The boys were not meant to win. Bookies and bet makers in Binondo heaped on them an advantage +8 points, which means those betting on them would win even if these boys lose the game with not more than an 8-point margin.
Only 4 of the twelve were returning players; the rest were rookies—bright-eyed, skittish, and alternating between excited and nervous. They were a small bunch. When they did the regulatory round robin, they looked puny compared with the UST beanpoles. “Maliit pala tayo, no?” mourned my seatmate, a UP alum. He was perturbed by the two- to three-inch differential between the two squads.
So was I. The UST Tigers were bigger and more athletic, enjoying a deeper bench of 10 veterans: in fact, they were able to substitute an entire platoon in the first half. But I have been a coach’s wife for twelve years to know that the biggest factor in any game is a good coach. And that the Fighting Maroons have: three coaches unafraid to lose their jobs to do what is right.
Under these coaches' care, the boys became steeped in the basics and technicals. They bled Maroon.
The boys suffered first two quarters of bad calls—so bad that in some instances the entire UP bench exploded to their feet, head coach Joe Lipa almost stormed the commissioners’ table, and The Coach stomped to the technical committee with his drill board. But no amount of hairline refereeing could have doused the fires out of the boys.
It was a cardiac game. The first half ended with UP leading by only two points: 45-43.
Which didn’t improve much by the end of the third quarter, with UP just one step ahead at 65-64.
The boys played like they weren’t rookies: Migs de Asis sunk in six triples, and Martin Reyes made four. At one point the UP team that ran the court was composed of four rookies and one sophomore.
The veterans did very well, too: Marvin Cruz—whose first step is quick and explosive—contributed 25 points (his highest in the amateurs, apparently), what with the plays designed for him in the mismatches.
Ira Buyco, my big bald baby, hustled well—which wasn’t limited to the usual rebounding and defending, but also included a stray [but legitimate] elbow here and there. In the game it was to Buyco that the young ones ran to to whine that so-and-so hit him, and Buyco would step up and give that so-and-so a piece of his, well, elbow. Tee hee.
It was pingpong basketball: the Maroons threw a 3-pointer, the Tigers responded. The Tigers sunk in a lay-up, and so did the Maroons. Yet another 3-pointer from the Tigers, and the Maroons followed suit: each side refusing to give in.
In the last two minutes, the score was skewed four points in favor of UP, partly due to the technical slapped on the UST head coach Pido Jarencio who barged into the court.
Which, alas, slipped to an even 92-92 in the final 12 seconds. The game was fast and furious, so much running and gunning. I couldn’t breathe anymore.
I wanted so much for UP to win its first game.
For Coach Joe Lipa, who is The Coach’s mentor, second father and ninong, from whom he inherited the reengineered swearword, “Pongalangala.” (There’s a story behind that. Tell you at another time.) These coaches love UP so much that they work even without pay. In the eight months that The Coach has dashed from his 9PM-5AM FedEx night shift to the 6AM UP practice before stopping for abbreviated sleep and then running to his 5PM St. Stephen basketball practice, UP paid him an allowance only thrice—a pittance not enough to cover his gasoline and food expenses.
But any one who is a purist about basketball knows coaching, like writing, isn’t about the money. It never was. The Coach is never happier than when he teaches college or high school kids who would dive for the ball. College ball is a coach’s game, where skills are taught and strategy pitted against strategy; professional basketball, on the other hand, is more of a players’ game. (Which is why The Coach wasn’t as happy when he did his PBA and MBA stints, though money was abundant. Then.)
Back to the game: UP had the ball in the last 12 seconds, and the score was even-Steven.
In the crucial huddle, Coach Joe directed the boys to spread the offense to give the best offensive player enough space to maneuver, the best being, of course, Marvin Cruz. Marvin dribbled a few precious seconds off the clock (to take the last shot and prevent UST from taking one), ran to the shaded area where three big men were waiting to pounce on him, leapt and shot the ball on a short jumper. It went in! The coliseum erupted in cheers, with less than one second remaining.
The Coach sang “UP Naming Mahal” like he always does—with conviction, even in the odd moments like when we’re in the car or in the house. He has never known another school except UP, he having been trained there since he was five years old.
Outside the Ninoy Aquino stadium, the moon joined the celebration, shining like a pearl.
Later, at the Zong resto at The Fort, the game gets even better in the retelling.