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, October 26, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #180 A Tale of Letran (an edited version of a longer story)

A Tale of Letran

by rick olivares

“Now, hail the men from old Letran.

Tried are they both good and true

On their palm see victory true

While on their breast sits friendship too.”

He is not from these parts. He’s a Pangasinan boy who played ball in the big city. But he, like any true basketball fan, knows his adopted school’s rich history and tradition. After all, when the school – Colegio de San Juan de Letran – is located within the Spanish era Intramuros, you can’t help but be immersed. 

In front of the Muralla entrance of Letran is the Baluarte de San Gabriel, site of the old Spanish bastion designed to protect the Walled City from any invasion from the north. Once upon a time, canons and sharpshooters lined its ramparts to form its defense.

Defense. It is here that the Knights have carved out their fearsome reputation in NCAA college basketball. They were punishing on and off the court. The old taunts of “manalo matalo bugbog kayo” though still existing today are bywords the rough and tumble 1970s.

Despite being in the midst of wars and changes of government, Letran has no bunker mentality. Far from it. There’s a 21st century air about the school that is in the midst of constant modernization. They take pride that theirs is an English speaking campus.

But on the court… come get some from the 16-time NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions.

Defense here means a relentless full court pressure for the entire game.

In the days before the start of the NCAA Final Four, with the sky threatening to rain, Louie Alas, the ninth year head coach of the Knights, was sweating profusely from the heat. Coach is a creature of habit. Even away from the television cameras, he is in his long adidas shirts; a far cry from his peers who prefer long sleeves or collared shirts. He likes things to be simple and uncomplicated yet rarely does he get that.

Alas, was the first non-Letranite to coach the seniors team. Even if he’s won three NCAA titles with the Knights, there are some within the school who want him replaced. But he can’t worry about that. “What happens, happens,” he shrugged as he waved to the fourth professor who stopped by to wish him luck. He is every bit as popular and iconic as his players. He has brought back a winner’s mentality to Letran basketball.

But Alas isn’t so much concerned about his place in Letran or college sports history. At the moment picking his poison. He laughed at the joke. His team is pegged at the fourth seed and is just waiting for San Beda and San Sebastian to settle their differences so they could get the Final Four action on. Everyone wants to face his wounded team that they deem to be easy pickings now that forward Rey Guevarra is out of action due to a knee injury.

With the high-leaping Guevarra’s all-around game, they had a chance – slim though it may be – to unseat the league leaders. The moment Guevarra crumpled to the floor in pain, Alas knew that his prized player tore up his knee. The slim chance had become slimmer than an anorexic.

Alas experienced something similar 29 years ago and that incident prevented him from playing with Purefoods, the pro club that drafted him. That was a different time when not many players were able to work their way back from a knee injury. However, it did start him on his coaching career where he’s had great success and is considered one of the bright minds of the sports in this country. "One door closes another opens," he smiled.

The parallelisms with Guevarra’s injury are similar - it is an ugly and most forgettable way to end one’s college career. Not only does it prevent him from trying to win a title in his final playing year for Letran but it also keeps him out of the Smart Gilas Pilipinas National Team’s stint in the PBA. Alas knows that Guevarra’s injury will force him to think of his career and life’s direction.

Guevarra is a jovial person but when it’s basketball, it’s all business. Earlier when one teammate was causing chemistry problems with his bloated ego, he said one thing, “Kahit ikaw yung tama, boy, ikaw ang mag-adjust sa amin. Team tayo rito hindi individual.”

Now it was time for Letran to adjust.

Instead of Knights’ customary daytime practice session, they had to make time for their final examinations. The Dominicans insist that the players who come here are students first and basketball players second. That sits well with Alas who knows that though the sport is the most popular in the country, there aren’t enough jobs for hoopsters to make a living.

As he strides the streets of Intramuros, it is obvious how Alas has come to love this school. Not many are even aware that he went to play college ball at Adamson. He has become so identified with the Letran and it’s fine with him.

Staring at the face of an African invasion of college ball, the school’s stand is to use only homegrown players. “Even if it means not winning a championship then so be it,” said Alas.

On their practice jerseys is a stenciled motto “Don’t give in. Don’t give up.” It is not there for show. It’s a mantra. A creed. It’s something the school has adopted even during cheering.

“Good luck, Kevin,” offered a colegiala to Alas’ son, a freshman on the team.

The younger Alas, doesn’t look comfortable with people asking for pictures. It is the father watching from afar who helps him ease into a celebrity mad world. “Kev, akbayan mo naman para mas special,” encouraged the coach.

The son obliged and it made the day of a schoolgirl.

“Now,” declared the coach. “It’s time to make the impossible.” For the first time in a week, they have a hard practice and begin in earnest the task of winning with a man down. “We have to find someone to replace Rey's 15.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.”

Rafael Joey Jazul, Guevarra’s teammate in both Letran and Smart Gilas embodies that. “We’ve come this far so we can’t give up,” he said during a short break during practice.

Two days later, the Letran Knights faced the three-time defending champions San Beda Red Lions in their Final Four match.

The Knights, true to form, pressured the more experienced Red Lions into turnovers and scored 28 points off them. Letran even led after half 35-32.

By the third quarter, San Beda got their fastbreak going and took the lead. Alas’ team stayed with striking distance. With Jazul held scoreless in the last quarter by the tight guarding of Rome de la Rosa, it was up to Kevin Alas to carry the load but it wasn’t enough.

The Knights, banged up and all, lost 82-76.

It was a tough loss for Letran that was hoping to stretch it to a sudden death Game 2. Alas, battling his emotions, put on a brave front: “I’m proud of my boys despite the fact that we played minus Rey Guevarra who has been a pillar of this team. But we never gave up the entire game and fought up to the last second because everyone gave their best though it wasn’t enough.”

The coach went to the locker room to console his team.

“We are the men from old Letran

Ne’er dismayed on field or track,

Push on victory to the van

Rah! Rah! Letran! Anack!”

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