Fight of the Year

The Ateneo De Manila Blue Eagles have won two titles in as many years.

The University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons made their first Finals in three decades and change.

On one hand, perennial winners continuing to fine-tune an already fine-tuned engine. On the other hand, cellar-dwellers finally starting to change their fates in a most storybook way.

It’s easy to look at Ateneo-UP as a microcosm of Philippine society. It’s easy to see that matchup and point out how two schools could share an avenue and represent such different, such dissimilar sectors of society.

UP-Ateneo in the UAAP Finals is losers versus winners. It’s fancy versus rugged. It’s favored versus underdogs. It’s – and let’s not even try to hide it – rich versus poor.

Except, it’s not.

As Juan Gomez de Liano and Matt Nieto exchanged a joke, a laugh and a quick hug on the elbow arc with three minutes left in the game, something became so apparent to me. For all the pettiness, the sarcasm, the condescension and vitriol sent both ways during Finals Week, none of it affected even the matchup’s most competitive protagonists.

Here you had two incredible young athletes, both only approaching their respective peaks. One, a playmaker so stable you’d think his basketball IQ was built of solid cement. The other, a scoring wunderkind with more offensive weapons than he has hand gestures to celebrate them. Every time down the floor, whenever they came in contact with each other, it was athletic warfare: a bump here, a grab there, a smirk after one scores over the other. And yet, approaching certain defeat, Juan was laughing with Matt. Approaching the culmination of undeniable victory over a rival, Matt was laughing with Juan.

I commentated that game in pure awe of the impact of basketball being played by college students. Thirdy Ravena put on what was most likely the most complete, most impressive, most dominant Finals performance the UAAP has ever seen. Paul Desiderio is an emotional grenade, whose every little gesture causes thousands around him to literally feel something. Bright Akhuetie is damn near crazy, going against common sense and advanced medicine, removing the now-infamous brace to risk leg and limb in order to play. Angelo Kouame? He has four more years to play.

ANGE. KOUAME. HAS. FOUR. MORE. YEARS. TO. PLAY. COLLEGE. BASKETBALL.

Let that sink in for a hot second. Come back when you’re done.

Welcome back.

The actual game itself wasn’t a Hardcourt-Classics-type thriller. To be honest, it was an Ateneo masterclass of domination. UP had more shots go in-and-out than they had free throws made. Timeouts were called plenty and often, the TV commercials ran longer than usual, hell even the opening tip got delayed. Needless to say, the flow was off, the stoppages were strange and extended, and one team got thoroughly blown out.

What that provided though, was more opportunities for 23,000 people to completely go 100% bonkers.

Seriously. If you remember that massive party in The Matrix where we learned that everyone in The Real World apparently just loves to rave? That was Game 2 of the UAAP Finals. Bedlam. Insanity. Gulo.

Titos and titas yelling expletives at those poor referees. Students cheering on active/inactive groupmates on the teams. Children looking at their own parents and thinking “Who are you and what have you done to my mom and dad?” Players’ families watching from too far away, and public service hopefuls waiting for their jumbotron moment.

It was ridiculous. The loudest I had ever heard an arena ever. Yes, FIBA Asia 2014 included. Imagine every Aldub tweet wasn’t typed out but yelled. Imagine all of those at the same time, the entire time, at the same volume as your mother when she screams at you to wake up because “Tanghali na, bumangon ka na!”

During one particular timeout, it got so loud that the sounds just started to become inaudible. Remember DVD players? Remember those moments when a fake-ass DVD had really sucky audio you had to turn the volume up to max on your TV just to hear the movie? And then you accidentally press the Source button on the remote and it goes from AV mode to TV, and it’s on channel 84 or some random empty station and the static is so, so loud, you feel it in your chest more than you actually hear it in your head.

And you panic, and you’re scared, and there’s someone taking a nap in the next room, and you try to figure out if the best move is to press Volume Down until the static monster goes quiet or maybe you should just turn the TV off but then when you turn it on you’d end up in the same place and in the middle of all of that the sound somehow got louder and you’re even more scared and for a split second you think about just pulling the plug on the thing or throwing the remote at the screen.

Remember that?

That was me in Game 2.

That’s how loud it got.

And as I sat there near-deaf, between the deep ocean blue and the mountain of maroon, I started chuckling to myself. The drum beats for a moment started falling in sync. “U-P” and “One-Big” started to cancel each other out. And every two seconds or so, in one massive, frightening, beautiful voice, 23,000 people would yell “FIGHT” together.

The accidental chorus made me remember the intentional shouting contest my timeline had turned into for the entire week. Snarky comment here, oh-snap comeback there, passive aggressive quote-tweet now, sarcastic “LOL” later.

It was a mess.

It’s also sports, and trash-talking is very much an encouraged, critical component of experiencing the game.

It’s also important however, to realize what cannot be unsaid or untweeted. It is vital that we all learn where gamesmanship resides and where Kups City is on the map.

One of those places is a fun spot to visit every now and then – like a theme park where you overspend, maybe throw up, possibly lose track of your kid for a few minutes. But it’s at least fun and you take a souvenir or two to put on the fridge. The other place is an elephant graveyard full of hyenas except your dad’s not Mufasa and Scar is definitely going to off you.

But that’s something we knew already.

Yet we ignored it.

The same way many know, deep down, yet ignore, that UP and Ateneo are much more alike than they are different.

May conyo sa UP. May jologs sa Ateneo.
May mayaman sa UP. May iskolar din sa Ateneo.
May taga-UP na masama ugali.
May taga-Ateneo na masama ugali.
May trapo yung isa, may trapo din galing sa kabila.

Sure, having similarities doesn’t make two things identical.
In the same way however, different doesn’t mean opposite.
Very few things are binary. Your good doesn’t dictate someone else’s bad.

Matt and Juan taught 23,000 people this. Bright and Ange hugging and laughing pre-game taught them this.

After the game, 23,000 people did the wave. I hate the wave. It’s corny, it’s outdated, it’s not cool.

Just like kindness.

23,000 uncool people. Doing the wave. After a Finals series was decided. There’s hope for us yet.

There’s hope for our tweets, there’s hope for our titos and their middle fingers during UAAP games. There’s hope for the ticket-hoarders and the shameless campaigners. There’s hope, not because UP and Ateneo fans were so loud they didn’t even realize they were starting to chant in chorus – but because little pleasant accidents like that show us that underneath it all, we share the same bass lines.

We live in a time when social media has been used against us, and by us, with the intention of dividing us. And yet, the very things, and people and events we post online about are built on coming together.

Servanthood is Tab Baldwin’s best basketball game plan. Sacrifice for your brother. Forget titles or wins or medals. How are you going to maximize this opportunity to play with your brothers? By getting yours or by getting for them? The Ateneo Blue Eagles are the epitome of basketball greatness. They are the peak of excellence in execution. They are that partly because of Xs and Os, but also because they understand that it is only togetherness that will bring them to the summit.

Bo Perasol believed when no one else did. He kept believing when he shouldn’t have. And when he himself ran out of belief, he lied to his players to make sure they didn’t lose belief themselves. “Raise your heads,” he said after the loss. “For them,” he said, pointing to the crowd. “For each other,” he said, tears running down his face as his arms reached to try and hug his entire team in one clasp.

Similar. Different.
Not identical but not opposite.
And all that should be okay.

The immaturity, the pettiness, they’re not proportion to the sportsmanship that the two teams showed each other. “It’s childish,” I heard one fan say on Wednesday talking about whatever meme it was on her timeline.

I wanted to answer, “It’s not.”

Childishness isn’t what we should stray from. Childishness should be the goal.

How’s the old verse go again? Be like little children and enter the kingdom?

Be like Matt, like Juan: smiling, hugging warriors in the midst of battle. Be like Bright, like Ange: understanding that what they say about us is irrelevant to what we say to each other. Be like Thirdy: fit. Be like Diego: babyface forever.

The kids, the young men who we all watched, it is them we tried to defend, or stand up for, or call out or bash. They didn’t need any of all of that. It was us who needed to learn from them.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles completed a fantasy season: champions again, the best still. They look at their future and see only more titles to be won, a program so stable and secure, it is impossible to imagine them ever not being elite.

The UP Fighting Maroons had a dream run. Much like any good dream, they started feeling the tug of reality waking them up and they closed their eyes tighter, they pulled the blankets up higher, and they stayed in the dream as long as they could. As they wake though, they realize, real life’s looking pretty damn good too.

I want to say thanks to both fanbases. Thanks for showing me the worst of us. Thanks for showing me the best in us. Whether you’re from UP, Ateneo, or you really don’t even care about basketball at all, remember this:

‘Di lang Ateneo ang magaling.
‘Di lang UP ang may puso.

It’s in all of us. The good, the bad, the Twitter toxic.
Be like Anton Asistio: Win at everything. Leave your mark a champion.
Be like Paul Desiderio: claim what’s yours. Leave your mark a legend.
Be childish.
Be kind.

But never stop fighting.