This appears in my July 28, 2010 column in the Business Mirror.
words and pic by rick olivares
There’s a television advert for VISA about the 2010 FIFA World Cup that actor Morgan Freeman does the voice over: “Every four years, for 31 days, the world comes together… to stand apart.”
That’s was my thought as the Opening Ceremony of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Season 86 reached it climax where its star-studded guest stars – Kyla, Iya Villana, KC Montero, Jay-R, and Billy Joe Crawford – jammed on stage for their rendition of USA for Africa’s “We are the World.” Not soon after that, the San Sebastian-Letran match got underway, it was obvious that these teams stand apart. Between them, there is only bad blood, cheap shots, and one upsmanship. To wit, during one Letran foray, Kevin Alas was fouled on his way to the basket. Stag Anthony del Rio tried to help him up. Alas ignored the gesture and instead waited for his teammates to give him a hand.
The youth at Season 86 have spoken and its “Empowerment, leadership, and nationalism” for our national leaders. Here at the NCAA, if you wear a different school color, you’re the enemy.”
And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
As it was certain that the Stags were going to pull out a win, the San Sebastian gallery chanted, “Uwian na! Uwian na!”
The Letran crowd responded with “Viva San Beda!”
Yes, sir. When you’re on the top, everybody wants to knock you down.
If the Opening Ceremony was pure showtime, the opening match served up by the defending champion San Sebastian Stags and the Letran Knights was forty minutes of hell. In a bone crunching, take-no-prisoners, ugly-field-goal-shooting, defensive, and low-scoring manner.
The former has won three titles in the span of nine months – in the NCAA, Philippine Basketball League, and the Fil Oil Invitational.
The latter has been a punching bag of teams after losing seven vital cogs from its Final Four of the previous year.
The Knights might be the weakest team on paper but no one is taking them for granted. The Stags braced themselves for a physical game. “Pwede kami bumawi pero dapat hindi kami mawala sa focus,” said Pamboy Raymundo before the game. “At mas meron kumpiyansa ang team kasi mas kalat yung puntos.”
In the days leading to the opening, Letran played the University of Santo Tomas, University of the Philippines, and National University in succession. They gave squads from the rival University Athletics Association of the Philippines teams a dose of what they had in store for San Sebastian – that relentless fullcourt press and punishing defense.
The day before Opening Day, Letran head coach Louie Alas paid his players a visit at their quarters and was surprised to see them all sporting a buzz cut. “O, (Senator Rodolfo) Biazon look kayo,” he jested comparing his wards’ short cropped hair with the shaven plate with that of former Philippine Marines’ Commandant and former Senator Rodolfo Biazon.
“Sign of unity and commitment,” Kevin Alas revealed.
It wasn’t just the scalps that were exposed but their ripped bodies as well. The team had undergone a demanding physical conditioning program and one would be hard-pressed to find an ounce of body fat on these guys including Jun Jun Alas who seemed never to shy away from buffet lunches.
From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the unfazed Knights scrapped their way through the game. Following a Jaypee Belencion bucket to inch close to the Stags at 51-50, the defending champs unleashed an 8-3 wind-up on their spread the wealth policy. Four Stags scored – Calvin Abueva, Raymundo, del Rio, and Gilbert Bulawan in the final four minutes of that match to eke out a close 59-53 win.
It was a close one, maybe even a moral victory for the Knights who could have pulled off the upset had second year point guard Kevin Alas suited up (he was out with a minor leg injury). Louie Alas was happy on one hand and disappointed at the missed opportunity at the other. “Because we lost, we’re doing weights tomorrow (Sunday) he said.
They grunted and quietly dressed up (their thoughts on the just finished match and the words of encouragement doled out by former Letran great Kerby Raymundo who dropped by the locker room after the game).
For the next three to four months, they hope that their season will come together… in this league where everyone stands apart.