Ateneo won a well-deserved second straight UAAP men’s basketball title on Wednesday after sweeping University of the Philippines in dominating fashion in the finals.
The result was a foregone conclusion even before the season started. Ateneo was a consensus heavy favorite for the title, and the Blue Eagles certainly played the part.
The Fighting Maroons, however, came out and provided a perfect, dramatic counternarrative to what would have been a season of basketball ennui.
Rising from the dustbin of UAAP hoops, UP shook the balance of power and brought life to a long-suffering fan base.
Perhaps it was coincidence that UP’s return to basketball relevance coincided with renewed efforts to turn the finals into a packed, roaring center of a political statement.
UP, after all, has always been known as the hotbed of activism, and because it was a protagonist in a championship series that corralled headlines like a scrappy rebounder collected loose balls, several sectors felt a reinvigorated surge of political adrenaline.
Wear black, they urged, to make a stand “against impunity, violence and misogyny,” basically traits that nutshell the opposition’s charges against the current administration.
It was the same call activists made in last year’s title duel between Ateneo and La Salle — one, it’s safe to say, that went generally unheeded.
But student councils of both Ateneo and UP felt that maybe this series had a lot more potential to make a statement.
The relationship between sports and politics has always been a complicated one, highlighted in the country by Manny Pacquiao, regarded by many as the greatest Filipino athlete of all time and well-loved for his exploits on the ring, but reviled for the politics he represents as a government official.
The debate rages still on how to view Pacquiao — as a boxing rarity with his ability to demolish opponents across weight classes, or as a garden-variety celebrity-slash-politician who rode his fame to public service without the necessary skills and statesmanship to navigate the government world.
History further reinforces the complexity of sports’ and politics’ symbiosis.
Colin Kaepernick’s stand — or, more properly, kneel — against violence inflicted on African-Americans has been met with both jeers and cheers.
A giant sports apparel company’s decision to make him the face of its popular campaign drew equal numbers of fans and critics (though sales were hardly dented).
But such protests could make for historic moments: At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, African-American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the podium; they were suspended for their action, but are now forever in the sports annals.
And, of course, there was Jesse Owens, whose record of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics was itself the protest — a blazing rebuke of the notion of Aryan superiority being propagated by the man at the helm of that year’s games, Adolf Hitler.
In the United States at present, as long as Donald Trump is the US president and the Golden State Warriors are basketball’s demigods, there will be no NBA champion visits to the White House. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Lakers star LeBron James will never waver in their opposition to Trump.
The UP-Ateneo call didn’t succeed entirely in getting a coliseum clad in black, but that shouldn’t be the death toll for sporting activism.
And in the end, whatever one’s politics, what clearly mattered this season was the celebration of basketball’s rebirth in that corner of the UAAP, where it was long thought to be dead.
UP’s rise as another threat from Katipunan was a story of resilience and inspiration — of a community rallying as a singular force behind a team long burdened by heartbreak seasons.
“You are champions in your own right and I am proud of all of you,” coach Bo Perasol told the players as he huddled them one last time this season.
For giving the public, and not just the UP community, an astonishing resurrection story to cheer for in the last few weeks, UP’s reemergence as a UAAP power and a legitimate challenger to its checkered neighbor across the street deserves to be celebrated.
But, as Perasol said, as lofty as this season’s back-from-the-dead achievement is, next year’s goals “will be even loftier.”
“When we get back next season, it will all be about the finals,” he said.
Kobe Paras, the blue-chip prospect who will join the Maroons next season, put it even more definitively: No more tears.
Now, that would make for one big UP fight.
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