This appears in ateneo.edu
by rick olivares with pics by brosi gonzales and diana moraleda
After Nico Salva hit a short jumper on a pick and pop play with Emman Monfort, the score was at 74-55 for Ateneo. The pre-dominantly blue and white Araneta Coliseum (I’d say about 80% of the venerable venue was pro-Ateneo) began to unfurl championship banners and signs even if there was 4:12 left to play.
A good friend of mine, Miko Samson turned to me and asked, “Naiiyak ka na?”
With about 30 seconds left in the game, I stopped taking down notes and inched my way towards the court. Everyone was going bonkers around me and aside from Debbie Tan who cries win or lose, I was probably the only one with tears in my eyes.
I am a child of the 1980s. Spoiled by championships in the high school and college teams of my era. But before that in my elementary years where I would watch the games with classmates or older cousins, there was nothing.
There is a misconception that the 1990s are Ateneo’s Dark Age. Not even. The years after the departure from the NCAA in 1977 leading up to 1984 were darker. We even had a year where we won nothing if I am not mistaken. During Ateneo’s first season in the UAAP, the leftover star players from the NCAA such as Steve Watson and Ogie Narvasa refused to suit up. The team had to look to IAC players to try out. Now if that isn’t a rough time then I don’t know what else is.
I could count on my two hands the number of people who watched Ateneo basketball back then (and I know who they are). Those were the days when you could walk to the ticket counter at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum to buy tickets to a game. Even Ateneo games.
Those were the days when even the cheerleaders never bothered to watch and there would be five of us cheering our lungs and hearts out win or lose.
And at the end of the day and by season’s end, we’d say, “There’s always next year.”
You see, La Salle. We know those words all too well and we wonder why you get riled up by such a fact of life.
As I entered the Church of the Gesu last Saturday night, Sonia Araneta, my longtime boss at ateneo.edu, confidant and surrogate mom, remarked to me, “There seem to be more people here tonight than last year.”
I looked around and replied: “The people are happy but it is so far different from 2002.”
2002. Game 3 of that year was the only one I was not able to watch live. It seems so impossible that I was unable to get a ticket. That was before I became a sportswriter with that all-precious media pass. But that’s life. There are days when you get it and there are days when you don’t. And that is what Ateneo basketball is all about.
And if there is no crying in baseball as Tom Hanks once famously quipped, there surely is in basketball.
Since I was not present at the Big Dome for the title-clinching win over La Salle in 2002, I for some reason, made my way to the Church of the Gesu immediately after the match. There were three people who got there ahead of me who were jumping up and down. I joined them – strangers bound by school colors and nothing more – in frenzied celebration. Then one by one people arrived. Car horns honked in tune to Ateneo cheers. When the bus that was carrying the Blue Babble Battalion hit Katipunan C-5, they began beating those drums. There were still just a few meters away from Gate 3 but we could hear the beats of “Go Ateneo” and everyone began to cheer. My hair still stands up to this day when that memory comes to mind.
When the players arrived (and now I am choked up as I write this), it was madness. Plain and simple.
Yet the joke even after that win was we’d have to wait another 14 years before we’d taste another championship. It seemed that way, didn’t it? More so after those painful loses of 2003 and 2006.
Since I am on the topic of tearjerkers, here are the other times when I cried unabashedly during games:
- - Final eliminations round game of 1991 when Ritchie Ticzon missed two free throws in the last few seconds of the game that would have given Ateneo a win over Bong Ravena’s UE Warriors that would have given us a chance to compete for the title. After that match, there was a rumble up in the bleachers section with UE students.
- - When Joe Lipa raised his fist to sing along to the alma mater song – the second time he would only do so after his first ever game for Ateneo – after the crushing Game 3 loss to La Salle in 2001. Coach Joe bravely held on as a young LA Tenorio bawled out.
- - Post-Game 3 of 2006, when I was one of two people left on the Ateneo side of the Araneta Coliseum. I sat stunned and crestfallen while around me, UST fans scoured for Ateneo souvenirs.
- - The Final Four loss to La Salle in 2007. Ford Arao’s last game. The big guy endured so much and he carried that team all season long. Ford will always remain one of my favorite Blue Eagles. He was in tears as he sang the alma mater. And I couldn’t hold back.
- - And now Game 2 of the Season 74 Finals. The second time tears welled in my eyelids that were tears of joy.
Even after all this time, I still am amazed at what the team has accomplished. You live through the years and decades of heartbreak, you take nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – for granted.
And that leads me to Game 2. This Game 2 against FEU.
The match was postponed because of the devastation of Typhoon Pedring. I spoke with several FEU officials last Tuesday and they all wanted to get it on. And here’s where all sort of myths were bandied about.
Myth #1 Ateneo clinches the crown only on a Thursday (the first three were all closed out during that day).
It was definitely a Blue Saturday for us. And a Black Saturday for our friends from Morayta.
Myth #2 No host school has ever won the Men’s Basketball title.
Sorry, Rolly Manlapaz. You are dead wrong. Ateneo is the first host school to win a basketball crown. And that was during my time in 1988.
Myth #3 When the second game of the UAAP Finals is postponed due to a typhoon, it’s 2006 (after Ateneo fell to UST post-Typhoon Milenyo) all over again.
Ahem. Game 2 against UE in 2009 was postponed also due to a typhoon. We got shellacked by the Red Warriors in that match but they were blitzed in return in Game 3.
Four days later after Game 2 against FEU was pushed back, a typhoon of the blue and white kind descended upon the Tamaraws. After that crushing finals loss for the second straight year (and the fourth finals victory over the Tamaraws in the last two years that includes a PCCL and Uni-Games Finals match up), they’ll be feeling the effects of this for a long time.
Playing a lot more physical, the Tamaraws played with a sense of desperation. And at first, the Blue Eagles’ starting five couldn’t get it going. When Norman Black sent in the second unit, they countered with perfect execution. They were the ones who got us that second quarter 10-point lead. When the starters returned they were still unable to get anything going and incredibly, FEU took a 36-35 lead at the half.
However, just as it was all season long, Ateneo adjusted and we do make the best halftime adjustments in the league.
When the third quarter started, it took us a minute and 37 seconds to get points on the board yet after 10 minutes of action where Ateneo unloaded 22 points to FEU’s nine -- the game was effectively over. The Blue Eagles had an answer for every Tamaraws bucket or rally.
The final score of 82-69 was a sharp contrast to last year’s three-point dagger by Ryan Buenafe – one of the more incredible shots in college hoops history (and I paid tribute to the Man by wearing his #13 for the game). This one was a mauling.
Now I felt emotional because of Myth #4.
Myth #4 Ateneo can never do it.
As the three-peat was achieved last season, I heard it from my La Sallian friends who pooh-poohed the achievement by saying that they had a four-peat of their own.
After Ateneo fell to Adamson in the final game of the elimination round, I had to hear it from my UST friends who said they were still the only team to sweep the eliminations.
In Fr. Jett Villarin’s Homily in Ateneo’s Thanksgiving Mass following the four-peat win, he preached about remaining humble in victory. The title was an occasion not to tell others “to look at us because we are champions and we are #1.”
And I looked around me and looked at the subdued celebration that was a far cry from 2002 that was highly emotional and something I will never forget as long as I live.
Lost in the celebration are some facts that I think should be made known. The Season 74 title is Ateneo’s fourth straight. It is our seventh in the UAAP and 21st overall including the 14 crowns hauled from the grand old NCAA. That is two more than the schools with second most which is FEU and UST (they have one from the NCAA as well).
This is the 13th championship won during the Norman Black era (including the PCCL, Filoil, Fr. Martin, Uni-Games, and Fr. Martin Cup trophies). And maybe we aren’t done yet.
For the longest time, I was resigned to the mantra of “there’s always next year.” I know that streaks – just as the one that was lost against Adamson – will eventually come to an end. But while that isn’t upon us just yet, I, we, should savor it.
It’s something we will talk about for years. But maybe we can begin that during the bonfire.
* This one is for Kirk Long, Emman Monfort, and Raymond Austria. Thanks!!!!
Thanks a lot to Coach Norman Black and his most excellent coaching staff. It seems so long ago when I first approached the coach for an autograph at the old A&W restaurant in Robinson's Galleria. He signed it then and I still have it after all these years. To be his friend as well is even better. Click on that link to see the autographed paper.
And to Manny V. Pangilinan. Thanks bunches, sir. One Big Fight!