Sunday, November 18, 2012

The view from the juggernaut

For the Philippine Star, 24 October 2012, in section M.

When the game finally ended, I logged onto Facebook and posted a new status update: “SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE!!!!!” Then I added a comment: “I waited all season to post this status, dammit!” 

And really, I did. Not ever having been a devoted fan of my alma mater’s men’s basketball team (I would watch a few games on TV every so often), I decided to catch every single one this year. We had won four straight UAAP championships, after all, and if a landmark fifth crown was to be won at the end of the season, I wanted to witness the journey.

Why? Maybe because success isn’t something I’m used to. Sure, when I was a student the Blue Eagles won back-to-back titles. The first one, in 1987, was clinched by a wild come from behind victory in the championship game. The team came back from a twenty-point deficit with ten minutes to go in the second half to take the winner-take-all match against a UE team led by Jerry Codiñera (who would go on to have an illustrious career in the Philippine Basketball Association). And I missed it. The next year, the Blue Eagles were back in the finals, this time against arch rival La Salle, and this time I caught the clinching game live in Rizal Coliseum, a much smaller and cozier arena than the cavernous Smart Araneta Coliseum.

The dynasty was short-lived. The very next season, the team lost both its centers and staggered to a 7–7 finish. Years of mediocrity followed. I paid attention to the fortunes of the team only occasionally.

I only recently found out that the record for the most three-pointers in a game belongs to the Blue Eagles. Late in the 1996 season, on the way to finishing another so-so campaign, the team faced the La Salle Green Archers, that generation’s equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla. Watch the game (the whole thing is on YouTube), and the mismatch is obvious. You can see it in their physiques. The boys in white and blue are skinny as matchsticks, the ones in green are beefy and burly, and very tall. That day the Eagles seemed to have had generous servings of pixie dust, draining three after three and keeping the flustered Green Archers behind by more than twenty points for most of the game. Not that the Ateneans didn’t try to take the ball inside. They did, but each time they took it to the rim a canopy of green limbs repulsed the attack, and they just kept on hoisting bombs from beyond the arc.

But La Salle’s momentary setback was a speed bump. In those days, if my memory serves me well, they were title favorites year in and out, tangling with UST for championships time and again. UST won four straight, then so did the Green Archers, clinching the last championship in a three-game final against Ateneo. I know. I was in Araneta for the clincher. Rookie LA Tenorio exploded for 30 points, but La Salle pulled away in the dying minutes. My heart sank. Sharpshooter Ren-Ren Ritualo bellowed that caveman bellow players do when they know the game’s in the bag. Coach Franz Pumaren was swept up by a small horde, and as he faced the sea of green across from us, he flashed five fingers with each hand. The crowd roared. 

“The hangover will last a long time, I’m guessing, longer than those of previous years. I will wear my championship shirts proudly. Then when UAAP season comes along again, we will again root for the laundry. The names on the backs of the jerseys may change, but the one in front doesn’t.”

I’m happy to report that a fifth crown eluded them. Maybe Coach Pumaren had angered the basketball gods with his presumption. Ateneo and La Salle again met in the finals, and I watched the deciding game with my brothers in my parents’ Marikina house. My elder brother Raul sat out the first half in his room upstairs; he couldn’t take the tension. He came down later to join us chew our nails, curse the TV, and, when La Salle’s comeback fell short, whoop it up. Then Hilda and I drove to the then-new Church of the Gèsu on the campus, where a small crowd had gathered. There had been no plan to do so, no wondering about how we would celebrate if we won; that seemed like tempting the fates. Then quickly after the title had been clinched the text messages spread: come to the church. We did. The traditional bonfire followed a few days later.

That was in 2002. Fast-forward to a decade later. With four straight championships in the bag, the Blue Eagles began the season having matched UST and La Salle. Following the games on TV and reading the chatter online, I knew this wasn’t the nineties anymore. When you’re the four-time champ, you’re the 800-pound gorilla. Everyone wants to take you down. From my vantage point—slumped in my wobbly office chair in front of the two-decades-old 14-inch TV I plopped beside my computer table—it seemed every opponent wanted to be physical with the boys in blue. Seven-foot center Greg Slaughter was a particular target for roughing up. Three games into the tournament, I was glad to see him staying cool, holding his ground, and giving as much as he got.

When you win, it’s easy to believe that the best team won. Doesn’t it always? Well, no. Nearly four decades of sports fandom has shown me that flukes happen, that underdogs sometimes win, that sometimes the lesser team rises above its level. Besides, which team is “best”? The one with more talent? I can’t see a talent gap between Ateneo and UST, this year’s finalists. In fact it was UST I dreaded seeing in the finals. The Growling Tigers were the worst matchup for the Blue Eagles, I thought, being bigger, longer, and more athletic, as well as hungrier. True enough, all four games the two teams played over the season were close. A lucky bounce here, a whistle there, and the result could have been different. Victory and defeat were a matter of a few plays made or flubbed. (That Juami Tiongson one-legged running jumpshot near the end of Game 2 gets my vote for unlikeliest clutch play. It was great for the team, bad for my heart.)

Not that I think we were merely lucky. Hell, no. You don’t win five in a row by chance, though certainly plenty of luck has to come your way. College basketball has become a competition of “systems,” and the institution with the better system—including recruitment, coaching, and support both material and emotional from “boosters”—wins out in the long run. The school’s decade of success is a result of thorough engineering. 

Yet basketball remains a game dominated by talent. Not surprisingly, Coach Norman Black, who has just ended his wildly successful tenure with the Eagles, said in a post-game interview that recruitment was his successor’s most important task. Of course. Stock a team with talent, and your odds of success improve immensely. 

Will it finally end? If it’s a game of talent, then the odds are against a sixth crown, since the team is losing too much for us to be considered favorites. The frontline will be decimated, and unless another Slaughter or Nico Salva falls into our laps, rookies and other untested players will have to hold the fort against the likes of UST’s Karim Abdul and NU’s Emmanuel Mbe. UST looks like the odds-on favorite for next year. Maybe La Salle will have the pleasure of stopping the cycle, since it was us that stopped their Drive for Five, and it was us that eliminated them in a memorable Final Four showdown. (Few moments in my life have that anxious, suspended-in-midair, life-flashing-before-your-eyes quality as that moment after Kiefer Ravena passes, with less than a minute to go, La Salle up by one, to an open Ryan Buenafe, who rises to launch a three-pointer. The heart flutters as the ball flies. It goes in, and Ateneo is ahead for good. I feel as if I dodged a bullet, survived surgery, and walked out of a trainwreck.)

More than two weeks later, victory still smells lemony fresh. (That’s for you, Varsitarian.) The hangover will last a long time, I’m guessing, longer than those of previous years. I will wear my championship shirts proudly. Then when UAAP season comes along again, we will again root for the laundry. The names on the backs of the jerseys may change, but the one in front doesn’t. “Win or lose, it’s the school we choose,” goes our alma mater song’s most poignant line. Those of us who knew what it was like when the wins weren’t coming, when we were the thin ones going up against the gorillas, when a bonfire lighting up the night sky was just wishful thinking, might appreciate it most of all.

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