Ateneo's Thirdy Ravena cheers with the crowd
A championship like no other
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE - Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2018 - 12:00am

It was quite an amazing scene. This will be talked about for years to come. It’s the stuff that legends are made of. I am talking about the UAAP Basketball Finals between the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo De Manila University.

No, I will not talk much about the game itself. Everyone knows how well the players played and who won the game. The aftermath was far more interesting.

After the last game between the UP Maroons and the ADMU Blue Eagles, it was quite a delight to see players from both sides of the basketball court congratulating each other. They hugged and gave each other high fives. They applauded and cheered for each other. There was a celebratory feeling everywhere. It was a feel-good moment for participants and audience.

The stakes were high. It was not just your typical  championship game. UP’s basketball team, which had not won any championship in 32 years, surprised everyone. For the past three decades, they never even came close to the finals. But this season, they climbed up and beat their opponents and lorded it over Adamson University’s formidable team to qualify for the finals. They had earned the right to challenge the mightiest team in the UAAP.

ADMU was the defending champion. It had been so for many years now, save two years. It was clearly the more superior team. It had a long bench of basketball talent that could overwhelm any opponent.

Any UAAP championship game is always intense. This one was particularly so. The fans came out of the woodwork and showed their enthusiastic support for their alma mater. After all, there is much to gain whoever wins the championship. Winning the games gives the school and its students a lot of pride and prestige.

You would think that students from both schools fighting for the UAAP 2018 championship would have feelings of animosity towards each other. But they did not. While there was a lot of fight and team spirit on both sides — more so with UP because they were closer than ever to breaking their jinx — there was neither consuming anger nor nastiness aimed at each other. No cursing at all. No insults. No jeering. Just a lot of ribbing and funny memes online.

That’s because, in real life, a lot of Ateneans end up studying in UP colleges after high school. There has always been this close affinity between the two universities — so close that the student councils of both schools called for everyone to wear black. This was in protest against tyranny, loss of freedoms and misogyny happening under the present ruling dispensation. Both schools have produced many activists through the decades and have marched together in protest over various national issues.

I must admit that even if I am a dyed-in-the-wool Atenean, I entertained the prospect of a UP win. I could accept the possibility without feeling bad. After all, there was such a romantic narrative to it: the underdog beating the champion through sheer spirit and determination. A David and Goliath story. It is quite a fairy tale that we Pinoys can readily identify with. Suntok sa Buwan, as we like to say.

At the same time, I was in awe at how the Ateneo team had become so good because of years of practice, practice, and even more practice. They had spent a lot of time becoming not just good individual athletes, but had gelled into a really great team. Though not as romantically appealing, I liked them because they did the slow, tedious hard work needed to become a real fighting team to beat. Because of that, it was all paying off, and yes, they deserved to win.

Many of those who attend the UAAP games do not know or remember how dangerous and violent basketball used to be under the NCAA. Sometimes, people were afraid to leave the venue for fear of school gangs waiting outside to exact revenge against the winning team.

During those years, NCAA basketball tournaments between Catholic schools Ateneo de Manila, De LaSalle, Letran and San Beda colleges often ended up in rioting and violence. I remember one particular game at the old Blue Eagle gym along Katipunan avenue. I was a sophomore in college, playing saxophone for the Ateneo College school band. After a very tense game between Ateneo and Letran, many cars with Ateneo stickers were damaged by Letran students because their team had lost the game. With baseball bats, they broke windshields and dented hoods.

The competition between certain schools was quite deadly and mostly ended up being very physical after the games. Gangs fought each other in often-bloody encounters. Everyone was just too partisan and raring to rumble and eager to “correct” what they felt went wrong during the game.

This escalating violence among the teams made ADMU and LaSalle decide to leave the NCAA and transfer to the UAAP. It was NCAA’s big loss, and it never recovered. Its glory days were over.

Basketball in the Philippines has matured a lot. It is definitely more professional and the players and coaches are better than ever. The fans have learned to enjoy and appreciate the sport’s finer points and, to my knowledge, have not engaged in post-game violence in a very long time. Rumbles have become very uncool.

In fact, UP regent Spocky Farolan was castigated on social media for suggesting that UP players hurt some Ateneo players to win the game. People on both sides are quite happy to hear that he will not stay a regent for long.

School sports can get very tribal. All the elements of tribalism are present. There are the warriors, the “leaders,” the elders, emblems, school colors, the cheers, hymns, mascots and the fierce loyalty to one’s own school. But instead of a tribal war where people are killed, it is, thankfully, a sports competition. Like all battles, one loses as one gains. Yet whoever wins, the fact is that hundreds of thousands of people who do not belong to any of the tribes in competition are actually watching the games. It is fantastic to know that school completion can also be a great unifier.

Next year, the different school tribes will be meeting again in the village court. They will be fighting each other until they are down to the best two teams. As it was and will be, a new champion will reign. A bonfire celebration follows.

As part of the audience, all I ask of the teams is to make the games as competitive as possible but without violence. Do your best. Wins and losses in sports make us feel better because it takes us away briefly from the injustice of life where the better forces do not always win. At least in sports, the “good” win and the “bad” lose, clearly and definitely.

ATENEO DE MANILA UNIVERSITY BASKETBALL UAAP 81
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