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.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ateneo Blue Eagles: The Drive for Five Pre-season Part 1 Decisions

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Blue Eagles scrimmage! Gwynne Capacio attempts to block Ryan Buenafe's floater in the lane as Justin Chua and Nico Elorde look on.

The Drive for Five
Pre-season Part I Decisions
by rick olivares photos by aaron vicencio and me

Summer. 2012.
Moro Lorenzo Sports Center.

In three days’ time, the new college basketball season will officially open. It will be a time for testing and tinkering with lineups, refurbished and retooled ones. All dedicated to winning a coveted crown. And for many teams, it’s all about knocking out the champ.

The “champ” is Ateneo de Manila. Four-time UAAP champions and 10 other owners of hardware from an alphabet soup of basketball leagues.

There’s a sense of the old Chicago Bulls’ ‘Last Dance’ with this coming season -- a bunch of players graduating and the head coach moving on. While the championship run has been nothing short of incredible there's a sense of finality this upcoming season to go with all the drama, history, and unfinished business. The last time an Ateneo basketball team made the finals four straight years was when the Blue Eagles were plying their trade in the grand old NCAA back in the rip-roaring 50’s when they played San Beda for five straight and memorable years. The missed the bus to the big dance in 1956 before Ed Ocampo and company brought the good old blue and white back-to-back titles in ’57 and ’58.

No one is thinking just yet of a title game. After all, it’s a seven-month long sojourn to the Mount Olympus of college hoops. The Blue Eagles, although they wish this Saturday is the start of the UAAP instead of the FilOil, know that good things come to those who wait and to those willing to work the hardest.
Nico Elorde and Joma Adornado.

Nico Elorde is one of five Ateneo Blue Eagles listening to assistant coach Jamike Jarin tell some story. The group broke up to some loud guffaws. Elorde then proceeded to shoot baskets with Joma Adornado and Von Pessumal.

The grandson of boxing great Flash Elorde quickly eased into his new school and new team. He recounted that fateful decision to transfer schools. That was following La Salle’s loss to San Sebastian in last summer’s Fil-Oil tournament. Several players were asked to step out of the dugout to talk to the assistant coaches who broke the news that they would not be going with the rest of the squad for training in the United States. “That was the sign that I had prayed for if I should transfer to another school,” recalled Elorde.

Ateneo had left for its own training in Las Vegas and Elorde and his older brothers called their parents who were in the United States on vacation. Nico's parents understood and encouraged their youngest son to keep his spirits up. “We’ll find you the right school,” promised Elorde’s mother, Liza, who made the trip to Nevada to speak with Ateneo head coach Norman Black about the possibility of Nico turning a shade of blue. And just like that, Nico Elorde changed zip codes and jersey colors.

“It helped that Gwynne (Capacio) was already here,” Elorde told of his seamless transition. “But everyone made me feel welcome right away. I just want to play. I can’t wait to contribute to defending the championship.”

Ryan Buenafe walked in as Elorde, Adorando, and Pessumal were shooting baskets. Buenafe waved to his teammates. “Naka-balik na rin,” he sheepishly grinned. The one-year away from the team was a humbling experience. It wasn’t easy. “Milagro” is all how he can describe of his year in basketball purgatory. He had to battle some negative advice with regards to his studies and to make that decision to pick up his grades so he could play once more. Heck, he couldn’t even suit up for Team B basketball. So when the opportunity arose, he tore up opposing teams in college intramural basketball. Inside the Moro Lorenzo Sports center, Buenafe still doesn’t look comfortable when well wishers tell him to kick basketball butt. “Sana,” he offered with that trademark shy grin.

Norman Black then walked up the flight of steps leading to the basketball court. He shook the hand of pro ball player Jimmy Alapag who was seated on the bench. Talk ‘N Text’s practice wasn’t until 4:30pm, a good three hours from now but Alapag wanted to arrive early and watch the Blue Eagles practice.

Black quickly conferred with first assistant Sandy Arespacochaga on what needed to be done for the day’s practice and the days to come. The American head coach is entering his eighth season with Ateneo, the longest tenured coach of the Blue Eagles since Baby Dalupan’s five years in the 1970s and Al Dunbar’s run in the 1960s.

Black would be leaving the country the following day (Thursday) to attend a coaching seminar in the United States. Before the recent championship run of the Blue Eagles, Black was a habitual attendee of the Toronto Raptors training camp and other clinics. But after the Blue Eagles played deep into the college season and beyond, Black had been unable to attend. With his impending return to professional basketball, he arranged to go on leave in order to attend some seminars – this one under North Carolina’s Roy Williams and former Indiana head coach Bobby Knight to name a few – to learn how these great basketball minds prepare their teams. “As a coach (entering his 25th year in the profession), you have to constantly try to improve,” said Black.

Three days before it was announced that Season 75 would be Black’s last as head coach (he will still be around for two more years as consultant), he informed the entire team and staff of his plans. “That is why when the news broke, we were not surprised,” related Arespacochaga.

Black is happy with what he alongside management, the school, and the coaching staff, have built in Ateneo. The tough times before the championships came certainly made the experience only sweeter. However, the dream of a return to the pros remained. Any consideration to return to the pros would have to be on his terms -- a team that he could join provided the timing was right and that squad could compete for a PBA title. With movement among Talk ‘N Text and Smart Gilas, there was suddenly an opening. Arriving at the decision to leave on the other hand wasn’t easy. Black thought long and hard about the matter. “I only hope that when my PBA stint is over, maybe I can come back to Ateneo… if they’ll have me," he said offering a window for a possible return.

But the announcement that Black would be leaving by season’s end had its ill effects. Several players who had committed to Ateneo had a change of heart and went elsewhere. It wasn’t the first time this happened and it will certainly not be the last. More than a decade ago, Ateneo Team Manager Paolo Trillo’s brother Luigi, was earmarked to go to Katipunan after a sterling career with the La Salle Zobel Bengals. But when then Blue Eagles head coach Chot Reyes moved to the pros, Trillo moved instead to Taft. “I though that whoever followed Chot (it was Baby Dalupan who was in his second go-around with the Blue Eagles) might not want me or even use me because I am not their recruit,” recounted Trillo.

“The system is there,” pointed out Black. “Whoever comes after me will have to do his share of recruiting.”

There are four open slots on the team. Emman Monfort, Raymond Austria, and Kirk Long have graduated. Third string center Jeric Estrada is out with academic problems. In their place are Elorde, Blue Eaglet center Kris Porter, and the returning Buenafe. The FilOil lineup allows 17 players and right now, it is undecided whether that last couple of slots go to Adornado, Isaac Lim, or Giboy Babilonia. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” observed Black. “Chemistry’s not yet there and we haven’t decided on any rotation.”

Decisions have to be made to accommodate certain players who are expected to heavily contribute this season. Decisions have to be made on who starts and who comes off the bench.

“One of the biggest challenges in defending a championship is fixing the players’ mindset,” pointed out Arespacochaga. “That is why we have to constantly change our plays, add new ones or tweak them a bit.”

“Right now, we aren’t thinking na, ‘ah, this is Coach Norman’s last year’,” chipped in Tonino Gonzaga, one of the captains this year. “We will think about that when the time comes. Right now, we’re all trying to get in shape and win a championship. You think we’re not hungry for another title? We are.”


Next: Letran! And the Search for the next Blue Eagles head coach. Plus, the Bleachers' Brew podcast where I talk about Blue Eagles basketball. It's all up next week.


  1. great teaser, Rick. *standing ovation*. any news on Chris Newsome?

  2. Ryan's baaaaaack!!!!!

  3. As always, great read, Sir Rick! I've been going to their practices frequently for the past few weeks and, based on what I've observed, I think Isaac Lim will make it along with Babilonia. Wouldn't be surprised if Cipriano gets dropped in favor of Lim and then Giboy takes the other slot. One big five! :)

  4. Ey Rick!
    Nice to hear 'bout Ryan's comeback! So how's he so far? BTW from what schools are Isaac Lim, Gboy Babilonia from? Any new "rookies"? Thanks !

  5. Gboy from SBC. Far from developed but hey, Coach Black turned Rabeh into an animal so there's hope in that.

    1. And this kid is a Coach's player; defense oriented, team man, good IQ, positive attitude.

  6. Isaac Lim was a star at Uno HS before moving to Zobel for 4th year. Aside from him and Gboy, the only other new face who'll probably make Team A is Kris Porter, formerly of Ateneo de Cebu (Sacred Heart School-Jesuit). Porter moved to Loyola Hts. for 3rd year HS and played with the Eaglets last season.

  7. Ooops is GBoy Babilonia the Babilonia who played for the U16 Nat'l Team of Coach Olsen? 'Heard this Porter is a "monster" off the boards?

  8. Glad you're back! Hope everything is well.