What does it profit a man if he gains the entire game, but suffers the loss of his soul to Binondo?
As I write this, the UP Fighting Maroons has just struggled, laboriously, from a 16-point deficit with the FEU Tamaraws, evening out at 63-63 in the beginning of the second half. TV commentator TJ Manotoc says that it was an "uphill climb" for this "undersize team."
I do not know how this game will end. But I know one thing: I am getting tired of two "in spite of's" that plague the team. Not its small size, for that cannot be helped and the boys fight as if this is of no matter. Not its youth and inexperience, for these too cannot be helped and in some ways can work for the team.
What really vex me are the inefficient, almost manipulative refereeing and the specter of Binondo eating away at college basketball.
There are way too many examples of appalling refereeing and sadly, whether by chance or choice, most of these against UP. I watched, aghast, when in the last seconds of the game against Ateneo, the referee suddenly called a technical on UP’s Marvin Cruz for delaying the game when he tapped the ball from Kramer, giving Ateneo two free throws and ball possession. Whaaa??? Marvin’s violation was his first, which meant he should get only a warning, not a technical. The other delay on UP was slapped on the bench, and hence cannot be counted on Marvin Cruz. The technical on him was heinous: it turned the tide in favor of the Blue Eagles, as did the other stupefying calls.
Worse, in the last 21 seconds of the UP-Adamson game last Sunday, with the Falcons a mere one point ahead of UP and the Maroons with the last ball possession, the referee suddenly called an atrocious backing violation against Marvin Cruz. Whaaa??? In the repeated replays we watched, The Coach and I saw how firmly Marvin settled his foot on the backcourt waaaay before the ball reached his hands. There was no mistaking it. Immediately after the game, The Coach went to the ABS-CBN OB-van with UAAP Deputy Commissioner Ato Badolato to show him the absurdity. The Coach knew the technicals of the sport inside out: he himself had been a Deputy Commissioner of the UAAP for three years and had personally trained referees. And Commissioner Ato Badolato agreed: it was clear—there was no such violation. No call should have been made. UP should have been given 21 seconds to shoot what was probably the last ball.
But what to do? Nothing more than to probably suspend the erring referee. No other remedy can be made—for in basketball, as in life, judgment calls, however bad, are part of the game.
That gruesome call likewise decided that game. With all of 21 seconds on the Falcons' side, it could waste the time and retain its one-point lead.
My only consolation is that the Binondo bookies put a +2 margin on UP against the Falcons. But since the Falcons won by only two points, then it meant that the many who bet against UP, given the favorable odds for the Falcons, lost. Nasunog is the streetspeak for it. Many of them, hopefully, burned to a crisp.
It is now the last quarter and the Tamaraws has recovered the game, putting a comfortable 12 points. The Maroons put in what the commentators call "impossible shots," narrowing the margin to 8.
I wonder what margin Binondo gave the Maroons in this game against the Tamaraws.
Funny how the margin—a word that can mean the periphery, or blank space, or outskirts—can dictate the outcome of a game. Put enough money on a team, and the referee’s vision dims, everything seen clearly only upon hindsight and frequent replays on the VHS, and probably shelved into the catch-all limbo termed “judgment calls.” Translation: you cannot do anything about it.
It is an affliction that sadly can reach players—professional or amateur—of all teams. Oftentimes players’ shots turn awry without warning, defenses crumble, and balls fly out of the court. Five years in the PBA and MBA trained The Coach’s eye to spot dead-on when any player fools around: The Coach can map out a player’s tendencies, whether he favors his left or his right, the best way to defend him, how he takes his first step and how quick it is, his release of the ball, and if he fakes before a lay-up. A player works his body into a routine, his limbs falling into its natural rhythms. It would be against the laws of his body to suddenly fumble, against his nature to change in mid-game the release of his ball. Years ago when I would sit with The Coach when he was breaking a game down to a player’s specifics, I would hear him mutter, “Mahirap magbobo-bobohan ang matalino.”
How has the long arm of Binondo reached the UAAP? When the Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) burst into the scene in the late 90s and even when it petered out years later, it ate into the PBA market, which, despite furious beefing up of its ranks by recruiting Fil-Ams and Fil-Shams, barely recovered. The entry of the NBA and the U.S. NCAA into our cable TV—with their flashier, better play—dug deep into the PBA’s Achilles heel. With the public’s dwindling interest in the PBA and a redirected televised attention to college basketball, Binondo turned its eye on the more profitable UAAP.
Remember the gambling scandal unearthed about two years ago in the universities? The papers reported the massive betting made by students, from grade school to college, resulting in bookies hustling after the young ones for lost and unpaid hundreds of thousands, interest compounding. This hasn’t abated, only hushed. My friend who has a grade schooler in Ateneo said some kids still pool their money together to buy the minimum P500 bet.
Executives of a Makati bank, of which I used to be a retained counsel, would bet even on teams of which they are not alums. They would place their bets on the phone, keeping an eye on a TV set turned surreptitiously to Studio 23, while the other sets rightfully monitored the stock market and the ANC channel.
The Coach himself, when he was a Deputy Commissioner, was not spared from the tentacles of betting. When he and the other commissioners chose the referees of every game, they had to resort to an almost cloak-and-dagger system: they would call in several referees to suit up, confine them to an undisclosed room, confiscate their cell phones, and in the last minutes before a game actually starts, conduct a raffle to determine which three referees will call the game. The three are kept closeted by the commissioners while The Coach would explain to them the plays of the competing schools, as well as players’ tendencies, so they would reduce any judgment calls. In this manner the Dark Force would be hard put to invest its money on any one referee. Still, some shady characters, as well as a few school or team officials, would attempt to penetrate the raffle. How distressing that the “play” part of college ball, the part which should celebrate the game and the university, is being infected, insidiously, by big business.
Sometime into the season when he was still a Deputy Commissioner, The Coach changed his cell phone number, the only time he did so, so he could avoid calls that would only cloud his judgment. He and I prayed for God’s grace to help him all throughout. It was not easy for him and the other commissioners: juggling complaints on one side, monitoring the refereeing and staving off Binondo, which at one time plunked over P150 million on an Ateneo-DLSU game.
There. The Tamaraws just won by 8 points over my boys. My heart sinks. The commentators say that the eight rookies of UP will spell a “scary team” in the years to come. It is of little comfort to me.
I wonder: as Coach Joe Lipa talks to his boys, how will he encourage them? How will he tell them to continue to fight a good fight, in spite of? They only want to play: this is a game they love, sometimes even beyond school.
I wish Binondo would just let them play.