conflagration. 

The torchlight parade continued until the celebrations for the 1976 NCAA Finals after which it ended.

When Ateneo bagged its historic first UAAP title in 1987, by word of mouth, the basketball players, students, and alumni gathered in front of the Loyola Center (today’s known as the Blue Eagle Gym). People searched for broken branches, twigs, and paper and tossed them into a heap while dousing it with lighter fluid. It was then set ablaze in an impromptu bonfire over smuggled beer, cigarettes, and the hearty laughs of newly-minted champions.

The bonfire celebrations are more organized today with performances by the school’s musical alumni and entertainers, fireworks, and well… beer and food. There are speeches, merriment, and well, thanking the Most High for the blessings received. 

And just as it was intended 82 years ago, it brings everyone together. 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Ateneo's Three-Peat and the Pursuit of Perfection

The Pursuit of Perfection
by rick olivares

After UST Growling Tiger guard Renzo Subido threw up the last field goal attempt – that was short -- of Game Two of the 2019 UAAP Men’s Basketball Finals, Ateneo center Angelo Kouame grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Gian Mamuyac who pitched it to Matt Nieto then back to Kouame and finally Thirdy Ravena. Adrian Wong ran up to the right side just in case they needed to pass the ball to him as Ateneo ran off the remaining seconds of the game. 

Ravena flung the ball high up with two Growling Tigers looking up. The final score read: 86-79. The Blue Eagles were champions. Three-peat champions in the perfect season; 16-0.

The year 2016 was the summer of discontent for Tab Baldwin and the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

In April of that year, the Blue Eagles lost CJ Perez, Arvin Tolentino, Hubert Cani, Jerie Pingoy, Kemark Cariño, Clint Doliguez, and John Apacible; all to academics. Tolentino and Pingoy were a part of the rotation, Doliguez and Apacible had potential while Perez led Ateneo Team B to two titles and in the two games he played for Ateneo during the summer tourney showed that he would be a force for the blue and white.

The storm wasn’t over. Three months later, the Philippine Men’s National Basketball Team suffered two painful defeats at the hands of France and New Zealand for the last of the Rio Olympic Men’s Basketball Qualifiers. And Baldwin was then removed as Gilas head coach. 

La Salle, behind ben Mbala and Jeron Teng, pulverized the competition. 

The remnants of the Blue Eagles soldiered on and ruined La Salle’s moment of perfection as the Green Archers finished the eliminations, 13-1; the only loss was to Ateneo. The Blue Eagles joined the Green Archers in the Finals but the latter was just too much to stop. The green and white celebrated and they figured they would at least get a three-peat for their efforts.

Baldwin said then that he needed to rebuild the team, not in personnel, but in the fundamentals and their approach to the game. 

Each and every player had something…

Matt and Mike Nieto were winners in high school. But the knock on Matt coming into the college ranks was he had no jumpshot. Yet, he has become a deadly shooter (aside from a backcourt general) since. And he, along with SJ Belangel, Thirdy Ravena, and Adrian Wong, knocked down crucial triples in Game Two.

Mike Nieto was said to be overweight and too small for his cherished power forward position. But he had reinvented himself into a hustle man and was the team’s leader. He scored on a tough layup and rejected Brent Paraiso’s reverse lay-up that preserved a 65-60 Ateneo lead. 

When Thirdy Ravena came out of high school, he was said to be light years away in terms of impact when compared to older brother Kiefer. Not a winner they said. He tugged the Blue Eaglets to the finals but lost to Cani and NU. When he moved up to the seniors division, the Nietos helped Ateneo win the juniors crown. Thirdy was even knocked out for a season due to grades. Yet, here he was at the final buzzer – a three-time seniors champion and three-time finals Most Valuable Player.

Isaac Go was said to be too slow and even clumsy. Just a big kid who happened to be playing basketball, said some. Yet he transformed under Baldwin, made the Gilas Cadets line-up, and had become a very good three-point shooter, a smart player (to complement his academic smarts), and a leader in that locker room.

Will Navarro was unhappy with his situation in his first year in San Beda. He transferred to Ateneo, battled confidence problems, and had become such an invaluable player in the absence of Raffy Verano. 

Years ago, I postulated that Navarro should be starting. A parent of one of the Blue Eagles asked why I thought that. I answered, “because he is tall enough and skilled enough to guard multiple positions. He can shoot and defend. All he needs is a confidence booster.”

Who from the blue side wasn’t proud when he was one of two Ateneans feted special awards (the AXA Know You Can Player of the Season).

In Season 78, Adrian Wong botched a potential game-winning lay-up in the Final Four game against FEU. Following that game, he sobbed on the bench and the two Tamaraws who denied him that basket – Roger Pogoy and Mac Belo – came over to consoled him. Worse, he was out because of a knee injury when Ateneo won its first title under Tab Baldwin in Season 80. He had come back and became a better defensive player, returned as a starter, and now finished his college career with two titles. 

Following the summer tourneys of 2017, Ateneo had become a thoroughly different team. They slipped under the radar and come the UAAP began destroying teams. Since Season 80, this team has won eight out of eight championships in all local tournaments they have participated in. Not even the five-peat teams of Norman Black – that won a total of 16 titles in that span – won many in consecutive fashion. 

For decades, Ateneo had come close to an undefeated season, but never attained it.

Eighty years ago, the Blue Eagle became the official mascot and moniker of the Ateneo sports teams. That was also the year where Raul Manglapus unveiled his song, “Blue Eagle the King” and that first ever team of Blue Eagles, coached by former player Primitivo Martinez, had swept the elimination round only to lose in the finals against La Salle. A rivalry was born that year and made white hot when La Salle supporters chucked fried chickens outside the Ateneo campus in Padre Faura.

Two years later, another former Ateneo hero in Bing Ouano led the Blue Eagles into the NCAA field. They were undefeated in the preseason and were 4-0 in the NCAA when Letran waylaid them. It was thought that it would down spiral for Ateneo, instead they went on a tear and won the championship.

In 1969, that great team of Ateneo that featured Francis Arnaiz, Joy Cleofas, Marte Samson, and Ricky Palou were nearing an undefeated season when Letran sent them crashing in the second round. They bounced back and won the championship. And in a moment that mirrored Baldwin’s 2016 team, lost eight players immediately after due to academics. 

From 1975-77, the Blue Eagles were chasing immortality when each time the San Beda Red Lions beat them in the final game of the second round. Ateneo did win the 1975 and 1976 crowns. But there would be no third time in 1977 as the Blue Eagles following its championship loss to the Red Lions, packed up and left the NCAA for the UAAP.

And that leads us back to this year’s champions. 

They are a perfect eight-for-eight in local tournaments since Season 80. But how big was this title? It has to hurt UST in more ways than one.

During the five-peat, they overtook the four-peat feats of UST and La Salle. Sorry but that seven-peat of UE doesn’t count because they shared on title with UST (what kind of crap is that). This team also went two games better than UST’s 14-0 record of 1993 to finish 16-0.

And thus far, Baldwin with three UAAP crowns to his already gleaming resume, gained a 2-1 edge over nemesis Aldin Ayo in head-to-head championship meetings. Furthermore, he's back overseeing the Philippines' preparations for the 2023 Fiba World Cup.

This Season 82 crown is Ateneo’s 11th in the UAAP and together with the 14 won in the NCAA, that makes it 25 overall. No local college team has as many. And... since Season 80, they are a perfect 8-8 in local tournaments. Now that is something that is going to be just as tough to overcome.

The numbers are huge and maybe for some to celebrate and even gloat over.

But what best illustrates this feat was in the post-game press conference where all five graduating Blue Eagles – Matt and Mike Nieto, Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong – spoke about the achievement. Baldwin got emotional as he spoke at great length of coaching these players and how it changed him as a coach, as a father figure, and a friend. 

Mike Nieto spoke of how their father, Jet, himself a former Ateneo champion in both the high school and college ranks, continuously pushed them and motivated them to match what he had won. With the three-peat, they had done one better than their dad. “But we love him Jet Nieto) even more,” quipped Mike.

The journey... had been quite something. They all had their challenges and together, hurled them.

Waiting in the wings just outside the media room with mischief in their eyes were SJ Belangel and Gian Mamuyac; both eager to douse water and whatnot on the six. In essence, it was the now the past, yet also the present, and the future.

It is the perfect moment.


For Primitivo Martinez and the 1939 Ateneo Blue Eagles.