Unthinkable on the eve of the UAAP Juniors Basketball Finals
by rick olivares
Years ago, Jet Nieto enrolled his sons, Matt and Mike Nieto in La Salle Greenhills. The twins were waitlisted and the father fretted that if he waited for the Ateneo Grade School to come out with its decision then the two might be left without a school come June. Not soon after he paid for the deposit, the decision came out. The brothers were accepted at the Ateneo.
It seems unthinkable that the sons of an Ateneo Sports Hall-of-Famer, one who won titles in the high school and in college would go somewhere other than Loyola Heights. More so for a father who once said that if anyone from that school that wears green were to court his daughter that dude would have to transfer to Loyola Heights before he gives his approval. Of course, it something that elicits a chuckle but that’s what makes the joke funny because there’s a grain of truth to them.
However, is it really unthinkable? After running roughshod over the competition in Ateneo’s inaugural year in the UAAP Juniors Division in 1978, the school, still reeling from its departure from what was then the more glamorous NCAA for the UAAP, found itself in shock as two of its boys basketball stars – Arnel Mañosca and Pio Morabe – were successfully lured away to suit up for De La Salle College. The acrimony over the loss wasn’t felt that much as the Green Arches were not playing in the UAAP and only faced Ateneo in dual meets. The full wrath of a son from the blue side moving over to the green side didn’t fully manifest until Blue Eaglets star JV Gayoso also moved to Taft after graduation in 1985. It happened more than a decade later when BJ Manalo made the jump as well.
Despite the few defections, the Juniors team remained a power and provided a pipeline to the college with its homegrown stars who led the blue and white to more victories and championships.
While it is unrealistic to think that the title can be won year after year, the Blue Eaglets were almost always in the title hunt. During the first few years in the UAAP, Ateneo won three straight Juniors crowns before losing the next two. After winning four straight from 1983-86, FEU made a cameo appearance before Adamson rolled Ateneo in six straight.
Despite moving to the UAAP in 1978, Ateneo still has the most Juniors crowns with 17 although it has not tasted glory since the 2010-11 season when Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, and Paolo Romero starred for the team.
When the Season 77 Finals tips off, even if the Blue Eaglets own a massive advantage by having swept the elimination round, they are facing a deadly team in the National University Bullpups; winners of two of the last three championships.
If one just stepped out of a time warp, it seems almost unthinkable that the Bullpups have been the cream of the UAAP Juniors crop. It wasn’t too long ago they were the registered doormat, the automatic win for every team in the league.
But they have emerged from their Dark Ages that spanned more than half a century.
Yes, but the worm does turn for everyone.
In the late 1970s, Ato Badolato turned SBC into a superpower by bringing in top players from different schools to don the red and white. The Red Cubs made the NCAA their own personal playground and lorded it over every other tournament including the national championships. In the recent Metro Manila Basketball League, a tournament created after San Beda left the NCAA in the early 1980s and one its had lorded over for decades, the Red Cubs were destroyed by Chiang Kai Shek College. The CKSC Blue Dragons also won it last year while former Tiong Lian rival Hope Christian High School emerged triumphant two years ago at San Beda’s expense.
With scholastic sports becoming more popular and captivating a larger audience, recruitment has gone berserk. In the realm of high school hoops, after the ascent of NU, Chiang Kai Shek College and Hope Christian High School have emerged. The two have taken national titles in recent years. In fact, NU has the CKSC’s former MVP Anthony Salim in uniform and is waiting for current Blue Dragons star JV Gallego to don their jersey next school year. Ateneo brought in HPCHS’s frontline of John Apacible and Clint Doliguez while current guard Jollo Go is said to be headed for La Salle.
And that brings us back to the UAAP Juniors championship.
The days when the Ateneo Blue Eaglets made qualifying for an automatic Finals slot an annual affair are over. Unthinkable, isn’t it? Sadly, the state of the game has changed and it’s a hard road to the finals despite the elimination round sweep.
When the Nieto twins were seven years old, they watched a tape of their father, Jet, leading a fiery rally from 20 points down to win Ateneo’s first seniors title in the UAAP. When they saw that, recalled Mike, this year’s Most Valuable Player, “We wanted to do the same – to play for the school and be like dad.”
The brothers want to win it too for their former teammates – Thirdy Ravena, Aaron Black and the others who ended their fourth year in high school without a title. “That’s our motivation too,” chimed in Matt.
Nope. Definitely doable. And it’s exhilarating.