The Americans brought basketball to the Philippines, and the rest is history as it virtually became our national sport. We’ve been teased for trying so hard at a game that supposedly doesn’t fit us because we don’t have the height for it.
That was a view I used to hold as well, until last year when I was appointed chancellor of the University of the Philippines Diliman and had to begin seeing to UP’s varsity teams and attending meetings of the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) as a member of its board of trustees. I was also warned that UP Diliman was to host the next season in 2015, and how difficult it was going to be (especially for basketball) in terms of handling venues, schedules, ticketing, licensing agreements, protests and much more.
Our turn did come, and I’ve watched more basketball games in the last year than I ever did in my life, ecstatic over UP’s three victories and never mind the defeats. I had to attend some of the other schools’ matches as well, especially toward the end, for the championships. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist from Mars (apologies to Oliver Sacks for using the title of one of his books), being so unfamiliar with sports, but fascinated by how basketball has become so much a part of the national psyche. Never mind the height; it’s the team diskarte, strategic showmanship, that’s so Filipino. At other times I watch as a biologist, mesmerized by how the human body stretches the limits of anatomy and physiology. And I’m talking about not just athletes but also spectators.
The final championship game for men’s basketball was last Wednesday, and elicited a collective sigh of relief from the UAAP board members—a reminder that we’re halfway through the season. Coordinating the basketball events has always been the most trying part. With basketball over, we can look forward to other competitions that promise to draw crowds, too.
Chanting and drumming
The crowd at UAAP events reflects a growing appreciation of sports. An indicator would be the last two championship games, each of which brought in 23,000 spectators—last Saturday to Smart Araneta and last Wednesday to the Mall of Asia. Our partner ABS-CBN has amplified the impact of the games through live coverage as well as delayed telecasts, with thousands more throughout the country watching, often involving families and office mates (sometimes during office hours, with their bosses).
But nothing beats watching the games live in a stadium, with chanting and drumming, and a cheering crowd that breaks out into a collective roar with each shot. I’ve been even more amazed at how more than 20,000 people can hold their breath together when a player has a free throw.
For UAAP members, the basketball games have been especially important for building a sense of school identity, solidarity and pride, and even of institutional history. I loved Far Eastern University’s T-shirts—with the message “Be Brave—Nicanor Reyes”—and how this year’s Tamaraws chose the name “Be Brave 16.” I presume that the quote is from Nicanor Reyes Sr., the first president of FEU, who was killed together with several members of his family during World War II.
This year’s championship games, between FEU and the University of Santo Tomas, were historic. The two universities romped off with most of the basketball championships throughout the UAAP’s 78 years but began to decline 10 years ago. FEU’s last championship was for the school year 2005-2006, while UST’s was 2006-2007. Then Ateneo de Manila University and De la Salle University began their “dynasty” that lasted till last year, when National University finally won a championship.
To become a champion, a university team has to win two games in the final round. This season, FEU won the first game. “Not today,” a UST streamer read last Saturday at the second game, and UST did defeat FEU, forcing a third game.
Last Wednesday, an FEU streamer read, prophetically, “Today is the day.”
The return of the center of gravity for basketball to the University Belt was a welcome development even for my friends from La Salle and Ateneo. The three championship playoff games showed that FEU and UST were at par; the fast-paced games were unpredictable from beginning to end. I was running late getting to the game when someone texted me that it was still the third quarter, FEU leading 51-41. I got there to catch the last quarter and UST turning the tables around, pulling ahead to as much as 59-53. FEU took back the lead only at about the last minute of the quarter, to win with a score of 64-62.
There’s more to all this than sports awareness and excitement. The biggest gain has been a growing sense of sportsmanship. In previous years the biggest number of protests involved basketball games. This year we brought in Rebo Saguisag (yes, Rene Jr.) to serve as commissioner and, together with his team, the decision led to an assurance of fair play.
The championship games were tense, but civilized: no profanity, no bottles and garbage being thrown into the court. After the game, I saw two UAAP board members hugging each other tightly: FEU’s Josie de Leon and UST’s Gigi Kamus. And while we were preparing to award the winners, FEU followers in the stadium began to chant, “Go, go USTe, go, go USTe.”
Throughout the season there were similar gestures of gracious sportsmanship. Who can forget, especially, last Saturday when Ateneo’s Kiefer Ravena insisted on sharing his Most Valuable Player trophy with UST’s Kevin Ferrer? The two have played against each other since high school, and have been team mates in the national team Sinag Pilipinas.
Through the years, Philippine basketball has been plagued by accusations of player pirating, of game fixing, and worse. The UAAP has not been spared, but board members are working very hard to confront the problems in a collegial way. There’s a commitment to restore varsity sports to the original ideal of building student-athletes, some of whom might go on to becoming professional players, even playing for national teams.
I’ve been asked several times what I thought of the just concluded basketball season, and my constant answer has been: Panalo lahat, winners all. Most of the UAAP board members were at the final game to celebrate with the champion and the soon-to-be-champions. We’re all winners when you think of the gains in developing a new varsity basketball culture of intense but friendly rivalry that ends up as camaraderie among players and schools.
(Let me publicly thank the people from UP and the UAAP secretariat who have been running the day-to-day activities: Dean Ronualdo Dizer, Marty Paz, Gaylee Villar, Josie Querimit and Vivien Matias.)
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