Strike first.
Strike hard.
No mercy.

This is the (in)famous mantra of the Cobra Kai, the main antagonist in the hit movie Karate Kid. For some, these words conjure up cheesy power ballads of the 80s telling them they’re the best around, all while practicing crane kicks and leg sweeps. For the younger generation, they remember the spinoff series Cobra Kai a little more. 

Both generations, however, remember Johnny Lawrence, played by actor William Zabka, Karate’s good-looking bad boy. After getting kicked in the face by a supremely motivated LaRusso (which is illegal, but that’s for another time), Lawrence revived the Cobra Kai and took over as Sensei. He taught the same mantra he first learned years ago to his students.

Strike first.
Strike hard.
No mercy.

Aldin Ayo, basketball’s version of a good-looking bad boy, is in the same vein as Johnny Lawrence. He seemingly came from nowhere and took the NCAA by storm, defeating the San Beda Red Lions and denying them of a sixth straight title. What’s more impressive was that he did it with seemingly less talent.

Even before Coach Aldin came into the picture, Letran was known for playing smash-mouth basketball. Play against Letran, and you would go home with so many bruises that you could still feel it days after. The 2015 Letran Knights turned this level of physicality into an artform, encapsulated in a word that struck fear in opponents’ hearts: MAYHEM.

Soon after winning the NCAA title, news broke out that the coach of the newly-minted champions was searching for greener pastures. He found that in La Salle, a team desperately searching for identity and lost glory. Once Aldin made the jump, he immediately gave the Green Archers everything they wanted: an attitude and the victories that validated it.

“Bullies on court.”

This was how Ben Mbala described the direction their coach was taking them, in an episode of At the Buzzer by Rappler Sports. Bullies they became, as physical defense and overwhelming offense predicated on turnovers ran roughshod over the league during UAAP Season 79. Save for that one loss against their archrivals Ateneo, they waltzed their way to the title with nary a drop of sweat. They even destroyed the Blue Eagles while their coach was suspended due to a helpful gesture of trying to fit the referee with glasses. 

It was a testament to how talented the Green Archers were with Ayo. Aside from the Cameroonian cheat code, he had Jeron Teng who was simply a man among boys physically. Add to that players like Kib Montalbo and Julian Sargent, who hounded ball handlers and wings, and Jason Perkins who was both hefty and agile, this was a mixture that resembled the talent and swagger of the La Salle teams of old. They were indeed bullies, but they acted as such for a reason.

Unlike his situation in Letran, Coach Aldin stayed in La Salle for another year. Teng, Sargent, and Perkins may have been gone, but they were still the consensus favorites for season 80. Ben Mbala developed a three-point-shot. Ricci Rivero was young but had a lot of potential. The old reliables were still there to backstop the starters, and the Mayhem system was still as deadly as ever.

Then the opening salvo of controversies came.

A full-scale brawl in Davao against the FEU Tamaraws kick-started La Salle and Coach Aldin’s year. According to eyewitness accounts, he was involved in a choking incident, putting his hands around the neck of an FEU player. Videos of the incident soon surfaced. It was an auspicious start, but that did not deter La Salle.

While Ateneo zoomed past everyone and erected a 13-0 record, La Salle was the team standing in the way of them jumping straight to the finals. La Salle paid them back for what their archrivals did 15 years ago, and a Final Four was guaranteed.

Then the proverbial crane kick rocked the Archers.

With less than a minute to go, Matt Nieto surveyed the floor. A dribble handoff finds Thirdy Ravena with the ball, attacking the rim. He was met by a Mbala-Montalbo double team. He stopped, spun, and dished to Isaac Go waiting patiently in the right wing. He launched over the outstretched arms of Kib Montalbo. The kick connected, and Coach Aldin and the Green Archers were knocked out cold on the floor.

Once again, talks of the coach leaving surfaced months after La Salle lost the title to Ateneo. The news was part of an implosion of the La Salle program as Ricci and Prince Rivero, along with Brent Paraiso, left the school. In a quick turn of events, basketball’s bad boy went to his Alma Mater’s sister school. 

The UST Growling Tigers were still reeling from the effects of the 1-13 record they ended with a year prior. To add to their misery, many cornerstones from that team left in search of new homes. There was a silver lining in all of this, however. It started when they secured the services of Season 80 Juniors MVP CJ Cansino and former Green Archer Paraiso. Renzo Subido was also set to make his return after sitting out Season 80.

This was a very different situation for Aldin Ayo. Becoming bullies would be a lot more challenging. They were now the team with no identity that had to prove themselves to their community and the rest of the league. For the most part, this was a familiar situation, and one that coach Aldin relished in. 

After his first year, UST ended up with a 5-9 record. They ended the season sixth, but it was a far better situation than the previous year. CJ Cansino’s ACL tearing notwithstanding, the writing was on the wall that the UST Growling Tigers would be competitive next season.

Before Season 82, Coach Aldin made CJ Cansino team captain. He was still undergoing rehabilitation, and he was still a sophomore, but that was indicative of the identity UST wanted to have: young, fierce, and competitive. He would go on to add Season 81 UAAP Juniors MVP Mark Nonoy and Pangasinan stalwart Rhenz Abando to the roster. Soulemane Chabi Yo of Colegio de San Lorenzo was also a huge addition. The hunt for elite status was now on.

Ateneo and UP were still the favorites to meet in the finals and their elimination round records reflected that. However, UST had been kicking ass and taking names along the way. Out of all the teams, they were the only ones to come close to beating the defending champions, losing to Ateneo by a single point in the first round. Once the stepladder started, they ran the gauntlet, defeating FEU, then UP twice on the back of a Subido dagger to propel themselves to the finals.

The UST Growling Tigers were not supposed to be that good that quickly. Once they found their identity, the rest of their play went with the flow. 

They were a young team with a lot of attitude and a lifetime supply of cojones, mostly from their coach.

However, their Cinderella story did not have the storybook ending the team expected to have. The Ateneo Blue Eagles were simply too much to handle in the Finals. This was a good thing for UST though, as finals experience and the graduation of the pillars of Ateneo would make for a much more competitive Season 83. It would just be a matter of filling in the gaps.

The start of the 2020 offseason was a fruitful one for Aldin Ayo. It started when they secured the service of D-League stalwart Joshua Fontanilla. The blessings continued to pour, as the Growling Tigers scooped up multiple recruits from different provinces. A program was being built, something that looked truly sustainable. 

But controversy found its way to sneak back into the story of Coach Aldin. Just a little over a week ago, news broke out that the Growling Tigers had a training bubble set up in their coach’s hometown of Capuy, Sorsogon, despite IATF rules disallowing non-professional teams from training. More details came out after captain CJ Cansino bolted from the camp and was effectively kicked off the team, only to resurface with the UP Fighting Maroons a day after the revelations. Oily food, medical conditions that were ignored, and homesickness were some of the issues that came out, with some spicy stories from Coach Aldin’s wife Mina Joy thrown in for good measure. Now, Aldin Ayo has tendered his resignation as head coach of the Growling Tigers and has gone full hermit. His future, as well as UST’s, is still up in the air. The Board of Trustees will be releasing the details of the sanctions on both parties soon, and all the UST faithful can do is wait in bated breath.

Let’s not get it twisted. Much like Johnny Lawrence, Aldin Ayo is a certified bad boy of the sport. But being a bad boy doesn’t always equate to being evil, just like what we saw at the end of the second season of “Cobra Kai”. Their past experiences found ways to haunt their present, as well as a tough facade that they try to hide from. All they want is to improve, but they are both hounded by controversy and a less than ideal reputation. Both are tough-love father figures that are not afraid to raise their arms to get their points across. They are both polarizing figures. Fans can see the goodness of their hearts, but have to wade through a lot to get there.

It would only be fair to say that both have lost their way. Victory comes with a very hefty price tag. But their character arcs are not yet over. It is far from it. We have only just begun, and whether we admit it or not, we can’t wait to see the continuation and eventual redemption of their stories.