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Building champions

The San Beda Red Lions soured what would have been a historic first championship campaign of the Lyceum Pirates via a 2-0 sweep of the men’s basketball finals. This not only erased LPU’s sweep of the regular season, it also continued SBC’s dominance of men’s basketball going back twelve years, a dozen straight finals appearances resulting in ten titles after a 28-year drought. There are a few factors for this  sustained excellence, factors which have not been replicated by other schools. The first factor was the recruitment of a tall foreign player who took defense and rebounding to another level.

The first title of this unprecedented run came with the emergence of Sam Ekwe, the shot-blocking menace this writer called “The Ekwelizer” for his ability to neutralize other teams’ offenses. The six-foot eight former soccer player anchored the Red Lions defense and helped start the offense. San Beda almost swept the season, save for that one loss to eventual finals rival Philippine Christian University. Head coach Koy Banal, then an assistant with Purefoods, was at a PBA semifinals game. A fourth-quarter meltdown allowed PCU to overtake them for the only blot on their record. But their success led to another change in the culture: a huge jump in alumni and student involvement. That first and at the time, preciously rare finals appearance brought the fans in droves, and the Bedista crowds regularly dwarfed everyone else’s. 

In that championship, PCU had the formidable trio of the incredibly athletic Gabby Espinas, a leaner but already hard-nosed Beau Belga, and a young and devastatingly quick Beau Belga. The final game was breathtaking, to say the least. San Beda, with an awesome array of talent inside and outside, built leads of up to 20 heading into the fourth quarter. Then their offense vanished, dwindling to a single digit for the final period. PCU caught up. You could feel the tension in a packed Smart Araneta Coliseum. It was draining. It all came down to the final play.

Getting a pass at the free throw line with five seconds to go, Belga had the go-ahead basket and the championship in his hands. Under the rim, Espinas had sealed San Beda’s valued forward Yousif Aljamal beautifully. He just needed to get the ball. But Belga decided to take a jump shot, which fell short and caromed into Aljamal’s waiting hands. Game over; San Beda wins the season 82 championship, after 28 years without one.

But before all this success, San Beda had been hemorrhaging players. For decades, alumni of those amazing Red Cubs squads coached or trained by Ato Badolato had been contributing to seniors championships for other schools like Ateneo and De La Salle: like LA Tenorio with the Blue Eagles and Renren Ritualo, whose number was even retired by the Green Archers. Prior to the early 2000’s, many of San Beda’s top high school talent migrated to Ateneo, with the only notable exception being Chito Loyzaga, who went from being a Blue Eaglet to a Red Lion. Intervention of new patrons stopped the bleeding, and San Beda kept most of its champion juniors players. Their early maturation was a clear advantage in college, as their depth of experience provided stability in crucial times.

This is, perhaps, the most important factor in SBC’s continuous success: championship experience. From high school to college, playing at that high level, one gains a certain calm when others panic, a certainty that matters are in the team’s hands. No matter how dire things seem, you have the confidence to turn things around. You’ve done it before. And the more experienced players on your team have done even more. The best part is that it feeds itself. Wins beget wins. Best practices build on each other. 

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There are other factors that must be considered as well. Access to PBA coaches, trainers and management create systems that feed success. Very few colleges are allied with professional teams with the latest of everything from training to nutrition to strategy. That’s why, despite a revolving door of coaches over the past few years, San Beda is still on top. Even the evolution of their foreign-born players has shown a constant refinement through the years. Generally, those who’ve followed Ekwe have either had more time to incubate, or have come with better training. Better can always get better.

Of course, there are other things, like US training, access to an army of players and other basketball professionals for advice. Great doctors and therapists. More media exposure.

But what ties everything together is a shared passion for improvement and winning. From the very top on down, everyone involved in San Beda’s success agrees on how things should be done. There is no compromise. And that is why anything less than winning is unacceptable.

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