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.