There are no pretty girls in cheerleader outfits and pigtails to tell at the crowd they’ve got the fever. After all, it’s only during the opening ceremony and the finals when the stands are buzzing with people. On regular game days, the audience is sparse with the few in attendance usually players from the other team who watch for a few minutes then stretch out on the seats and doze off. The matches are far from yawners. They’re close and intense except that the dim lights and stifling heat make one sleepy. They even dull one’s senses that sometimes, the referees or the coaches have to call the attention of the arena utility person to mop the sweat or water off the court.
There are however cheers of “defense” yet it emanates not from the gallery but from the players on the bench with an assistant coach or two chiming in. The other is the ubiquitous “hooh” that is commonly used during inter-barangay games to distract free throw shooters. Does it work? One can only hazard a guess. But the games are exciting that even the official timer occasionally forgets (whether intentional or not is anyone’s guess too) to get the clock going.
Figuratively speaking, NAASCU (National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities) is where old coaches go to die. Jimmy Mariano, Francis Rodriguez, and Adonis Tierra were once top bench tacticians in the pros and the premier collegiate leagues. Now? Well… they are where the television spotlights don’t shine. The league hopes to see any of its players make a name for themselves in the pro leagues because it will bring honor, attention, and much-needed corporate sponsorship to NAASCU.
Literally, this is where hoop dreams live and flourish. Where kids who get buried in Team B’s or go unnoticed keep alive their dreams of making it. Yet occasionally, they dream of playing if only for another day.
Mike Cabangon is a six-foot forward for the STI Olympians and last Friday, September 16, he played his last game for his school team. It was only the squad’s 16th match of the season (with at least six to go), but league rules prohibit a player of 24 years of age from suiting up. And two days after that Friday game, the clock struck twelve and Mike now at 24 years of age was done for college. His hopes now hinge on either finding a slot on a PBL team or trying out with the Liga Pilipinas or some other alphabet league.
Cabangon was a high-wire act and the singular draw for
The Olympians’ dugout at the Makati Coliseum is spacious but at once unnerving. It’s almost devoid of anything save for a bench that you’d rather not sit on and it has a shower room that well, you’d rather not bathe in. A couple of years ago, the Coliseum hosted the Champions League and the PBL games. Now, it’s commonly used for stag derbies and it has clearly seen better days and for this season, the coliseum is one of the many venues for NAASCU matches.
The team’s recovery meal is in styropacks and it’s up to the players or the coaches when they want to eat it. There aren’t enough assistants or even utility persons to haul their equipment so it’s the players themselves who bring in their food, juice drinks, and water.
In the final briefing by Ycasiano, a former Red Cub teammate of Ronnie Magsanoc and Eric Altamirano, he reminded the team that their opponent that day, the league-leading San Sebastian Recoletos of Cavite Baycats are faster, stronger, and a whole lot deeper. The Olympians aren’t the team of last year when they won their first NAASCU title. Ycasiano’s squad features 11 rookies with only center Darryl Mendoza, power forward Ramon Mabayo, point guard Alvin Macabasco, small forward William Vasallo, and Cabangon the holdovers from the title-winning squad. Of the five, Macabasco and Vasallo previously saw a lot of time on the pine yet this year, they are expected to deliver.
The Baycats upset the Olympians in the first round and after a difficult start, the champs have found their groove as they hurdled from seventh place to second behind
The game turns out as the STI braintrust prophesied. The faster and more athletic Baycats burst out of the gates and nearly run the defending champions off the court. The Olympians’ 2-3 zone is largely ineffective because Baycats Romelle Alcasabas, Ric Gracilla, and Mark Basa beat their slower guards off the dribble penetration or for a spot-up three.
With 3:51 to play in the first quarter with the score 7-13 in favor of SSC, Ycasiano inserted Cabangon. The forward promptly lapsed into a series of turnovers that put the team in a bigger hole. “Last game ni Mike pero ang sama ng laro,” muttered Ycasiano to no one in particular.
The shit then hit the fan as the Baycats raced to a 15 point lead 41-26 with two minutes before the merciful halftime break. Just when everyone thought the game was lost, the Olympians sprung back to life anchored by the superb defense of
The coach’s voice was raspy and he momentarily turned the reins over to assistant coach Hubert De Los Santos, who is also the head man over at La Salle Green Hills, for a critique on what they did right and wrong. Ycasiano sealed the deal with a simple instruction, “If you do what we ask of you (slow down the game and execute their game plan which called for quick ball movement then pounding the ball inside) we will get back in this game and win. I promise you.”
The coach’s words weren’t lost and with time down 2:21 on the game clock, Cabangon skied for an offensive board over the Baycats’ center Kris Lucernas and a putback that tied the match for the first time 69-all. Seconds later, a William Vasallo trey gave STI the lead for good 76-74.
The Baycats’ coach, former San Sebastian Stags’ hotshot Edgar Macaraya, whose claim to fame was breaking Allan Caidic’s three-point record in college, sued for time to draw up a final play. Macaraya called for a pick and roll and a strong drive by Alcasabas (both squads were in penalty at that point). Over the Olympians’ bench, Ycasiano worked on his perimeter defense. “Now is the best time to win. Play honest D!” The Olympians didn’t fall for the screen and the ball instead swung towards SSC’s John Pantonia who was emphatically blocked by Cabangon. STI added three more free throws for insurance and the final margin of 79-78.
They now had the share of the lead.
Ycasiano leaned back on his seat and let out a sigh of relief. “That was something, huh? Big win and a big test of character.” He clapped his hands and followed his victorious squad into the dugout.
Mike Cabangon lingered on the court for a moment as he accepted congratulations from the few supporters who watched (including a pair of FEU collegialas). “Hindi ko alam ko kung masaya ako o malungkot,” he said as he slowly trudged towards the dugout. He can’t let go. He doesn’t care whether it’s the glitz of the top flight leagues or the anonymity of toiling in the NAASCU. He hopes to make it somewhere, anywhere. He just wants to play.
Author's Note: This one's for Mike Cabangon. Thanks to the real Aga Muhlach for helping out with this. Check out what's written in his Starbucks' cup of coffee.