Post–War Blues III
Clipped Wings & Choly’s Last Ride
by rick olivares
When the 1952 edition of the Ateneo Blue Eagles took to the floor, conspicuously absent from the line-up was the team’s rebounding king Olegario “Ole” Orbeta.
Orbeta feuded with Coach Dick Francisco in the off season and as a result was left off the roster. Orbeta was crushed by the snub since it was his last year of eligibility and the team was finally good enough to make it all the way. Ole was the team’s rock and conscience something he carried with him since his secondary education years. During his senior year at the Ateneo high school, the Blue Eaglets were getting beaten up by the physical game of the Jose Rizal Light Bombers that during half-time, the team that sat glumly in the locker room was a broken one. Fr. John Delaney S.J. knew that his team was folding because of strict team rules that forbade rough play or retaliation. The good priest thought about it for a moment then with a sigh eventually acquiesced to play an eye for an eye. Before anyone could contemplate the implications of a fighting Ateneo squad, Orbeta spoke up and said that “with all due respect, he’d sooner take off his white Ateneo jersey than resort to thuggery.” Fr. Delaney couldn’t have been more proud. The Ateneans took to the court in the second half playing their usual game albeit with a more focused intent. They embarked on a spirited rally that saw them fall short only because time had run out on them. This new season, Orbeta would continue to bring his mental toughness but it was to the football team and could only helplessly watch from the bleachers as his teammates took to the hardcourt.
In these exciting post-war years there was an air of togetherness and enthusiasm forged by a common goal of rebuilding a newly independent country. Among the biggest draws in town was collegiate basketball that was more popular than the fledging pro MICAA league. Ateneo was so far the only NCAA team that had yet to win a post-war title. After years of futility, the team with its battle-hardened corps of veterans was ready to contend for the title. It was a preposterous notion when all one had to do was cast its eye towards the line-up and the only player over six feet was Casto Madamba at 6’1” who one basketball observer noted as the only redwood among the acacia trees. Opponents heckled the team’s bantam-sized players Antonio “Choly” Gaston, Oscar Battalones, and Freddie Campos as being grade school kids in a man’s game. But height notwithstanding, it was these three players who not only spearheaded Ateneo’s vaunted running game into high gear but stood tall with their incredible fighting hearts. But clearly, this was Choly’s team. Despite being much smaller than most on the court, his fighting heart and his all-around hustle could alter the outcome game. In an exhibition game against the visiting Mexican National Team, Choly, the Cagayan Cyclone outjumped the taller 6’3” Mexican during a jump ball.
Despite being seeded by pre-season prognosticators, the road to the championship wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. San Beda was still very much the heavy favorite to retain the title even with the graduation of Pons Saldaña for they still had the great Caloy Loyzaga and Eddie Lim, Olympians both. La Salle with its stratospheric line-up of six-footers was dangerous. Letran was a mite weaker with the transfer of Herminio Astorga to FEU. Jose Rizal and Mapua though much weaker were dark horse favorites who could play the spoiler’s role if one took them lightly.
It was the final year of team captains Choly Gaston and Poch Estella. Ramchand Motomuul after watching the team from the bleachers in the previous season was in the line-up and ready to bombard from another area code. Swingman George Hussey was ready to spell Kalawang when the freckle-faced junior needed a breather from his daredevil drives.
Dick Francisco molded the team into his likeness playing a frenetic brand of basketball that saw the Blue Eagles run their foes ragged when they could. Despite the clear height disadvantage, he knew that his fleet of blue comets of Gaston, Campos, and Battalones could easily turn the tide of the game with their razzle dazzle ball.
With Loyzaga and Lim overseas for the Helsinki Olympics, teams were salivating at the opportunity to knock off San Beda in the tourney’s early goings.
When National Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay declared open the 1952 NCAA Basketball Tournament on August 3, 1952, Ateneo squared off against La Salle in what many declared a preview of the teams seeded to slug it out with San Beda for collegiate hoops glory.
La Salle Coach Totit Valles’ game plan was simple: pound the rock inside. With Captain Tony Banggoy and the luxury of four six-footers in the persons of Martin Urra, Fred Anderegg, Juan Munos and Rene Wassmer, the Green Archers figured to make short work of the Loyolans.
The game was significant for two reasons: 1) this was the first game between the two emerging rivals wherein the cheerleaders led their rivals’ battle songs during the warm-ups; and 2) Ateneo served notice that despite being Lilliputian by basketball standards, they were going to be a force to reckon with.
La Salle seized the upper hand early on by utilizing their height advantage to the hilt. Coach Francisco sued for time and shifted from trying to match La Salle with size to turning the game into a track meet. The strategy worked superbly for Ateneo tied the game 16-all at the end of the first canto. The Greenshirts had trouble bringing the ball past half-court that they had to bring in better ball handlers to help out Alex Montilla that eventually sacrificed their height advantage. The tide had shifted and the game degenerated into a rough one. For awhile there, Montilla thought he was playing linebacker and nearly decapitated Rusty Cacho and was thrown out of the game by an irate Arturo Rius (the ex-Bedan stalwart) who was on the tournament’s technical committee. Whatever gentlemanly gestures there were between the two galleries quickly dissipated as the blue side chanted “Your arrows will break, will break. Your arrows will shake, will shake.” The green side retaliated by chanting “the eagles will die, will die. Your feathers will fall, will fall.”
The only thing that fell on this day was Motomuul’s two-handed jump shots from the outside that broke La Salle’s zone and backs. By the time the dust cleared, Ateneo emerged victorious 55-44.
Ateneo had a chance to win three straight (after Letran was ran off the court for win no. 2) when they faced San Beda sans its missing Olympians and were still winless. Overconfident they let the Mendiola five dictate the pace from early on as the team played listless ball. By the time the Blue Eagles snapped out of their stupor, the Red Lions who had battled the heavily favored Ateneo to a standstill found the confidence to steal a victory. Ateneo lost when rookie Ceferino Salvador drained two pressure-packed charity shots with almost no time left that stunned the 6,000 strong blue and white gallery. It was a huge win for San Beda for the following game, they had their stars back and they just walloped Mapua by 21.
The greased lightning offense of the Loyolans was on frightening display as they rebounded from the loss by thrashing JRU and Mapua in succession. The high scoring quartet of Gaston, Littaua, Motomuul, and Cacho was too much for any defense to take for long. Ateneo’s four wins meant the least they could avail of was a play-off for the first round gonfalon since La Salle kept pace with a 4-1 slate. Poch Estella, the Blue Eagles’ lanky swingman wondered if the loss to San Beda would come back to haunt them. Even if Ateneo handled La Salle well in the first game of the season there was no telling the outcome of the one game play-off especially against this rival who seemed to get up more for Ateneo than any other team in the league. And the unlikely happened as the Green Archers behind Rene Wassmer upended the Blue Eagles with a game winning shot to capture the first round championship 76-74. The Archers clogged the lane and dared Ateneo to beat them with the outside shot. The blues and whites obliged and kept the score close. But on this day, Wassmer would be too much as he scored a game high 28-points including the dagger with five seconds left that dashed the hopes of the blue nation.
Gaston who had kept Ateneo in the game by scoring five points in the final minute of the game was inconsolable. The team despite its lack of ceiling was seeded to contend. Had they overachieved? Time was running out on his collegiate career. The current campaign was so far the best that the team had played in his years with the squad. Fr. Delaney sensed the team teetering on the brink of breaking down that he set about lifting their spirits with a stirring Homily in their return to Loyola Heights. Coach Francisco on the other hand made sure that despite the huge setback to his alma mater’s championship dreams, the team was ready to fight on for the second round flag was still up for grabs.
The Blue Eagles kicked off the second round campaign on September 18 by once more blitzing Letran. With Murder Inc. now a thing of the past, the Knights with a new crew of recruits didn’t offer much resistance. Mapua and La Salle were also swept away by Ateneo’s fast-break. The game against the Taft-based cagers was its usual rough and tumble self replete with spills and thrills. La Salle tried to slow down the tempo of the game but Ateneo’s high-octane offense got on track by the second quarter. The team gained a measure of revenge but immediately in their sights was San Beda which was beginning to hum like a well-oiled machine with Loyzaga and Lim back in harness. The men in red were on a collision course with the men in blue. The Red Lions were just steamrolling the competition and were likewise undefeated in the second round. After a boisterous “Hail Ateneo Hail,” the cheerleaders led a thundering Artillery Yell aimed at the Mendiola crew. “Range... San Beda! Target…San Beda! Boom Chika Boom Sis Boom Bah!”
But before the eagerly awaited return bout with the reigning titlists, there was just the matter of the JRC Heavy Bombers to shoot down.
On October 2, 1952, the booming heard across the Rizal Memorial Coliseum was not from the Blue Babble Battalion and their Artillery Yells but from the Heavy Bombers finding their mark. Coach Guillermo Victoria’s Bombers matched the Eagles speed for speed and crashed the boards to prevent them from unleashing their patented fastbreak game. At the half, with JRC leading 38-24, a black cat ran across the court just as the Ateneo cheerleaders were about to exhort the blue gallery to inspire the team to fight. The skittering feline hushed the crowd for a moment and sport writers seated along press row wondered if that was an omen of Ateneo’s fate. The start of the second half did nothing to dispel that notion. The Bombers hounded Ram Motomuul into a horrid shooting night and stonewalled Cacho’s sorties into the paint. Not even Ateneo Athletic Moderator Fr. Edgar Martin’s exhortations from the sidelines could get the team going. The good Padre was so stunned by the Mandaluyong squad’s total domination of the Blue Eagles that the glowing tobacco pipe that he puffed on during games remained unlit despite the floor being littered with spent matches.
In the dugout, Dick Francisco pondered the just concluded game. It was another sure win that got away from them: a case of a bad team beating a good team on a bad day. Will the loss come back to haunt them as did the first round upset of San Beda? With San Beda undefeated so far, the next game was either the season for Ateneo or moving onto to the next round.
They were in contention all right… for only one quarter. With Loyzaga having a miserable game, the Blue Eagles kept it close 12-10. By the second quarter, Loyzaga began to play smart ball as he drew the defense to him then kicked out to the wide-open Pablo Cuna, Eddie Lim, and Ramon Dee who were all spread out across the court to loosen up Ateneo’s double-teams.
Despite being down by 10 at the end of the third quarter, barring a miracle, it was obvious that the 2nd round flag was going to San Beda. Ateneo had bled for its points. Cacho and Littaua led the fight for Ateneo scoring in twin digits, but the only shot given to them by the suffocating Bedan defense were hurried long toms which resembled a feeble attempt to bombard a well-protected castle. In their final game for Ateneo, Choly Gaston was held to six points, Cecil Hechanova scored five, Poch Estella had four while Oscar Battalones and Freddie Campos were scoreless. While the final tally stood at seemingly close 54-48, it was no indication of the Jesuits hoopsters’ titanic struggle to puncture the hoop.
As the gun barked to end the game and the Eagles up-and-down season, the blue and white gallery showered its graduating players with cheers and thanks. Gaston his eyes wet with tears waved his hand that elicited out a loud cheer. Choly along with former teammate Moro Lorenzo typified the Eagles’ ill-fated drives these past years. The Red Lions and their gallery likewise cheered for their vanquished but valiant foe. And as the Blue Eagles strode off the court to leave their victorious foe to bask in their glory, the Atenean gallery erupted into song:
“With a shout, with a song,
We will help the boys along
Under banners of white and fair blue.
While we do, while we dare
Proudly waving everywhere
Are the banners of white and fair blue.”
Aftermath: The San Beda Red Lions made short work of the La Salle Green Archers for the 1952 cage diadem for their 5th overall title. Rusty Cacho, Mike Littaua, and Choly Gaston made the NCAA’s 2nd Mythical Second Five. Choly Gaston joined the Philippine Air Force (where he would go on to dominate athletics winning medals in almost every category) instead of the fledging MICAA. Gaston moved on to the Great Hereafter when the plane he was flying crashed while on aerial maneuvers in 1955. When the MICAA opened its 1955 season, the league observed a minute of silence for Gaston who never even played for the league. That’s how revered and respected he was. In his four years of weaving and slashing for a bucket for the good old Blue and White, he was a crowd favorite. Andres “Dick” Francisco would step down as Ateneo coach to make way for Bing Ouano the following season wherein Ateneo would finally nail that elusive first post-war crown.