ATENEO vs. UST: THE FITTING FINALS

The Golden Fiesta finally exploded. The yellow confetti rained down from the rafters. The UAAP was now going to crown its new king: The UST Growling Tigers. Led by their inspired and inspiring mentor, Pido Jarencio, they had won the championship for the Royal Pontifical University. That was 2006. Game 3 of the UAAP Men’s Basketball Finals. I was there. My heart, along with the thousands of others, was broken. I watched my Eagles fall in the third game that wasn’t even supposed to happen.

Barely a week and a half ago, UST was destroyed in Game 1 by a last second inbound play by Ateneo. Multi-titled (we say that when we’ve lost count) mentor coach Norman Black drew up a play and the Eagles executed perfectly. Doug Kramer got the ball where he was supposed to, shot the ball like he was supposed to. And Ateneo won like they were supposed to.

But Game 3, the game that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened.

Fast forward to six years later. Norman Black and the Ateneo Blue Eagles had been reaping the successes of a well-funded and well-run Basketball Program. Year after year after year, they would find good players and run the system well. And year after year after year, they would have a trophy and a celebratory bonfire to show for it. They had established dominance over the UAAP over the last four years with four straight championships. Arguably, a Dynasty.

2012. They seek their fifth straight championship. A feat that no other team has done in recent years (La Salle and UST were able to do “only” 4-peats). Norman Black had announced at the beginning of the season that it would be his last. Of course his players (especially the seniors) want to send him off with the grandest possible gift.

Just yesterday, the tournament studded with technicality and rulebook-throwing arguments finally ended its regular season and its Final Four. As the rubble and smoke cleared, Norman Black would look to the distance and find his former tormentor: Pido Jarencio and his army of gold.

Shakespeare probably couldn’t have written it better.

Apart from announcing 2012 would be his last season, Black had also declared that UST is the team he is most watching out for this year. Many predicted that NU would be Ateneo’s top contender. Or even FEU. But no, Black had his sights on UST, saying that they are the team that can match up best with his guys. Abdul cancels out Slaughter. The guards play exceptionally well. Pido Jarencio matches his Xs and Os and discipline with raw guts and rawer chutzpah. True enough, the Eaglres lost their first round battle against UST. The second round battle saw Ateneo winning, but only by a slim margin.

That is why this is the Finals that should be.

Norman Black also said once that basketball is a game of match-ups. Rankings (like 1st in defense, or 3rd in turnovers forced) are meaningless because what you have to look at are the numbers when the teams go head-to-head. And in this case, when the ABS-CBN Sports Guys finally break it down for us, I would think the numbers will tell us we’re in for a hell of a ride.

That is why this is the Finals that should be.

After Ateneo won the 2nd round battle, UST had the audacity to protest the game. The protest was denied. UST will be out to prove that they should have won. Ateneo will be out to prove that they actually did. Before, you could say that there was no rivalry between these two schools. Now, there is just too much unfinished business dating from six years back that need to be wrapped up.

That is why this is the Finals that should be.

This is the Finals Norman Black wants to win before he goes out into the sunset, with freshly-cut basketball nets draped around his neck, and lifted on the shoulders of the players who respect and love him.

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That’s the way it’s played.

 

“Clinic” is usually the word we use when a team plays in the ideal way, and in effect, shows how it’s done to the hapless loser.

 

“Clinic” doesn’t begin to describe how the Spurs are playing now.  They’re turning basketball into the dance it can be. On the technical side, they’re spacing, passing, helping, screening, shooting, controlling tempo, adjusting  and pacing beautifully. On the intangibles, they trust each other, they love playing with one another (27 assists vs OKC’s 19), they have composure, they believe in their system. And everyone who’s learning to play or coach basketball should watch the way they’re playing now (20 straight wins!).

 

Key things a couch coach might see:

 

1. Parker is getting his way too much. A more active defense on him has to be placed. I’ve never guarded an all-star and Olympic athlete before, but I’m guessing it takes more than that.

 

2. switching. I think the Thunder discovered, too late in the game, that their best bet against all the screens, is their last lineup that can switch defenders at any point in the game.

 

3. this switching D, attack and be physical, with the Thunder’s attitude of never folding – PLUS the homecourt should re-energize the Thunder. we saw shades of it, i think, during the last quarter or so. and if that shade becomes the real thing in game 3, then we can have a series.

 

4. however, even if the thunder adjust, the spurs are just so versatile that they can play at any pace or style. and again, that makes them terrifying. at some point, you just have to hope they miss.

 

I remember when my pistons coached by larry brown, lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA finals. coach brown said, “here, we always talk about playing ‘the right way.’  Right over there, that’s a team that plays ‘the right way.’ ”

 

 

 

What the Thunder must remember

Coach Popovich told his team: “I want some nasty.” And it was embodied by Stephen Jackson.

 


They played physical and tough for the fourth quarter, chased the track stars from Oklahoma, and pummeled them when they could. It was like The Hulk shutting up The Flash ( I know I crossed universes there, ok?). And it was the right thing to do, too. The scoreboard showed it at the end. In Pinoy basketball parlance, “minama nila.”

 

But what OKC must remember is that they CAN play tough. They played aggressive and physical against Dallas. And all season long, they were always on the brink of a brawl against the Lakers. They just have to remember, that as has been the case all season long, the powers-that-be are not just going to roll over and give them the keys to a new era. They have to remember, as they have throughout the season, that they must fight for it. Harden knows what I’m talking about.

 

 

SECOND ROUND: How the West will be won, and the shadow of a big-ass asterisk looming over the East

The WEST

 

As of press time (naks.), the Oklahoma Thunder are pulverizing the LA Lakers, to the tune of 92-63, with a little over a minute to go in the 3rd. Pending an epic, thunderous letdown, or an equally epic Kobe-powered comeback, the Thunder are running away with the first game.

 

For the West, it boils down, as corny as this may sound, to a question of Character. The teams that will come away with the wins will be the teams that know who they are, and impress this upon their opponents.

 

 

The Oklahoma Thunder, especially this season, are coming into their own. They know who they are, what kind of pace they want to play at, the selflessness required, the roles they are expected to play, and the work that’s cut out for them. They’re like a team of track-stars and high-jumpers in perfect sync. And that’s from the starters down to the bench.

 

The Lakers, in contrast, are, as Phil Jackson put it before, “a team in search of its soul.” Sure, the Lakers are talent-laden, and anybody with the Black Mamba in its arsenal can not be counted out. But this is a team game, and the better team is out there running down their opponents. They have won, and will continue to win games with their talent. If they still want to win, the rest of the Purple and Gold have to proverbially step it up. Gasol and Bynum have to do much of the damage since the guards and forwards cancel each other out. If Gasol and Bynum can dominate in the paint, and exert their wills over Ibaka, Perkins and Collison, then the Lakers have a chance.

 

The Spurs, on the other hand, are the epitome of knowing who they are, playing to their strength, and using these efficiently. They have also found a way to pace themselves throughout the season, and thus have a healthy Manu, Tony and Duncan. Their bench is also young, dynamic, and have that extra kick the veterans need. The Clippers are, in contrast, still looking for who they are. They’ve got Paul and Griffin to lead the charge, but when San Antonio suddenly exerts its towering and imposing presence upon these young guys, it won’t be pretty for the Clips. The Spurs have gone through so many wars (lost and won) together, and they’ve got one of the best minds running the show, too – Pop.

 

I guess you can say I’m predicting a Spurs-Thunder Western Finals. I’m rooting for the Thunder to go all the way, but if they do fall, it will be because the Spurs have exerted their familiar imposing presence on them.

 

The Western team that can find itself, use it to its advantage, and exert it over their opponents can win their Conference. Emphasis on Western TEAM. Not individual.

 

The EAST

 

As for the East, a big-ass asterisk still looms over them.

The fall of Rose still puts a big question mark on the Sixers win. Then it puts a big question mark on the winner of the Celtics-76ers match. And it puts a big on whoever wins the East, as everyone will forever wonder: could they still have won it if Rose played?

 

But shit like that happens, right? And I think it’s a toss-up between the Heat and the Celtics. Both are playing with newfound passion, desire and just downright anger. It’s going to be a fistfight.

 

 

 

 

VICTORY

The Persians, their eyes and arrows set on conquest, had been crushed on the plains of Marathon. As the sun set on their corpses on the field, so it also did on their ambition of empire. The Athenians’ homes, farms, families, philosophers, their beloved agora, hell, their entire way of life had been saved. Western Civilization was going to fight another day (it was actually going to do so, for a few more millennia).

But this big picture of politics and other puffery didn’t matter to Philippides. Or not at that moment, at least. He was focused on his aching feet, his nose, the breeze from the Aegean, his lungs, the ground he tread on, and the blessed, blessed news he was bringing. This duty to both polis and people. His countrymen had vanquished the Persians, and he had been sent to run from Marathon toAthens, to tell all of how the gods had protected them.

He would go on to reach the gates of his city. He would shout, “Nike!” Victory. But alas, he would also fall down dead.

Philippides, from a quick scan of Google Images - dramatized (and romanticized) here, probably in mid-shout and death.

And millennia after, he would become legend. He would have historical pricks debate over the veracity of his very existence. Whatever official place in history he is assigned, he would still seize the imagination of countless generations of athletes.

His legend and legacy would live on every four years as part of Olympic Glory, and on every road that runners’ shoes would dare to tread on.  Every running distance would be compared to the whole length which he ran. The 42.196 would be immortalized as the full marathon – every serious runner’s ultimate ambition, an item on the bucket list on non-runners’, and the pride of the world’s best cities to host such an event. There would be half-marathons, 15Ks, 10Ks, 5Ks, and 3Ks, each one a rung on the ladder towards immortality.

A more glorified version of Philippides - (his name may be spelled differently across cultures, but it just adds to his legend)

Last March 18, his feat was multiplied a hundred times over by runners who sought to defy the limits humanity had set on itself. Not on the plains of Marathon, but on the scattered hills of Nuvali.

The Bull Runner Dream Marathon, a unique, fantastic program designed to help the average person go from from zero level to marathon level in approximately six months (Philippides could have probably used this). There are talks (they call them bull sessions) running clinics, running sessions, weight management programs, and an online support community. Led by the Bull Runner herself, Jaymie Pizarro, and top-notch coaches, it is simply one of, if not the best running program in the country, especially because it makes running accessible to anyone. (link to her site: http://thebullrunner.com/ – this might help if you want to join next year’s TBR Dream Marathon!)

A year ago, my girlfriend, Bianca, actually slept on her first run. She missed the 530-ish Gun Start. After I completed my own run, I found her sulking on the pavement of Bonifacio High Street. Fast forward to this year. She completed her first full marathon, and I’m eating her dust. She already has run the whole 42 Kilometers Philippides ran eons ago, and I’m just halfway there.

She called me up when she signed up for the program (I, on the other hand, missed the deadline). I listened to her tales of anguish and glory as her distance began growing and growing. I tried my best to help her diet (Operative word: TRIED). I was there when she doubted. I was there when she was sure. I was there when she crossed the finish line. And what  I saw was the triumph of her spirit.

She would wake up as early as 3AM, to run for 2 hours or more. Then she’d go off to teach her kids (which sometimes can be even trickier and tiring than roadwork). She’d come back home to help out with tasks that had to be done in the house. Her soles may have been tired, but her soul shone ever more brilliantly.

At the end, she didn’t shout out and jump and dare the sky to come down and try to stop her, though she and everyone else had every right to do so. In the madness of the moment, she tried her best to hug everyone. I mean everyone. The pacers, Coach Jim, Coach Litt, her family, her co-teachers, her cousin, the other runners. She wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

She inspires me, (she always has, even without signing up for this), and I’m sure she inspired her family, her co-teachers, and everyone else who stood at the finish line waiting for their own heroes.

Bianca crossing the finish line - much to the delight and delirium of her "fans" - taken from The Bull Runner.com

Each runner, like her, was embraced by cheering and crying family and friends. The scene looked like an airport’s Arrivals area.

These runners, unbound to any Polis unlike the original Marathon Runner, still had a message to bring to whoever would listen. One by one, they crossed the finish line and shouted “Nike!” They declared victory. Victory over the limit that humanity had set on itself – 42Kilometers would threaten their feet no longer. Victory over laziness. Victory over 2AM roadwork. Victory over airconditioners and warmers and pillows seducing them to come back to bed. Victory over half-baked dreams, abandoned garage projects and uncompleted summer workshops. Victory over youth’s wastefulness. Victory over bones wearied by too many years. Victory over the worst their selves could muster.

Not all of them jumped or screamed to the heavens. Some of them limped. Some of them silently took their medal and smiled. But each one, from that day forward, would be in league with Philippides. They would belong to legend. They would belong to the victorious.

Victory!