I smiled ear to ear when someone handed me Monday’s newspaper with a bold front-page headline in Chinese: “Philippines Declared King.”
The newspaper was The Merit Times, published by a Buddhist group called Fo Guang Shan, which organizes an annual BLIA (Buddha Light International Association) Cup University Basketball Tournament. The headline was referring to the UP men’s basketball team having clinched the championship the day before.
Kobe Paras (who got a Chinese name that reads “Ke Bi”) also won the Most Valuable Player award, and Bright Akhuetie (Chinese name “A Ke Hu Di”) got one of the four best team player awards.
This was UP’s first victory in an international basketball tournament, with teams from Taiwan, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. We had to win six out of six games to make it to the championship.
Bear with me as I quickly explain this long road to a twin victory.
UP first participated in this tournament in 2014, my first year as chancellor. The Buddhist group had asked me if we had a strong team, and I diplomatically answered, in Hokkien Chinese, “Ham ham,” which loosely means “OK lang.”
The Buddhist nuns based in the Philippines actually knew how “OK lang” we were, and were still kind enough to let us play. We did win one game in the competition that year.
During free time, our basketball players got to learn that it was more important to play well, meaning as a team, than to win. I shared what I had read about the founder of Fo Guang Shan, Ven. Hsing Yun, who it turns out was an avid basketball player—an interest shared by many of the monks, both men and women. I also liked something he once said, “Dance with the ball,” which captures the spirit of mindfulness for basketball.
When the UP team returned to the Philippines for the new UAAP season, we won one game, our first in two years. We had a bonfire and got teased for being OA (overacting).
That was to be our only UAAP victory for the season. The next year we won three games, so I could boast that that was a 300-percent improvement.
Meanwhile, we bowed out of the BLIA tournament to let other UAAP teams play: UST and De la Salle, the latter winning the BLIA Cup in 2017.
In UAAP, we continued to improve with new coaching styles and tremendous alumni support, so it wasn’t surprising when UP made it into the Final Four last year, for the first time in 22 years.
This first international victory is important for us. People who watched us in 2014 and now in 2019 could see the difference, particularly in the teamwork. An American coach sitting next to me in the semifinals told me: “Your team knows who’s where, at any time during the play.” The monks said: “Your coach (Bo Perasol) is so calm, but he could smile more.” I knew why he wasn’t smiling more, as he was wearing so many hats for the team.
I watched the games more as an anthropologist, seeing our unique body language, and the way our players would encourage each other as they played: a high-five, a pat on the back (tapik) and—now what do we call a pat on the butt?
Something I had not expected was the turnout of Filipinos for the semifinals and the championship team. Thanks to UP alumni, word spread to other Filipinos in Kaoshiung about the Fighting Maroons playing. They came in droves, waving two large Philippine flags to cheer our team.
Coach Bo had noticed the turnout, and for the championship game, he reminded the team they were playing for the Philippines as well, and to remember that many of our fellow Filipinos in Taiwan are blue-collar workers and domestics.
Just as heartwarming, though, was the quick buildup of a local “fandom” for our team. Kobe and Bright, especially, were mobbed by young Taiwanese asking for selfies and autographs. And after our victory, as we walked down the street to a restaurant, passersby would stop and point to the team, with some bolder ones approaching our players to congratulate them.
Why a twin victory?
One victory was internal, the team itself learning to conquer their own fears and doubts, and learning to play as a team.
The second victory?
For years now, I’ve reminded all our varsity teams about UP being the national university, and the only public educational institution in UAAP, which means that when our teams win, it’s a victory for the country. (Ang tagumpay ng UP ay tagumpay ng bayan.)
And so it was in this basketball tournament.
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