|The Big Fella holds up the Drive for Five sign like a championship belt.|
Five things to remember in this perfect storm that is a five-peat
by rick olivares pic by roy afable
This was the perfect storm
Heading into this recently concluded college basketball season, I said that the three-peat year – Season 73 -- was the most difficult one of them all. But Season 75 takes the cake.
First, it was announced that this was to be Norman Black’s final year as head coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Now, I strongly disagreed with the announcement of that. What gives? Even if we all knew about it do we even need to say it? You think that the players being recruited will go now to Loyola Heights? Some players go to certain schools because that is their dream. Some go because of a coach who they feel will use them. And so much for that search for the next coach. They never did announce it. Then again, maybe in hindsight now, that wasn’t so bad. More on that later though.
Then there was that loss to UE in the second round that put the team on dangerous ground. The Blue Eagles blew hot and cold. They got up for the big teams and well, backslid when it came to the lower tier teams. Their not taking down these teams in the manner by which they dismantled the NU Bulldogs gave the Red Warriors and their like the confidence to play us.
What was once a two-game lead over UST and FEU was down to one. The team held on but that sure did give us some ulcers, white hair and anxious moments. A La Sallian officemate of mine did daily computations and scenarios based on Ateneo losing! Imagine that! Now take that, Anna!
And then there was MVP’s disengagement and Norman Black’s subsequent offering to resign. To say that there was a disturbance in the Force is an understatement. This threatened to unravel the Drive for Five in a way that our UAAP foes could not. All this right before the Final Four.
Jeez. Wasn’t it enough that every school out there was trying to knock our heads off then we have to fight among ourselves?
I railed at school officials for also sending out letters soliciting donations to the program. What is this – some dyaryo drive or some collection for Ondoy? The best thing would be to consolidate whatever assets will remain in place post-disengagement and what will work in a leaner but hopefully meaner machine before we ask look for financial support. Where was the “business plan?” That is definitely not sending out solicitations to alumni. We got enough of that shit when we were students. Our parents weren’t amused then and we, now that we are adults, sure aren’t now.
There was the perennial problem on officiating that seemed mysterious and diabolical. And just when it couldn’t get any worse, there was the protest, the war among the coaches, and the Varsitarian holier-than-thous that was waged and played out on new and social media.
Back in the day we used to settle this with in-game or post-game rumbles. When we got “civilized” (schools became co-ed and games became family affairs) we decided to play it out on the court. Now, it was all about kowtowing to the media. Winning the hearts and minds was the American doctrine during the Vietnam War. Never figured it would apply to the UAAP and the general public.
At times I wondered if all the off-court stuff would detract from the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ game. Mercifully, it did not.
I have to give credit to the team management that did an excellent job buffering them from the noise and crap because at the end of the day, the Drive for Five turned into a reality. So how sweet is that?
Rome wasn’t built in a day
In 2009, Jojo de la Rama (aka ‘Jojo Maguire’) told me that if the chips fell a certain way, we could very well witness a five-peat. I raised my eyebrows at what he said for I thought that maybe we could win consecutive titles. Said Maguire with seer-like optimism, “Season 73 is the ‘pampatawid’ year.”
I got sucked into his madness. No Rabeh Al-Hussaini. No Nonoy Baclao. No Chris Tiu. No Jai Reyes. What the hell, we’ll be champions!
I watched the team in the pre-season and made my pronouncements in Rebound magazine about a three-peat (all my peers said FEU would win it). Once we got into the Finals, I said we’d blow the crap out of Tamaraws in the Finals (even if we lost both elimination round matches to Tamaraws to finish at 10-4) and well, hello three-peat champions!
That was that season where the recruiting class of 2007 (Ryan Buenafe, Nico Salva, Justin Chua, Vince Burke, and Tonino Gonzaga) grew up. We won with Frank Golla and Chua playing the four and five spots respectively. And Ryan made a three for three.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
After 2008, the coaching staff thought that they had stumbled upon their formula for winning. They kept to a certain regimen, training, or schedule. Every thing was meticulously planned from the training sessions to the tournaments they played. Everything was to prepare the boys in blue and white for the UAAP season. In this incredible run, the team only had one – okay, maybe two if you add Rabeh Al-Hussaini rolling his ankle in Season 71 – serious injury and that was the season-ending ACL tear to JP Erram.
And coaches recruited well. Rather than simply get the most talented high school players or potential college transferees, the coaching staff brought in smart players. Ones who had won in high school so they already had an idea of what it takes to win a title even if college hoops was way different, say the way lemons and cowards are different.
There was a template for the kinds of players the team needed to win. Al-Hussaini was replaced by Greg Slaughter. JC Intal was replaced by Nico Salva. The Chris Tiu model of the shooter/slasher/playmaker turned out to be Kiefer Ravena. Shot-blocking Nonoy Baclao exited and JP Erram came in. Gunner Jai Reyes graduated and Emman Monfort ably slid into his spot at the one. And the list goes on and on.
At the end of the day, the program that began with Joe Lipa was refined in a very different way when it came to Norman Black. Key pieces to the puzzle were added every year and more importantly, they learned from “losing the games that matter” to winning the ones that really matter -- the games in the Big Dance. The padawan had become the Jedi Master.
It is getting obvious now that I’m a Star Wars fan. By the way, there are six Star Wars films. So how about six? Hahaha. Let’s enjoy this for now, shall we?
Norman Black is the best Ateneo head coach ever
He’s the 35th head coach in Ateneo Blue Eagles history. Not only did he become the longest tenured one (eight years – nine if you include his consultancy year of 2004) but he is also the winningest one.
Ateneo Blue Eagle Championships in the Norman Black era:
Philippine Collegiate Champions League 2007 2009 2010
Nike Summer League 2008
Fil Oil Premier Cup 2011
University Games 2008 2009 2011
UAAP 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Fr. Martin Cup 2009 2010 2012
That’s 16 championships in eight years. All of it from 2007-2012. Sweet Sixteen indeed!
In this Season 75, Norman got even with the two teams that first beat him in his first two forays beyond the elimination round.
In 2005, he lost three games to La Salle including the shellacking in the Final Four.
In 2006, there was the debacle of the Finals where after beating UST in Game One with one of the most memorable finishes ever, the team fell in the next two.
This season, Ateneo bounced La Salle in the Final Four and swept UST in the Finals.
Consider those debts repaid. Said Doug Kramer, who played with that ill-fated Blue Eagle team of 2006, “This is payback for 2006. It doesn’t take back that loss but it does ease the pain.”
During the traditional goodbyes by the graduating players (one that began ironically during the losing years) following the Thanksgiving Mass at the Church of the Gesu, Justin Chua said that coach was the best in the country. Tonino Gonzaga countered by saying that coach was the best in the world. Nico Salva went one further by saying that he was the best in the universe (and that got the congregation rocking in laughter). Sure, it’s a lovefest but I will have to go with Greg Slaughter’s take on Norman. But more on that after a paragraph or two.
If there is one thing that I will remember Coach by it goes beyond the Sweet Sixteen. It goes back to a timeout in 2007 right before we fell to the Green Archers in that infamous “2 > 3” game. During that timeout, Eric Salamat asked if he could take a shot at La Salle’s Bader Malabes who had been trading trash with the Blue Eagle sophomore all game long. In fact, after a three-point play, Ty Tang let out a howl of triumph right in front of Salamat who committed the foul (while Malabes celebrated nearby). Said the coach: “No. Just play the game. We don’t do that here.”
Translated, that means we play the game the right way. Sure, we have some angas with Ryan Buenafe in harness but we never play dirty. When we lose, we face the opposing team’s gallery and pay our respects. Take that as a jab if you know who you are.
In Gesu last night, Greg Slaughter trumped Chua, Gonzaga, and Salva by putting it very simply: “Coach Norman is the Man.”
These five-peat teams did it with defense.
When you go to the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center, there’s a huge banner that hangs from the railings of the indoor track oval that says, “Defense wins championships.”
It sounds as cliché-ish as ever. But it is a mantra and one that drives the team. La Salle was the best defensive team in the league this season and only by a few percentage points but look at the stats of the three Ateneo-La Salle games and well, you know which team was the best defending team.
I said earlier that the team has recruited smart players who make good reads on the game.
Take a gander at Ryan Buenafe’s stats – zero points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers. He only took two shots both of them three-pointers and missed them. But he played one heck of a game on both ends of the court.
As a cross-sport reference, when FC Barcelona loses possession of the ball, it is imperative that they retrieve the ball within the next six seconds.
In Game Two against UST, there were two such possessions that swung the outcome our way.
At the 4:06 mark, Buenafe atoned for an error where he threw the ball out of bounds by stealing the rock from Karim Abdul. UST was on a four-point swing to make it 59-55 for Ateneo. That somewhat put a crimp on their momentum.
There was the defensive pressure applied at the 1:06 mark that really hurt the Growling Tigers as Kevin Ferrer was unable to inbound the ball for a violation.
And with 7.7 seconds left, Juami Tiongson also made up for his missing two earlier free throws that would have iced the game with a five-point lead by completing his one and only steal of the game. After Ferrer successfully inbounded the ball to Clark Bautista, Tiongson looked at the Tiger gunner’s eyes. The UST combo guard was looking to pass to Jeric Fortuna who had hit three treys for their side including one with 21 seconds left. Tiongson stepped in the passing lane and pilfered the ball and UST’s hopes.
When you look at the memorable images of this five-peat at the top of your head, there are the monstrous Nonoy Baclao rejections on Rico Maierhofer, the Buenafe trey that sealed three straight, and the Tiongson steal. Two of them are defensive gems.
Defense does win championships.
This five-peat is probably something we will never see in our lifetime again.
Yesterday, while the Blue Eagles were busy dousing themselves with beer, water, and Gatorade inside the locker room (Norman Black, Kiefer Ravena, and Nico Salva were inside the media room giving post-match interviews), I walked back towards the court of the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
There was one last on-court interview being conducted by the ABS-CBN panel and that was with Juami Tiongson.
I looked around me and the upper box and bleachers were empty save for security guards and cleaning personnel tidying up the venue for the following day’s PBA games. There were three Ateneo fans left in the Upper Box A who remained and patiently waited for Tiongson to finish his interview before exiting.
And I thought back to 2006 after that painful loss to UST where me and my now ex-girlfriend remained while Growling Tigers fans scavenged the Ateneo side of the coliseum for any souvenir. There was no one left save for the two of us.
I held back the tears then. Stunned at the loss in a game that should have been ours.
Two weeks later, the Blue Eagles were back in action in the Collegiate Champions League. The team was still down then and we crashed out of the competition against Mapua.
I remember JC Intal running to me after the last lines of the alma mater song were sung – I was doing the game commentary with Noel Zarate at that time – and he shook my hands and said, “Sorry, sir. Hindi talaga kinaya.” He choked back the tears while I fought mine back (after all I was still on live television).
Back then I wondered if we were ever going to win it again.
I remembered a friend from UP who teased me after the opening day loss to the Fighting Maroons in 1987 after Ronnie Magsanoc torched the Ateneo Blue Eagles from the outside. “Magaganda lang mga sapatos niyo,” he jeered.
He was referring to the Converse Weapons (the hot basketball shoe back then) that the entire Ateneo Blue Eagles team wore that season.
Was there any respect accorded to Ateneo basketball since its arrival in the UAAP in 1978? No. But we went on a 13-0 run to win the title that year and the next before sliding into the abyss that was the 1990s.
I have watched UAAP seniors hoops since I was in high school and I recall myself only walking out of a game once. We were getting the crap beaten out of us by FEU in a match played at Blue Eagle Gym and I couldn’t take it anymore so I left without finishing the match. I swore that I would not watch again but the following game I was back there in the stands taking in the beatings the rest of the league routinely inflicted on us.
That is why I – all of us Ateneans and Blue Eagle fans – should cherish this. Winning one is difficult enough but five straight? We must have done something good in our lives to earn this good karma.
In 1997, I saw a five-peat seeking UST finally lose to long-time victim, La Salle, in the Final Four, despite having the twice-to-beat advantage. Man, those Tigers sure bawled out after the stunning loss. And that image is imprinted on my mind. A loss in the eliminations is one thing but to get knocked out and sent home with a loss? Pain is an understatement.
In 2002, La Salle was seeking their own five-peat when they ran smack into a hungry Blue Eagles squad whose time had come. That Green Archers team imploded with some players opting not to suit up anymore following a row with their coaching staff.
In 2012, we had a chance to defend the title in the Finals and we accomplished the task in spite of being embroiled in that perfect storm that I just mentioned somewhere above. It could have ended a different way but it did not.
And so we should remain humble, gracious, and thankful – truly thankful -- in victory.
Seventeen played. The Drive for Five is now a reality. One more night before the annual season-ending bonfire.