Throwback Thursday: We Can Be Heroes

This article was originally published in SLAM #213

College basketball is a sport played by young men, fought about by older men. What is often forgotten however, is how for the youngest of us, UAAP games are larger than they actually are, then they ever will be again. And UAAP players, champions most especially, are legends for life.

By Colin Salao

Kobe Bryant recently had both his #8 and #24 jerseys retired by the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he blessed with five championships and two decades of marvelous play. A storied career and an otherworldly work-ethic turned him into an icon, with his patented Mamba Mentality becoming a mindset that made Kobe a role model for many current players and millions of fans alike. On the day of his retirement, my social media feeds were filled with anecdotes from people around the world who shared how much they were inspired by their NBA idol.

But when I was a middle school student from Ateneo in search of a basketball hero, then-Ateneo Blue Eagle Chris Tiu seemed like a more reasonable player to strive to emulate. Not only was Tiu a more feasible follow, but he proved to be successful off the hardwood as well. The on-court grace of the one-time UAAP Champion, coupled with his well-documented humility and academic success made him an exemplary standard for any young boy. The stories of Tiu’s holistic excellence inspired me all the way into the college level, where the legend of the wonderboy still manages to make its rounds through the Loyola Schools.

Chris Tiu’s position as my teenage role model was exactly what flashed in my head as I watched this season’s UAAP Champion Ateneo Basketball Team celebrate with the school’s community in a bonfire held last December 9th. I found myself to the left of the stage, content to watch from an awkward angle as I witnessed a hoard of little boys jockeying for position in front of the platform. Eventually, some were even allowed to climb up onto the stage to gain some interaction with the team, and most of the kids nodded when the host asked them, “Role models niyo ba sila? Gusto niyo bang maging katulad nila?”

This is when I began to look at the faces of the members of the team, many of whom I’ve walked the hallways with ever since grade school. I ran through their individual stories in my head, wondering about how exactly their each of them could serve as role models to the youth, and provide a similar inspiration to that which I received from Chris Tiu in the past.

I started by thinking about my batchmate, Thirdy Ravena, and how his path to a UAAP championship and Finals MVP award required a complete makeover of both his mindset on the sport, and his responsibilities as a student-athlete. Back in high school, I witnessed Thirdy rampage through the rest of our batch during our sports fests, dunking over the rest of the field (which included Aaron Black and former Blue Eagle Jme Escaler) in a show of physical brilliance. But in his debut season at the college level, the highly-touted rookie struggled in the shadow of his older brother, often looking lost and nervous when on the court as a result. Adding insult to injury was his exclusion from the team the following year due to academic reasons, which also barred him from representing the school on the basketball court at any level.

However, with the help of Head Coach Tab Baldwin, the former UAAP Juniors MVP would overcome the pressure brought upon him by lofty expectations. “I remember Coach Tab telling me, ‘The only pressure you have to deal with is the pressure you put on yourself to reach your maximum potential,” Thirdy said in an interview on ANC’s Hardball. As for his studies, the fourth year Bachelor of Science in Communications Technology Management major altered his perspective on his academic performance during his one-year hiatus from basketball. “[My family and friends] told me to value my academics. That’s one thing I really learned,” Ravena said when I interviewed him prior to his return to the UAAP last year.

The mental changes paid dividends on the basketball court. Thirdy would bump his scoring average from 1.4 points per game during his rookie year, to 9.9 points last season and 14.4 points this season. It was clear from the way he glided across the court that surpassing these mental hurdles was the college equivalent of the athletic developments that fueled his rise in the secondary ranks. He had alleviated himself of his academic burden, as well as the pressure that came with the name written behind his jersey. These two mindset shifts ultimately paved the way for Thirdy to carry the Blue Eagles to the mountaintop.

From Thirdy Ravena, I moved on to thinking of another Atenean I’d watched play since he was in grade school, someone who also has a similar comeback story that adolescents can root inspiration from: Ateneo’s starting shooting guard Anton Asistio. He was also left off of Ateneo’s UAAP Season 78 roster, but unlike Thirdy, Asistio was cut from the team due to his limitations on the basketball court. While a minor injury played a part in his tryouts, the 5’10” (which is a really generous height listing) guard had long been critiqued for his lack of a UAAP frame and subpar athletic ability. It didn’t help that he was labeled merely as a one-dimensional sniper from beyond the arc.

But a hidden weapon that separates Asistio from many physically gifted players is his willingness to outwork the competition. After being relegated to Ateneo’s second team (Team Glory B), Asistio immediately began his process to reclaim a spot in the UAAP roster, constantly putting in extra work as the first player to show up to his new team’s practices. I even heard from Ateneo’s Assistant Coach Sandy Arespacochaga that Asistio spent some of his lunch breaks at the gym or in his village court doing shooting drills with his dad to continue to improve his game. The sweet-shooting guard would return to the UAAP in Season 79 as a more bulked up and complete player, showcasing an improved handle and passing ability that helped him establish his spot as a rotational piece during Ateneo’s runner-up finish.

Having already powered through adversity in the past, it was no surprise to see Asistio emerge as Ateneo’s quiet X-Factor in their three-game series against La Salle, despite a cold stretch prior to the Finals. He averaged 11.3 points on three triples per game in the Finals, and his Derek Fisher-esque halftime buzzer beater in Game 3 is now part of Ateneo’s archive of legendary shots. When the confetti fell after the game, the player who rode the bench for a pair of seasons and was dropped for another one, was now a champion. The tears flowing from Asistio’s eyes as he hugged his peers highlighted the happiness of the young man who never gave up on his ability to reach his dream.

After I finished recalling a few more incredible stories of the Ateneo players, Mike Nieto then began to address the crowd during the bonfire. He went on one of the longer soliloquies, even calling on stage one of the young boys in the crowd who just so happened to be the youngest of the Nieto brothers. Having watched the team’s post game pressers all year, I was used to hearing Mike Nieto speak up about the squad; He was the vocal leader for the team, assuming the role of the team’s co-captain. While he’s also become an important member of Tab Baldwin’s rotation over the past couple of seasons, the truth is that the UAAP Season 77 Juniors MVP really wasn’t supposed to be a successful college basketball player. Everyone saw Mike Nieto dominate the lower ranks, and he did so as an undersized 6’1” Center taking advantage of the bulky frame that earned him the nickname ‘Big Mike’. The former UAAP Juniors MVP outworked the taller big men of the high school division, but most UAAP pundits were sure that he’d struggle to find a way to elevate his game into the Seniors Division without major changes to his style of play and physical stature. So Big Mike did exactly that.

Foreseeing his future dilemma, Nieto actually began his transition in high school by adding a respectable three-point shot during his senior year. He also worked on his ball handling, including his patented spin move which he torched international teams with during his stint with the Batang Gilas U-17 team. However, he still rarely saw the court during his rookie season with the big boys in the UAAP Seniors Division, so he dropped over 30 pounds in the offseason to try to gain the quickness and agility needed to morph himself into a wing.

After playing a grand total of 18 minutes during his rookie season, Mike Nieto finished third on the team in scoring (8.3 points) and second in rebounding (5.5 rebounds) in Season 79, all while starting all of Ateneo’s games at the small forward position. Even with Thirdy Ravena taking over the starting spot this season, Nieto has remained a key cog in Ateneo’s top ranked bench. He’s also to credit for Ateneo’s Game 1 victory over La Salle, where he carried Ateneo with 11 second-half points. That performance was a culmination of the former big man’s difficult transformation into a wing threat, as he scored from the perimeter on jump shots, and channeled his former-self on a couple of inside putbacks. He was still the same old Big Mike, adapted to his new versatile form of attack.

As I continued to scan the pack of smiling champions on the stage, I rested my eyes on rookie Gian ‘Mamu’ Mamuyac. I realized then that maybe he — one of the quietest Blue Eagles — provides the most relatable narrative for most youngsters. Mamu failed to make the team during his freshman year of college amidst the deep pool of talent that Ateneo had at the wing position. The weaknesses to his game were glaring: an inconsistent jumpshot held back an already limited offensive game, and there was also the fact that he was as thin as a toothpick. Had he made the team his freshman year, he could have easily been thrown to the ground by the slightest touch from an opposing team’s bigman. After a year of fine-tuning in Team Glory B, the coaching staff took a chance on the former Ateneo Blue Eaglet and promoted him to the UAAP roster this past season.

When Mamuyac played his first few games, it seemed as though the coaches may have made a mistake including the lanky swingman. Mamu averaged just 1 point on 20% from the field through the team’s first 4 games of the season. The eye-test showed a lack of confidence from the 18-year old rookie, who was passing up open looks and turning the ball over constantly. I guess I expected more from someone known worldwide as the kid who blocked Steph Curry, but it was looking like Mamu wasn’t ready for the bright lights of the UAAP Seniors Division. While many of the Ateneo fans began to question why Coach Tab Baldwin continued to give minutes to the floundering swingman, the Ateneo coaching staff didn’t waver or give up on the teenager. “My coaches really [believed] in me which means that I really [needed] to start believing in myself,” Mamu said about how he gained his confidence from his coaches. He eventually proved them right.

Mamuyac finally broke out with 8 first half points in their first round meeting against UST. A couple of games later, in the team’s first meeting with La Salle, Mamu was placed on the court during the dying seconds and came up with a crucial hustle play that helped his teammate, Matt Nieto, push Ateneo to a huge victory over their rivals. In the second half of the season, his defense on UAAP stars like Jjay Alejandro and Jerrick Ahanmisi further proved his value to the Blue Eagles. This translated to the offensive end, where he finally found his rhythm from beyond the arc despite missing the first 9 attempts of his UAAP career. In fact, after shooting an abysmal 4-of-20 from deep in the Elimination Rounds, he mustered the confidence to drill a tie-breaking triple in the fourth quarter of the decisive championship-clinching game.

It was after I thought about Mamu’s season that it began to dawn on me that these players are now the Chris Tiu’s of the coming generation. They have now been thrust into a position of influence. Outside of winning championships on the basketball court, these college amateurs have the opportunity to make a gigantic impact as role models to the next generation of basketball players and students. The beauty of this particular Ateneo basketball team is that many of its characters carry a narrative worthy of the pedestal that they’ve now found themselves on, with each story equipped with a lesson fit to inspire their youthful following. Thirdy Ravena’s re-emergence and change of perspective can influence kids strive to value their studies; Anton Asistio and Mike Nieto’s stories can inspire today’s adolescents to persevere through their own personal limitations; Mamu’s steep climb from struggling rookie to crucial finals piece might also provide inspiration to the aspiring youth. Even other players like the head-scratching big man turned beloved import Chibueze Ikeh, or gentle giant and cult hero Isaac Go offer similar stories of inspiration to the little kids who look up to the Blue Eagles.

While winning the elusive title finally provides the happiness to a community that’s waited through a 5-year drought, perhaps it’s the symbolism of this title that yields more meaning in the long term. This championship is the physical manifestation and actualization of the hard work of every single member of this team. It’s in the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ accomplished mission that their adolescent followers can identify an end goal to their own respective journeys, a confirmation that they too should continue striving in the hope that one day they may stand proud in celebration of their own championships.