The Golden Eagles
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 7, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Fifty years ago, the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles won the NCAA men’s basketball championship in what was possibly college basketball’s roughest era. The game then was vastly different: raw, pure, fluid and oh so physical. Fistfights were almost routine, as were broken car side mirrors in the parking lot. In the 1960’s, the league rewarded consistent success with a novel rule. The top team of each of the two elimination rounds went to the championship. If any school topped both rounds, it was automatically proclaimed champion.

Ateneo was already a powerhouse in 1968, and entered the finals a favorite over Jose Rizal College. They were so sure of winning that – in their hubris – they prepared the wood for the traditional victory bonfire even before the finals were over. But an overpowering performance by the Heavy Bombers dashed that plan. The wood literally had to sit for a year before being set ablaze. 

The 1969 squad was coached by Nilo Verona and composed of team captain Frank Harn, Francis Arnaiz, Marte Samson, Joy Cleofas, Ricky Palou, Chito Afable, Babyboy Morales, Lyle “Jun” Ross, Tito Panlilio, Cesar Ijares, Bobby Rius, Boy Cayanan, Mai Fernandez, Willy Balmaceda and Nonoy Gepuela. Team managers were Greggy Araneta and Chito Galvez.

On Wednesday, the surviving members of the 1969 Blue Eagles and their long-time supporters gathered at the Manila Polo Club to commemorate their success. This writer was fortunate to be invited. As always, the stories behind the scenes (and their adventurous extracurricular activities) were almost more colorful than what took place on the court. This was particularly evident when you learn what it took to keep the team together, Ateneo’s stringent academic requirements notwithstanding.

“Each time the Jesuits wanted to suspend a player for low grades, I had to argue with them,” laughs Araneta. “I would tell the fathers, you bring them in from the province, and you expect them to speak perfect English? They only speak Filipino where they come from! Luckily, they listened to me.”

Fuelled by the sweet-shooting Afable, the powerful Samson and the innovative Cleofas, Ateneo went on a tear, stumbling only in a surprise upset from the upstart San Beda Red Lions. That lone stain put them on a collision course with their tormentors, Jose Rizal College. A playoff was set to determine the first-round champion. The Blue Eagles exacted the first measure of revenge.

“My job was to stop the top scorer of the other team, keep him down to four, five points,” explains Rius. “So that’s what I did. And I often ended up with a lot of spit on my face.”

In the second round, Ateneo went on another run, but not without incident, even though the games were being played at their historic Blue Eagle Gym. 

“When we beat Letran, their fans blocked Katipunan,” exclaims Arnaiz, then a rookie. “They parked their cars across Katipunan and had guns and other weapons. They were waiting for us to get out of the campus!”

The team was so laden with talent that its best players were asked to try out for the national team. This left a vacuum that younger players like Arnaiz readily filled. Once again, they faced Jose Rizal for the second round crown. If Ateneo prevailed, they would also be hailed champions. But midway through the second half, Arnaiz was called a dubious foul and thrown out of the game after scoring 23 points. To this day, team members are incredulous as Arnaiz – before or since – has never been a dirty player.

“There were seven of them, five players and two referees against us,” declares Panlilio. 

The bench came forward, and with a mighty effort, Ateneo clinched the championship. The forlorn vintage wood could now be set on fire.

“I’m so happy to have all those memories with these guys,” Samson says. “I’m honored to be part of this team.”

“The only school I wanted to play for was Ateneo,” shares Ijares. “I am the only player to have played for – and won championships with – three Ateneos: Ateneo de Zamboanga, Ateneo de Manila and Ateneo de Davao.”

Sadly, the team could not be kept together. Verona left to coach Adamson University, replaced by Baby Dalupan. Each player, in turn, became an Olympian, MICAA All-Star, PBA legend, or pillar of his community here or in the US. Since then, Harn, Ross and Gepuela also have passed on.

Tonight, the 1969 Ateneo team will be the only past champions to be presented at university’s grand homecoming. Earlier in the day, they will also be the stars of a gathering of all champion Blue Eagle teams. They will undoubtedly share stories of how war-like their experience was. And though their paths diverged half a century ago, they are all bound by vivid recollections of that glorious season. And that is another reason these Blue Eagles are golden.

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