BONFIRE!

The bonfire was six years late.

Then again, that was probably why it was much sweeter.

Six years earlier, through grit and daring, the UST growling Tigers stole what would have been Norman Black’s first championship as coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. That was 2006. My batch’s chance to graduate with a UAAP Basketball Championship – clawed and shredded to bits by the Tigers.

2012. Five Championships later. The fifth bonfire in a row. Norman Black rides into the sunset. To top it all off, he won his last against the team that denied him his first.

As the fire was lit, gazed upon, celebrated around and finally extinguished, as the dust from this year’s UAAP Basketball Wars has finally clears, as the referees’ whistles become merely echoes, as the chants and cheers become whispers, as the barbed word wars slowly untangle, as the rule book throwing ceases, as History gets ready to do its job of cosmic judgement, we get to s the report card of the Blue Eagles.

Five Straight Titles. The second longest running championship streak in the UAAP. The best championship streak in the Final Four Era. A decade and beyond strung together by consecutive Final Four Appearances. Six of the last 10 championships. More Finals appearances than you can count with your hands.  Dominance has become a Dynasty.

And most importantly, all the players graduate. Even if they don’t get to play for a professional league, they have their respective careers anyway.

These are the results of a successful basketball program that was started from way back. From the Joe Lipa and Joel Banal Eras, the school has a bona fide Program. Not merely good seasons. But a program. I’m thinking of Duke in the US, for example. They don’t necessarily win every year, but they always compete. The philosophy is intact and is always translated to reality. Recruitment is intensive. And the players are student-athletes. That, in some way, is what the Eagles are now enjoying today. That is why, in some way, the coaching staff and the Ateneo community are not terrified of the loss of Norman Black. We are jittery, nervous, or even fearful, but not terrified. The program was built to last. That’s the view if you want to see it in terms of a timeline. Now, though, is the time to focus on just one dot in the line. The bonfire. The night for revelry.

The horizon is as hazy as the tips of the flames. What are we to do without Slaughter? Without Chua? Without Salva? Will Buenafe play again? Can Kiefer carry the team on his shoulders? Who will the next coach be? There are shadows in the distance: Tigers licking their wounds, Archers restringing their bows, Tamaraws stomping the ground, Warriors sharpening swords, Falcons getting ready for flight, Bulldogs gnarling, and Maroons… Ummm… umm… whatever it is that maroons do. An asterisk year looms for the Eagles. If we make it to the Final Four, I would already consider it a big feat.

But asterisks are for another night. The bonfire night was for gratitude. For the players who wore the school colors proudly. For Coach Norman the coaching staff who were teachers. For conducting themselves in a manner we would always be proud of – win or lose. For answering reporters intelligently, thus making sure we didn’t have to cringe during postgame interviews.

What the next generations must remember is that it wasn’t always like this. There were seasons of frustration on the way to this season of harvest. The early 90s, the dark ages, when UST, then La Salle and their full throttle full court press would sow in every heart that bled blue. 2001 when Enrico Villanueva and company would come so close only to have their hearts broken. But those are for other times. Other seasons.

The first order of business: Celebrating around a bonfire that took six years to light.

SALVA!

BIGNESS

Big games are transcendent. They go beyond place. And sometimes, if they as fortunate as a half-court three pointer, they transcend time. This particular game had not yet withstood the test of time, but it sure transcended location. As UAAP finals games have a habit of doing.

My girlfriend and I weren’t able to join our friends at the MOA Arena to watch Game 1 of the UAAP Finals featuring UST and Ateneo, but we sure felt the bigness of the game in other ways.

Greenbelt 5 from flickr.com

Chili’s Greenbelt 5. First half. People started coming in, ordering Margaritas and beer. Even the ones who didn’t come in to watch the game started turning their heads toward the screens at the Margarita bar more often. You could hear the muted groans and discreet mutterings of worry. Nervousness was creeping in, though everyone was trying to gauge whether the rest of the resto was hostile (In nearby Greenbelt 3, National Sports Grill was hosting its own version. They set up a big screen and sound system at their al fresco area. Watching this crowd from afar on different occasions, they could get pretty rowdy).

Come the second half, we were one. It had been deciphered and decided through spontaneous yet synchronized cheers that the crowd was a nest of eagles. Everyone was counting how many points the run had gone up to. Shyness and discreetness had vanished to give way to explicit “Ooooohs!” and “Yuns!” I could only imagine what it feels like to watch a Football game in a London pub.

Everyone, like us, were texting their friends and loved ones in different areas of Metro Manila. Checking their Facebook News Feeds. Tweeting. The Coliseum had become virtual. That’s what big games do.

FIRST QUARTER

The game, though, was biggest, for Nico Salva. 30 points. Ranks among the highest number of points scored in a Finals Game.

The first half featured guts, initial nervousness, and a ton of turnovers. The sloppiness made it look like covered courts basketball. At the end of the first half, Ateneo would end up with 10 turnovers and only eight assists.  The pace was electric, and points-off-turnovers came rapidly. Which worked well for the Growling Tigers, who were up by 7 at the end of the half.

The Tiger defense was at its best. Abdul changing shots in the post. The guards did a great job on the perimeter on Kiefer. There were times he was even double-teamed (In the end, Kiefer would be “kept” to “just” 13 points, and Slaughter to only 5).  Thus, the ball found its way again and again to one man: Salva. He kept the score respectable.

Salva against the world was pretty much the theme in the first half. picture from inquirer.net

“WHAT DID YOU TELL US AGAIN, COACH?”

Halftime happened. The eagles came swinging out of the locker room with a 17-0 blitzkrieg that tipped the score from 38-31(UST) to 48-38 (Ateneo). It would actually mushroom into a 20-4 run until the 3:04 mark of the third. As Ateneo continued biting off UST’s lead and slowly mounting their own, I kept saying, “Timeout na, Pido!” I remembered the game against La Salle when Ateneo went on a run to erase an 11 point deficit in the fourth. Coach Abanilla of La Salle didn’t call a timeout then until it was too late. The same was happening to Coach Jarencio. I said to myself, “Pagsisisihan niya ‘to (He will regret this).”

What did Norman Black say in the locker room in that halftime huddle? Salva was asked that same question after the game. His response was “What did you tell us, coach?” The heat of the moment and the wildness of adrenaline was most probably coursing through his veins and mind. He remembered that Norman Black just told them to play Ateneo ball and not be afraid of Abdul.

Play Ateneo ball they did. They played with their trademark discipline and gutsiness. They took care of the ball, and stopped rushing shots. They defended when necessary. They attacked Abdul in the middle, putting him in foul trouble.

TIGERS ROAR BACK

But UST will not just roll over. Nor did anyone expect them to. They got on a run of their own: a 12-2 run to bring the game closer to the eagles. They even led at one point. Everyone was running up and down the court again, and the Eagles couldn’t seem to bring their legs down the court to play transition defense.

Nervousness crept back into Chili’s again. Our waiter seemed to be the only one happy. He couldn’t help but clap and raise two fists when UST scored go-ahed baskets.

But it was too late. The Tigers had let the Eagles’ cylinders heat up, and suddenly everyone chipped in to finish the game. Big-Game Buenafe put in that crucial 4 point play. Kiefer put in that dagger 2. Tiongson, probably primarily responsible for that crazy turnover-riddled first half roared back and even won for himself a sponsored award which the telecast called the Game Changing Player or something. Justin Chua found himself open and scored. And yes, Salva’s scoring engine just kept humming. He even scored a three pointer.

COACH PIDO

Pido could be seen wildly frustrated at the sidelines. He reminded me of Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. In the third movie, Saruman was seen at his balcony, frustrated and lamenting the burning of Isengard.

Okay, Saruman was probably an exaggeration, but Pido came close. He was doing weird gestures (putting the back of his hand to his neck and seemed to be wiping sweat. I’m still trying to figure out what that meant). He was also seen trying to be restrained by his assistants. He just shoved their arms off. He talked to the refs after the game. He also issued a statement calling the officiating ugly, among other things.

It might have been too ticky-tacky, true, but it was ticky-tacky both ways.

I was actually surprised to see coach Pido lose it. I’ve always respected how he inspires his guys and how he keeps his calm, knowing they can figure out a way to win it at the end. Was he frustrated not just at the officiating, but even with his guys, how they lost the lead, and even with himself?

He has had it. And not even his assistants can stop him. Photo from spin.ph

(More on this year’s officiating in a later entry!)

SALVA!

Meanwhile, Jasmine Payo’s (Inquirer) research tells us that Nico Salva’s 30 points made him only the third player in the past decade to reach the 30 point mark in a championship game (My brothers tell me the other two were also Ateneans: Tenorio and Al Hussaini).

And if he wins another game – meaning another championship – “he will be on the brink of a rare feat of winning a championship in every season of his five-year varsity career.”

Salva had every right to celebrate yesterday. photo from interaksyon.com

HAVEN’T I SEEN THIS BEFORE?

It was kind of funny seeing Doug Kramer watching the game live. He reminded me that it was his last second basket that gave the Blue Eagles the Game 1 win against UST six years ago. That basket would be eclipsed by two phenomenal UST games led by Jojo Duncil.

I think every Atenean who is old enough to remember 2006 didn’t post celebratory statuses on their Facebook walls just yet.

After all, lest we forget, there is a song called “Eye of the Tiger.”

Anyhow, we left Chili’s with our leftover tostadas on the table, as well as a nice tip for our waiter. A little something to make him smile despite the disappointment. Who knows? The table could easily be turned on Thursday.

Why they must win THIS YEAR

OK, here are the stats. But you can throw these out the window. It’s the Finals! (Stats from https://www.facebook.com/getblued.ateneo)

It makes me a bit woozy to say it, but next year is an asterisk year for the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

For the uninitiated, the “Asterisk” is something sports-people (regardless of ball, club, gear, goal or field) put on records or years to indicate that something happened that year that has to be explained. The “Asterisk,” I guess was meant to prompt the record-gazers to put the numbers in a special context (or for the older/geekier one to start telling the story).

The most famous (or infamous) was the 61* homerun record of Yankee Roger Maris. He beat Babe Ruth’s homerun record. However, some “experts” claimed that this was only because the season was extended. What the Babe would have done with more games! After some decades, they finally yielded that a season was a season, and that a great feat is a great feat, but that was one of the most debated Asterisk moments in sports. For a more cinematic experience, watch “61” directed by Billy Crystal.

Bill Simmons elaborated on this concept (and how!) in a Grantland article(www.grantland.com). He applied this to NBA championships. He started with the 2012 edition. He said it could be considered such because Derrick Rose got injured in the first round of the playoffs. (Oh how different the playoffs would have been!) Then he went on through the different years – how championship stories could have been rewritten, how playoff fortunes could have shifted – and why they merited an asterisk. Then he conceded that okay, asterisks are reasons given usually by losing teams (sourgrapes), and that these setbacks and game-changers are the adversities that come with winning a championship.

That said, I say next year is an Asterisk Year for the Blue Eagles. True, their core remains intact. But the performance of their upcoming rookie is what makes me question next year: Bo Perasol (the most crucial rookie for next year, probably). He is very qualified, I’m sure. But he is no Norman Black. And let’s face it: I have never seen anyone excited about getting Bo Perasol. He also faces a lot of expectations (many of them probably unfairly) from a community that has been spoiled rotten by Black’s winning ways.

It will also take time for him to gel with his wards, probably like a foster father trying to talk to his new son. The voice of the coach in College Basketball is a lot more important than in the Pros. That’s why the NCAA coaches in the US are famed and beheld: Bob Knight, Coach K, Dean Smith. They embody their program. And they not only coach basketball, they coach their players’ lives. They are educators, too – an extension of the school’s classrooms.

Next year will have a lot of question marks hanging on the Eagles’ jerseys. Next year’s championship will be more up for grabs than this one.

That is why UST has to win it this year. If I’m a Tiger, I want to win it this year – when everyone else seemed to think Ateneo was headed for a fifth championship. I want to win it this year, against Norman Black. Against the Eagles at the height of their flight. I want to win it this year, when Ateneo can’t make any excuses. I want to win it this year, when our best will shine more brightly because the opponent was more legendary.

Which is also why Ateneo has to win it this year. They have one important member of the team graduating: Norman Black.

Sportscasters and analysts usually talk about Championship Windows. The Sacramento Kings of the Webber-Bibby-Divac-Christie-Stojakovic era tried to go through it, but failed. And it closed. Never to be opened again. The “window question” also always crops up when you talk about the Spurs and the Celtics. Is it still open for the aging Garnett and Duncan? Ateneo’s championship window is now in question.

The Drive for Five is also another reason. No other school in more recent history has achieved the phenomenal fifth. It may be hard to imagine today, but UE actually won seven straight titles from 1965 to 1971.  In more recent memory, UST won four straight. Then La Salle. Then Ateneo. (for more info: http://www.pba-online.net/basketball/uaap/Eagles-chasing-UAAP-history-versus-Tigers/15694/)

Will the Tigers be immortalized as the Giant Slayers? Or will the Eagles be immortalized for the Five-Peat?

The window for immortality is closing. Only one team can get through.