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The story of UAAP Season 84 is one of hope

Whether you were a storyteller or player or spectator, Season 84 of the UAAP was all about hope.

WORDS by Kobe Dayao

It was a Katipunan classic.

15,000 strong. 15,000 hopeful souls. Eager, determined, and ready to burst their lungs out to rally for their team. On one end, there’s the blue and white battalion of the defending, three-time champions. On the other, it’s the championship-deprived, maroon-draped fighters from Diliman. Katipunan’s kings versus Iskolars. Tried-and-tested titleholders versus championship-ready contenders. Poised champions seemingly destined to earn a fourth straight trophy versus defeated warriors, seeking redemption from seasons ago and for the 36-year title drought.

And the fourth straight trophy would have ended up in Ateneo, if it wasn’t for that kid in a maroon-colored No. 13 jersey who couldn’t even sniff a second off the bench on his former team.

Let me run the play by you in case you were at Katipunan yourself, fighting a different fight at that time. It was like poetry in motion. JD Cagulangan brought down the ball after Dave Ildefonso had just rimmed out a stepback J. Knotted at 69, 16 seconds left in the game, 16 seconds to make history. Cagulangan directed traffic, asking their perennial scorer Zavier Lucero to back off to the right side of the wing. No one was taking this shot but him. He practiced this. He used the high ball screen from Malick Diouf, losing his defender on the way to the left side of the wing. Now Cagulangan could’ve pulled up right then and there, but he was in rhythm. He stepped back, collected the ball, released, then swished it home with 0.5 left on the clock. And just like that, 36 years without a taste of the chip was dusted in less than 16 seconds.

I kid you not, I’ve never seen a shot so pure, so elegant, yet so gut-wrenching and heartbreaking at the same time. Not for me though, no, no. I’m not even enrolled in any side of this historic battle. But that shot was all that and so much more to the 15,000 souls in attendance that day.

After two years away from the game, who would’ve thought this was how the return of college basketball would look like, and how it would end. After what seemed destined to be another One Big Fight, who would’ve thought it would turn into a night for UP Fight to reignite. I certainly couldn’t have. I didn’t even believe I could watch a single game this season, let alone be at some of the biggest ones the whole year. Then again, I also didn’t believe that I’d be creating content or commentating for said games this season either, but that happened too. Safe to say there were a lot of things to not believe in this season, and yet, here we are, days, months, years (depending on when you’re reading this) after the final buzzer and still trying to process what we just witnessed. I’ve been lucky enough to have a unique perspective this season but, still, like most of us, also trying to take it all in and convincing myself that what happened the past two months wasn’t just another pipe dream. 

Maybe it was. Maybe this was all an illusion I cooked up. Maybe I wasn’t really at the games, shooting clips for Instagram reels, or at the studio doing commentary. Or maybe, just maybe, this strange, albeit satisfying season was truly one that we all didn’t expect. 

There are some days I’m in the studio trying to not lose my breath as I call out plays from RJ Abarrientos and LJay Gonzales. Other days I’m shooting clips of Jerom Lastimosa for some pre-game warmup reels. But most days—scratch that, every day—I’m just another one of the 15,000 people in the arena who’s glad that the UAAP finally returned. 

Despite the two-year absence, and the boatload of changes to both the teams, personnel, and for me personally—having to juggle school, commentary, and content work—the season was shaping up to be eerily similar to its predecessor. Ateneo was still high on their pedestal as the team to beat. UP and La Salle were closely behind although one could argue that the inconsistencies of La Salle came as a bit of a surprise. The expected struggles of UST and UE were evident in the standings. And RJ Abarrientos, well, I don’t think anyone ever doubted him to be as good as he was. But that’s a story for another day. 

It wasn’t until I was in the studio to do my first ever play-by-play between Adamson and UP that I realized just how special and unique this new season was. It was the bottom of the fourth quarter. Jerom Lastimosa was in attack mode the whole game. He took it to the titans of the Fighting Maroons every possession and made them go to a press every time he held the ball. On the final possession of the game, Lastimosa recovered the rubber after a junked play from UP. The squad from Diliman was up by two. Lastimosa crossed halfcourt, pulled up from way downtown, and for a second, it looked like the ball was going right through the net. But it bounced off. Adamson lost another close one. Lastimosa was, again, unable to take home the dub for his squad. 

I mentioned Jerom Lastimosa’s name in that last paragraph numerous times, and when I covered the game, I mentioned his name even more. And then I thought about this: a season ago, we weren’t even talking about Jerom Lastimosa, let alone counting on him to deliver in the dying seconds of a game. Just a season ago, CJ Cansino was a Growling Tiger and Carl Tamayo and Terrence Fortea were demolishing their competition in the juniors division. And just a season ago, I was chasing my professors around UST and the 11:59 p.m. deadlines. I was nowhere close, nor qualified, or even in the same stratosphere of commentating on a UAAP game, let alone a game that was as emotion-driven as that one. That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t just another season of me being a fan. But this was also a season where I could finally count myself as one of the storytellers of the game. This was my rookie year, and I knew right then and there that this season was going to be one for the history books both personally and openly. And that’s something no one can revise. 

This season was weird. And it wasn’t just because I was still doing my thesis while also doing commentary. It wasn’t because I was creating content and writing stories about players while I was in class getting my attendance checked. And it definitely wasn’t because I got to finally meet my “internet friends” in person. It was because of where this season was positioning itself in our times.

Before Abarrientos would drop 33 points and 8 threes in just his fourth game of the season, we were all making Dalgona coffees in our kitchen, sacrificing 30 to 45 minutes of our day just to get the right texture. Before Lucero became the savior of the Fighting Maroons, everyone and their grandmother started their own podcast. Before we got to see the emergence of Lastimosa, the only emergence we were looking out for were the prices on our NBA Top Shot NFTs. Months before the season even started, we had to deal with another health scare that almost denied us of the season entirely. But this season is weird not for the circumstances that happened prior, but because of the absolute reason that it happened entirely. It’s weird because it arrived in a time when any hope of returning to the games seemed bleak. It’s weird because we saw players who we never expected to shine, rise; teams who we never thought could redeem themselves, thrive; and champions falling to the hands of destiny. And it’s weird because in a time when things have felt hopeless, and disheartening, all it took were some dimes, some Euro step lay-ins, and a big stepback 3 to reignite that hope. 

There were many more times the season showed us prompts of hope. The NU Bulldog’s resurgence from a 2-12 team to a Final Four-worthy contender showed us that redemption takes time, but it is possible. The rise of Lastimosa from a 10-12 minute guy off the bench to a full-blown superstar was our reminder that even when things don’t work out in the beginning, opportunities will always find those who are worthy of it. And the fall of Ateneo to UP showed us that streaks and dynasties can, in fact, be broken, even when it’s a bunch of new kids on the block leading the way. The season was all about showing us that hope. Hope that even in the most difficult of times we can all find our way back to the sport we hold dear. Hope that you’re not too young, or too occupied to live out your dreams this early in your life. And hope that no rivalry too long, or no beef too deep can ever sway a community to fight for what they believe is the light from the dark. 

To be part of those 15,000 strong, hopeful souls in attendance that day was the highlight of my season.

I wasn’t there as a commentator blurting out every move possession by possession, or a content creator running from one end of the arena to the other trying to get some quality shotsI was there just as a fan. We all were. From the people watching from their seats to the guys and girls on the floor with their headphones and mics on. We were all witnesses to a historic spectacle, a historic season. What gives me joy the most is knowing that each and every fan in the arena that day all hoped for that moment, and for that season. Now, we have our hope. This time, it’s going to take more than a Clint Escamis-like grip on the ball to strip it away from us.

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(Photos by Kobe Dayao; JD Cagulangan game photo by John Oranga)