Perfection is not Boring

As the Ateneo Blue Eagles celebrate their third straight championship, the dominant feeling across the UAAP has been how inevitable this result has been. A lot of fans have even gone as far as to say that this was a foregone conclusion and last Wednesday’s awarding was a mere formalization of something people already knew about since the opening dat of Season 82. 

The Blue Eagles are a very good basketball team. So good, in fact, that anything less than a championship from them would be considered a disappointment. But good doesn’t always mean exciting. This season, the Blue Eagles have also been characterized as systematic, robotic, boring.

“Ayaw siguro namin yung word na yun,” lamented Matt. It may seem corny for the Blue Eagles’ point guard to not like to be likened to robots, but he has a point. The Blue Eagles didn’t get to this point by being trained to be robots. They got to this point by going through plenty of hardships that should be enough to serve as an inspiration to others.

Mike couldn’t help but express his astonishment. “Grabe,” he exclaimed as Matt could only nod in agreement. It was February 2016 when I passed by the Nieto twins sitting around the Ateneo de Manila campus. At that point, it had been only two months since Coach Tab Baldwin took the helm and began leading the Ateneo Blue Eagles program. But the way the twins looked, it seemed like they’d been training with Coach Tab for two years already. 

They definitely looked tired but there was certainly excitement and amazement to the way they spoke about the training Coach Tab’s been giving them during those short two months. Aside from skill work, there was plenty of exercises meant to improve the overall fitness of his players. For Mike, it meant trimming down the fat even more. For Matt, it meant adding more muscle to his frame. 

But those two months were only a mere preview of what was to come. Coach Tab’s development program reached its fever pitch when he brought his players to Baler on March 2016. By that time, pictures started to circulate in social media of the entire Ateneo team by the beach with their fists raised up high. Along with that image was a mysterious hashtag: #BEBOB

For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother

Others thought it was a simple team building activity by Coach Tab to bring the team closer to each other. But in reality, Baler wasn’t a trip filled with fun games and laughs shared because their coach was trying to know them on a personal level. It wasn’t meant to be fun. It wasn’t meant to be funny. In fact, the trip was meant to break them on a physical and spiritual level.

“I am your opponent. I am your enemy,” Coach Tab would say to his team then. This was a different approach to team building. More often than not, coaches would try to gain the trust of their players by introducing themselves as human, someone just like them. But Coach Tab went the opposite route; he wanted his players to see him as their rival. How could the team be raising their hands alongside someone who positioned himself as their rival?

Throughout the run-up to that season, messages of a brotherhood and that same mysterious hashtag #BEBOB continued to be used by the players as they posted images of their team. While people took notice of their struggles in the basketball court during the FilOil Flying V Preseason tournament, it truly felt like something beautiful was being built in Katipunan. It wasn’t clear yet, but they were headed towards greatness led by weirdly enough, their “enemy,” Coach Tab.

UAAP Season 79 commenced and what everyone got was an Ateneo team that needed to go through growing pains. The struggles reached its peak when Ateneo lost to the UP Fighting Maroons to start the second round. While others continued to doubt about what this team truly could bring, the Blue Eagles didn’t. Not once did this group waver and stop singing positive thoughts with one another.

Finally, by their 13th game, the Blue Eagles’ positivity was rewarded as they became the lone team to beat the dominant La Salle Green Archers that season. While they couldn’t complete the job after losing to La Salle in the Finals, belief within the team continued to grow with each passing day. Losses are never supposed to be fatal. Instead, they’re supposed to help teams grow as they aim for greater heights moving forward. That’s how this batch of Blue Eagles wanted to view this first season with Coach Tab as.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

The same cycle continued the next year. They’d have early training with Coach Tab, have him reintroduce himself as their enemy in Baler. More mysterious messages continued to circulate around the internet with that same hashtag: #BEBOB.

I chanced upon the twins again a couple of days after their trip to Baler. All they could offer me was a high five, but what was evident with their  body language was confidence. They weren’t the same players they were more than a year ago when their bodies with aching from the punishment Coach Tab was handing out to them. Not only were they physically improved, but mentally, as a group, the vibe around them was much more different. They were few, but they were a happy few. The really did look like a band of brothers.

By the time Season 80 started to roll, everyone was finally introduced to the Blue Eagles the way we know of them today; a dominant and efficient wrecking machine that kills opponents with precise passing and smart decision making.

By the end of the season, they were facing the same giant they lost to the previous year: the De La Salle Green Archers. With three hard-fought games, this saga of the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry came to a close, but not with the result everyone expected. Others thought another victor would emerge. But to everyone’s surprise, it was the Ateneo Blue Eagles who emerged on top after beating La Salle 88-86 in Game 3. 

That win was the start of the Ateneo dynasty which everyone knows of right now. A killer basketball machine that’s capable of even matching professional teams abroad. Others have credited Coach Tab for their success and reasonably so. But Matt, albeit with tongue in cheek, offered another perspective to Ateneo’s success. 

“Kaming lima,” Matt said, referring to the five graduating seniors of the Season 82 Ateneo Blue Eagles, “Kami nagsimula nung legacy ni Coach Tab.” It seems funny for Matt to say this, but there was good reason for him to say something like this.

It all started during that 2016 Baler trip. Coach Tab was their opponent. Coach Tab was their enemy. Since there was competition being done, who won? It seemed reasonable to believe it was Coach Tab who ended up breaking the players right?

“We couldn’t break them anymore,” said Assistant Coach Sandy Arespacochaga about the Ateneo Blue Eagles. “They took that challenge head-on. To the point that we had our Baler trips when we tried to break them physically and mentally. That poses such a challenge for the players and the past two seasons we stopped. Because they kept rising up to the challenge,” explained Coach Sandy.

“I guess they won.” 

Even Coach Tab himself admitted after the title-clinching win versus UST, “What they are now, I didn’t see it. I’ll be honest. I didn’t see it.”

Mike and Matt weren’t the leaders they were now during Season 79. Adrian Wong still had plenty of holes. Isaac Go too. Thirdy Ravena still had issues to figure out before turning into the GOAT-worthy player lauded today. How they got over their individual limitations, was simple, really.

“It’s just pure, tough, hard work,” shared Thirdy, speaking on the growth of his team. Team. Not just as individuals, but as a group. “Yung servanthood that we preach, it takes a lot.”

Thirdy isn’t wrong. In fact, in one of Ateneo’s trademark classes, Theology 131 by legendary professor Father Adolofo Dacanay, the concept of ego boundaries is introduced. It denotes our own personal desires as walls that we have to get over and the only way we can get over that is by giving of ourselves to others. 

It’s not easy to get over those ego boundaries. These Ateneo Blue Eagles, as limited as they were during Season 79, had to struggle to even get over that wall. But once they learned to give up of oneself to one another, as band of brothers, the process started to fast track tremendously. From going to the Finals, to winning one championship, and eventually making their case as the greatest UAAP team of all time. No one can doubt the servanthood these players have done over the course of this three year run. And even with Matt, Mike, Thirdy, Isaac, and Adrian graduating, going over those ego boundaries simply won’t stop here. 

“We don’t want to leave without giving them something,” said Matt about the rest of the players they’ll be leaving behind. Aside from the Xs and Os, what the five seniors are leaving are these concepts of brotherhood and servanthood. To give up oneself for one another. To overcome ones ego boundaries. Because while difficult, it is worth it. Three championships. A legendary sweep. Most importantly, an enemy in Coach Tab who they were able to defeat, despite the odds.

But Coach Tab wants a rematch, this time with the younger group he’s about to be enemies with next season. “But next year we’re going back,” said Coach Sandy about their Baler trips. “Less veterans next year so we have to go back to our physical and mental tortu- I mean, training,” he said with a laugh.

They will still be few, but happy few. They are a band of brothers. Going past their ego boundaries, exceeding expectations. It was a slow burn to get to the top, but the Ateneo Blue Eagles certainly have a story that’s worthy enough to inspire generations to come.