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, August 28, 2006

A Lipa Faith

He looked beaten and tired. What began as a season of hope ended as his beloved Maroons took its eighth beating in 10 games (with two more games left to play) and was eliminated from Final Four contention in Season 69 of the UAAP. With the game less than a minute away from its merciful end, Joe Lipa trudged over to winning Adamson Coach Leo Austria to congratulate him. As he made his way back to the UP side of the court, he had that pained look on his face. He has a three-year plan to bring the title back to Diliman by 2008 but he never envisioned his team being laid so low.

Rewind to December of 1998 when Da Nose was introduced as the Blue Eagles’ new coach during the Grand Alumni Homecoming at the high school covered courts. I felt that it was as if Ateneo had won another championship. Such was my belief (and that of many Ateneans) in the man’s capabilities. Sure he had a very good team that was on the rise (Rico Villanueva, Wesley Gonzales, Ryan Pamintuan, and Rich Alvarez) but Coach was going to elevate the team and lead them out of the doldrums of the 90s. And he led them to three straight Final Four appearances before he fell short of the title in 2001. Today, outside of La Salle and FEU, Ateneo has made the UAAP Final Four every year since.

As a freshman in Ateneo, in 1986, I watched Joe lead his Maroons to their first title in a generation with Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, and Eric Altamirano in tow. I also watched his Philips Sardine Makers (behind Jun Reyes and Paras) beat Magnolia (with Dindo Pumaren and Nelson Asaytono) for a PABL title in 1988. Then I saw him follow Ron Jacobs as coach of the national team and later mentor Shell in the PBA.

Wherever he went, his players swore by him (and I’m sure at him as well). Yet there was no denying that he got results. The Blue Eagles’ 3rd UAAP title in 2002 and 18th dating back to their NCAA days was every bit his as was Joel Banal’s.

It wasn’t so much as his success that fascinated me. He was Yogi Berra-like with his malapropisms and witticisms that made his coaching stints every bit as memorable. During one game in that historic 1986 championship run, he called for a high-low play for Paras and Magsanoc that he dubbed as the “Batman and Robin” play. When he was asked by swingman Duane Salvaterra about options should the play go awry, Lipa said without skipping a beat that they could always pass the ball to “Alfred.” The confused UP players wondered who “Alfred” was. Lipa then saw the look on their faces and pointed to “Alfred” or Joey Guanio who would be waiting in the wings on the weak side. The team broke out in laughter. In another timeout this time during a tight and intense Ateneo-UST game, he called for a better effort on the double team on Tigers’ center Alwin Espiritu. He asked who was helping out on defense from the top. Guard Andrew Cruz replied, “Paul (Tanchi) and me.” Lipa said, “Okey, Paul and me, this is what you do.” The team cracked up as coach continued with his instructions. After leaving Ateneo, lo and behold, he became the head of the UAAP’s officiating which is ironic since he’s had one too many tussles with the zebras over the years. Said the ever loquacious coach about the task at hand, “If you can’t beat them, coach them.”

When he went back to UP for his third go-around with his alma mater, I figured that he would turn things around for his squad. While he looks leaner that doesn’t mean he has been no less as fiery and bombastic. His famous “pongalalas” have made their return to the sideline. This season’s results notwithstanding, he has the foundation for a great team with some terrific rookies who should get better with more experience. He has seen what needs to be addressed and will surely make adjustments. That he landed rookies Migs De Asis and Martin Reyes out of De La Salle Zobel is no big surprise; he’s always loved his three-point shooters (Magsanoc, Altamirano, and Guanio with UP and Rainier Sison, Magnum Membrere, and Larry Fonacier with Ateneo, and he’s done wonders for Ren Ren Ritualo over at Fed Ex in the PBA). He’ll eventually land his big fella so they’ll dust off the Batman and Robin play.

His team may be in the cellar, but I don’t imagine they’ll be there for long. If you’re wondering if he’s lost his magic or he’s too old school, let me just say from someone from the other side of Katipunan (from Ateneo) that I’ve heard that said about him once to often to see that he’s always bounced back. His team’s freefall may very well fuel that drive back to the top in the years to come.

All you need is a leap of faith.

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