Saturday, October 10, 2009

The will to win

Because I had the incredibly good fortune to score last-minute Lower Box tickets to yesterday's championship game between Ateneo and UE, my BBFF (Best Blue Fellow Fan) Yang and I had an amazing vantage view of all the action on the hardcourt. And thanks to that vantage view, we could clearly see the fire burning in the eyes of our boys in blue.

I've gotten so used to sitting (or standing) in Gen Ad and Upper Box that I had forgotten what it's like to see the players up close, and how evident the emotions on their faces can be. The set jaws, the steely stares, the animal yells, the pained grimaces, the rueful smiles, the smug smirks, the confident swaggers... in the heat of battle, there's no concealing what the combatants are feeling, and yesterday it was crystal clear the Eagles were flying high on passion. From start to finish, there was never any doubt that they came to win, that they wanted to win, and that desire to win was manifest in their aggressive offense, unyielding defense,
tireless rebounding, and unwavering focus. Coming from a humbling and even humiliating loss in Game 2, in Game 3 our boys dug deep, and proved it's all about PUSO. And as UST coach Pido Jarencio once said, "Never i-underestimate ang pusong Atenista".

It was actually the memory of Ateneo's 2006 finals defeat to UST that worried me going into our last match against UE. Back then we had similarly taken Game 1 by a close margin, then lost Game 2 in a blowout, and ultimately fell to the Tigers in Game 3. That was also the year of Milenyo, which had delayed the series, the same way this season's finals were delayed by Ondoy. With the uncanny similarities, I couldn't help but picture a scenario where UE coach Lawrence "Walang Buhaghag" Chongson would pull a Pido on us and snatch victory from our outstretched talons in his rookie season. Also, terrifying visions of Red Warriors Paul Lee, Elmer Espiritu, and Val Acuna sinking three-pointer after three-pointer danced through my head (as well as terrifying visions of Pari Llagas, period). I was fully expecting a close contest, and fully counting on the Eagles to defend their crown with everything they got, down to the last second.

As it turns out, they didn't have to, but they gave it all they got anyway. And it was a joy to see our boys play their hearts out. Kirk Long showed no traces of his usual hesitation, Nonoy Baclao was his usual made-of-basketball-awesome self, Ryan Buenafe regained his fighting form, Jai Reyes' shotgun was locked and loaded, Eric Salamat shot, stole, and saluted, and Rabeh Al-Hussaini kept his temper under control and his stats up to MVP standards. By no means was it the perfect game (they missed way too many free throws and fastbeak scoring opportunities), but by golly it was a damn good fight. The sizable difference in the final scores indicates a blowout, but I have to point out the Warriors were no slouches. And though a lot of their shots just didn't seem to want to sink in, they still kept fighting, and I didn't allow myself to relax or start celebrating until the dying minutes of the match.

By the way, I was glad to see the UE gallery didn't empty out early like during last year's semis match. The Warriors deserved to be cheered by their supporters even after a disappointing outcome. They were one of the most exciting teams to watch this season, and their players truly do have mad skills. And their coach has great hair.

But back to Blue. Or Black. Norman Black, that is. In the fallout of Game 2, there were snide whispers of "benta si Black", and since I didn't get to watch the game, I can't say whether or not there was basis for suspicion. In my previous post, I stated my stand on accusing players of game-throwing, and I extend the same benefit of the doubt to Coach Norman. Besides, just as I saw the intensity in the way the Eagles played yesterday, I also saw the respect they have for their coach, in how they carried out his plays, how they respond to his instructions and admonishments, and how they hoisted him onto their shoulders when the game was won. I have a hard time believing any mentor can repay such loyalty with treachery. I'm more inclined to think Game 2 was lost due to overconfidence more than anything.

Thankfully, there was none of that in Game 3, and even when they were leading by as much as 20 points the Blue Eagles didn't get complacent. When it comes to big sports victories, people tend to wax poetic with words like "destiny" and "believe", but yesterday's win didn't feel so much fated as earned, through grit and hustle and teamwork. And yesterday's win didn't feel so much destined as deserved.

To Jai, Nonoy and Rabeh, I'm glad I got to watch you play your last game for the Blue and White. Thanks for the blood, sweat and tears you poured into bringing glory and honor to our beloved alma mater. You were among the finest to wear Ateneo jerseys, and you will be sorely missed next season. We pray Mary keeps you constantly true, and always true Blue.

To the rest of our boys in blue, I'm proud of how far you've come and how you stepped up when called on. Though the team is losing 3 key guys next year, there is still a lot of talent among you; and though you may not dominate, though the goal of a "threepeat" seems far too lofty and ludicrous at this point, nevertheless we hold high hopes for you to fly high. Win or lose, we'll be rooting for you.

Here's to the champions. Here's to keeping the crown in Loyola. Here's to a great season, and here's to one more reason ang sarap maging Atenista.



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