That’s how long I’ve been in agony of being a college basketball fan. Fourteen long years. Or since the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons last entered the UAAP’s Final Four. And if things don’t improve this season – and they sure look like they won’t – that drought will extend into its 15th year.
For a die-hard fan like me, that is a lifetime. I’m not even talking about a championship here. This is just about making the damn UAAP playoffs. So yeah, you could stick it to me, rub it in and worsen the pain : the Maroons haven’t barged into the Final Four since I entered UP in 1998. Yes, the last time they did was the year before, ’97 (also the last time another school aside from UST has won the UAAP’s overall championship). Am I the curse of UP basketball? It sure feels that way. Read on and you may have to agree.
1997. Senior high school. I was a huge UAAP fan (been following the league since ’91). For the uninitiated, UST was lording it over the basketball scene. La Salle was a perennial powerhouse with the glossy media mileage. And I was deciding on which entrance exams I should take for college. I wanted to go to La Salle, simply for the reason that they always had a strong basketball team. Fortunately, my parents and teachers pointed out UP’s academic advantage and snapped me back to my senses. What made the decision to take the UPCAT easier was that UP also had a strong Maroons team back then – backstopped by former junior national team standouts ( Bryan Gahol, Ogie Gumatay, Paolo Mendoza, Chu-chu Serrano) and other blue chip recruits (Dexter Racho, Allan Gamboa, Bing Victoria, Patrick Madarang). That squad was fun to watch and made the Final Four two years in a row. Choosing UP over La Salle became a no-brainer.
1998. My freshman year at UP. Pretty cool thing that two Maroons rookies who were touted as blue-chip prospects became my classmates : Vito Arnaiz and Abelardo Marcos. Well, let’s say things didn’t pan out the way the hype wanted them to be. Still, UP was formidable that year. I didn’t get to watch the games live during my own rookie year but followed the games on TV and on newspaper. (That time, the UAAP was still covered by Silver Star Sports, and not all the games were broadcast on TV. Studio 23, ABS-CBN’s sports arm, won the rights to air UAAP games in 1999 (if I remember correctly) and has a contract until 2016.) UP finished the elimination round with 7 wins and 7 losses – in a triple-tie for 3rd place with then-host UE and UST. UE had a better quotient (or because they were the host school) and thus advanced to the Final Four outright as the 3rd seed. UP and UST had to slug it out for the last Final Four slot. Since I was already in UP, of course the Maroons lost and crashed out.
1999. Things just went awry and Maroons basketball started being consistently bad. A lot of mainstays either graduated or just left the program for their own reasons. This was the year the Maroons stopped being respectable. Ironically, Joe Lipa, the architect of UP’s last championship in 1986 (he retired from coaching the Maroons immediately after), got lured and was hired by Ateneo to restore its basketball program to relevance. Yes, Ateneans, there once was a time when your Eagles were toast and at the bottom of the standings. On his first year, Lipa was able to recruit Rich Alvarez and teamed him up with incoming sophomore Enrico Villanueva to form the UAAP’s top frontline. The Blue Eagles went from 7th in ’98 to 3rd. To sum it up, 1999 was when UP officially started to suck while Ateneo’s return to glory started.
2004. The UP “Fighting” Maroons finished 7th, 7th, 6th, and 6th after ’99. Did I stop watching their games? Nope. I even continued watching some games live. But in 2004 I lived in the United States and entirely missed the UAAP season. I was left to checking the internet for results. In 2004, UP lost its first six games. A 0-6 start led me to believe that maybe I wasn’t the “unlucky charm” after all. The Maroons then went on an amazing 6-game winning streak to level their record to 6-6. Only to lose to La Salle the next game before winning their last one and falling a win short of the Final Four. 2004 was the closest the Maroons have come to entering the playoffs... the same year I didn’t get to watch a single game.
2005. I’m back! And the Maroons were ripe, right? I remember sports columnist Jude Turcuato putting it nicely, “UP is a timebomb waiting to explode”. And as a Maroon maniac, I believed him. But that was when I first realized a real problem of UP’s basketball program - its revolving door policy on its coaches, which I will explain later. The 2005 Maroons started the season 3-0, which surprised maybe even themselves. Amped for what could be a breakout season, I watched live their 4th game - which, according to the unlucky pattern, they lost. They won only 3 more games the rest of the season to once again fall short of the Final Four.
2006. La Salle was suspended from UAAP play because of a player eligibility scandal. So UP would have to duke it out with only 6 teams to get one of the slots in the Final Four! And the big news? Joe Lipa was back as coach!!! UP administration had a grand ambition of winning the championship in UP’s centennial year in 2008 and got Coach Joe to prepare the program toward that goal. So did UP snatch a Final Four ticket? Of course they blew it... but they had a promising bunch of rookies (Martin Reyes, Migs de Asis, and Rookie-of-the-Year Woody Co). Things were looking up.
2007. Joe Lipa’s recruiting magic continued to work. He was able to pry away the core of FEU’s junior team that placed second in ’06 (Soc Rivera, Dexter Gamboa, Mark Lopez) and 2006 Finals MVP of the juniors champion Ateneo Blue Eaglets (Mike Gamboa). UP had four blue-chip recruits, so to speak, plus a returning core of promising players. If I truly believed in 2005, then I genuinely, genuinely felt that 2007 was the year UP was at last returning to the Final Four. And then the most shocking thing happened : THE MAROONS LOST ALL THEIR GAMES. Yes, for the first time in school history, the team went winless in a season. 0-14. The talk, and the feel, of a triumphant season ended in shame. Suddenly I knew what Adamson fans felt when their Falcons went two seasons without a win in 1999 and 2000. It was a complete disgrace. Only the sourgraper in me kept me being proud of being a UP alum, along the lines of “well at the end of the day I still have a UP diploma, even if your school has a lot of UAAP championships.” But seriously, I wasn’t too proud of UP back then. Who would if your basketball team just went 0-14? And the margin of defeats were atrocious, it was like watching boys getting schooled by men. Was that the lowest point of being a Maroons fan? It’d be redeeming to say it was, but sad to say, no. The worst was yet to come.
2008. Lipa was fired after the 0-14 record. Suddenly, UP, on its centennial year, was back to rebuilding. Two players who were recruited by Lipa (Rivera & Rosales), also left as their show of loyalty to the coach. The good news was that UP at least won again. New coach Aboy Castro led the team to a surprising 6th place finish.
2009. “The Savior” was finally eligible to play. “The Drought” was about to end. Mike Silungan, a Fil-Am recruit who had to sit out two years of residency to be able to play for UP, finally was good to go. UP paraded teams in the summer (pre-season) leagues and did well, even finishing 2nd in a commercial league. The buzz was back. The hype machine was again in overdrive. Coach Castro was so confident that he said in an interview UP was poised to enter the Final Four. And if that was to happen, it would have been led by the hotshot Silungan, a top scorer who was also heavily recruited by other teams but ultimately ended up in the open arms of Diliman. So... I know what you’re thinking. What happened? THE MAROONS LOST ALL OF THEIR GAMES. AGAIN. ZERO-FREAKING-FOURTEEN. With the seasoning, with the experience, with a hotshot rookie. Along the way, Castro was fired after a 0-3 start, replaced by former PBA coach Boyet Fernandez, who then lost the remaining 11 games. The 0-14 record in 2007 was about the players being raw. The 0-14 record this year was just inexcusable. YES, THIS WAS THE LOWEST POINT. If you're expecting Final Four then end up with no wins at all, you've got to end the debate on which is the lowest point.
2012. Three years and yet another coaching change (Ricky Dandan replaced Fernandez, who “resigned” after going 0-14) later, the Maroons are still in the doldrums. It doesn’t look like things are going to get better soon. Consider this : their supposed go-to-guy, Silungan, is playing his final year and shooting blanks while at it. Their “import”, Nigerian Ifeanyi Mbah, has been a dud so far. Their burly big man, Raul Soyud, would rather take long jumpers than bang it inside. Two of their better players, Alvin Padilla and Gelo Montecastro, are transferees and are set to exhaust their eligibility soon. Their best defender, Mark Lopez (who’s back from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the 2011 season), is also in his final year. The only bright spot I can see is rookie Henry Asilum who has shown the guts I haven’t seen in a UP point guard since...well, Jonjon Tabique (who, sadly, died a few years ago due to cancer, a short while after starring for UP in 2002; told you UP was that unlucky).
14 years, and I’ve seen all the misfortunes that can happen to a college basketball team. Overrated recruits who weren’t successful with their UP stint : Soc Rivera, Jay-R Reyes (who’s now in the PBA), Joshua Saret (who once scored 89, yes, 89 points in a junior NCAA game). Vital players tearing up their ACLs before the season : Kenneth Robin & Marvin Cruz (who both got injured due to the slippery floor at the UP Gym, caused by a leaking roof). Shooters who can’t shoot (actually they can, but they’d go 3-for-20) : Mike Bravo, Migs de Asis, Mike Silungan. Players who really worked hard and deserved better : Toti Almeda, Jireh Ibanez, Nestor David, Abby Santos, Rob Bornancin, Marvin Cruz, Woody Co, Martin Reyes, Mark Lopez. Players who also worked their asses off but didn’t have the skills so they just acted as “enforcers” : Ira Buyco, Bruce Quebral, Miggy Maniego, Vito Arnaiz. And players who we fans just loved to hate because they didn’t do anything right on the court : Jay Agbayani, Rodel Celo, Jay Agbayani, Rodel Celo, Jay Agbayani, Rodel Celo.
I know I may be overreacting and you could say, “it’s just basketball!”. Your opinion, not mine. For a die-hard basketball-fan-slash-proud-UP-alum like me, IT IS BASKETBALL! It’s the best sport in the world, it’s the most exciting organized sport to watch, and it was one of the reasons I chose UP. And it pains me to say that since I entered UP, one of the reasons why I went there have been nothing but disappointment. Not to say I regret my decision (that’s not even a point of contention), but it really hurts to lose.
I’ll put it this way : I am proud to be from UP. We all have reasons to be proud of our alma mater, one is loving our own. Yet for me, and I think you will agree, I’m proud because UP is known for its excellence. But the mindboggling thing for me is, why can’t UP excel at basketball, something that’s close to my heart (and close to a lot of UP students’ hearts)? UP is the best learning institution in the Philippines, but it sucks in what’s considered as the favorite sport of Filipinos. A few days ago I was at the Araneta Coliseum to watch another edition of Battle of Katipunan : UP vs. Ateneo. That series should be renamed Massacre at Katipunan, because the Blue Eagles have been thoroughly dominating the hapless Maroons for the past decade. Probably as consolation, UP gave Ateneo quite a scare, losing by ONLY 6 points. That was a treat for me, seeing the Maroons live up to their “Fighting” monicker. Still, moral victories don’t count for me anymore. I’ve long discounted those. I want wins that reflect in the official standings. Come to think of it, I’ve been watching UP games live at least twice a season for the past 12 years, and I HONESTLY CAN’T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME I SANG “UP NAMING MAHAL” IN VICTORY. I’m actually dumbfounded remembering that last time.
If I could offer some unsolicited advice, it would be the following :
1.) Change the basketball program’s culture. It appears that losing is ingrained in the program. Just look at the Maroon players while warming up and you’d know they’d lose : their body language isn’t confident, they seem lazy while doing the warmup drills, and they look scared when they look at the other team. By the time they hit the court for the game proper, the battle has been half-lost. Add to that the thunderous drum beats and they are easily rattled.
2.) Another suggestion : always practice with the UP Pep Squad’s drums in full beat so they’d get used to the noise and tension of the actual games.
3.) Hire a coach and do away with the UP policy of one-year contracts. As it is today, UP basketball coaches live on 1-year contracts subject to renewal after every season. I know that set-up is about ensuring performance and accountability, but let’s face it, which top-notch coach would accept a deal like that and go thru the hassle of a performance review and making sure you impress the higher-ups every single year? The UP admin also has been trigger-happy in firing coaches after a dismal season. The result? A lack of continuity in the basketball program, with the coach always feeling like a lame-duck year after year. Hire a top-notch coach (a disciplinarian and a good recruiter) and give him a five-year contract. Why five years? So that when the coach recruits a blue-chip highschool player, he can assure the kid that he’d be guiding him for the duration of his college career (the UAAP has a maximum eligibility of 5 years).
4.) Create or appoint a basketball czar who will oversee everything about the Maroons’ basketball program. He will solicit support from rich UP alumni (but without being beholden to them) and act as the official channel for donors and supporters, provide the resources for recruitment, compensation and training, have a major say on the hiring of the coaching staff, and other matters. In short : he will organize the chaos that is UP basketball.
5.) And finally, and perhaps the most important : UP officials and basketball coaches, ACCEPT THE FACT THAT UP SUCKS IN BASKETBALL. Admit it that the program is 10 years behind other schools. Sometimes people, especially if they know they’re above-average in intelligence, become delusional and ignore their obvious flaws – leading to disaster. UP students always have that “angas”, and it’s good to have the spunk and swagger IF, and only IF, you can back it up. UP SUCKS IN BASKETBALL, admit it. It’s embarrassing, it puts UP in a bad light, it doesn’t do UP justice. Accept that and motivate yourselves to get better. You’ll be surprised how a little reality check can do wonders for improvement.
That’s the Yin (shadow) part. Luckily for the basketball fan in me, I also have a Yang (light) – the Miami Heat. If the UP Maroons have sucked since I rooted for them, the Heat have won two championships since I took my cheering talents to South Beach. I was previously a LA Lakers fan, growing up to the likes of Magic Johnson and the rest of the Showtime Lakers. Magic retired, unretired, then retired again, and I was left with no favorite player to follow. Enter Eddie Jones, the Lakers’ 10th overall pick in the 1994 draft. From the moment I saw EJ soar for a dunk, I was hooked. LA traded for Shaq and got Kobe in ’96, but no doubt EJ was still the man for me. In ’99, with Kobe having developed into a top player, Jones was traded to Charlotte for Glen Rice. Then in 2000, my fave player went to Miami via a sign-and-trade. That was the start of my Heat allegiance. 12 years, 2 championships, numerous playoff appearances, DWade, Shaq, and the big summer of 2010 later, I am as proud as I've ever been. Yep, there were the '03 (25-57) and '08 (15-67) seasons that I had to endure, but things turned around for the better quickly. That moment when we got LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play with Wade could very well be the most exciting part (even better than the adrenaline rush the 2006 title delivered). All the hate of other sourgraping NBA fans (whose teams’ front office weren’t creative enough to land the Heat’s Big 3) intensified my loyalty.
After 2 years of waiting for that LeBron-promised championship and my Heat finally winning it, I only have two words for all the haters : GET LOST. (I really wanted to say F*CK OFF but that’s too harsh.)
The UP Fighting Maroons need its Pat Riley. And I sure hope they find him soon, 'cause it's plain and simple right now, Maroons basketball sucks.
(End of vent.)
Rush of Blood to the Head
We all have something to say. If I get the rush and find a keyboard, I blog mine. Anything and everything under the sun. And stars.