By Frankie Serrano
The UP Fighting Maroons’ improbable run is a thing that makes sports movies so great, spine-tingling, and inspiring.
It starts off with bad losses, for of course, it has to be an underdog. Then it gets a celebrated (or maligned, depending on which side of the fence you are from) coach taking control of the program, or the team, whatever you may have. An entry of a five-star recruit, that many considered to be an ego problem, comes in, hates losing, wanting to take over. Then there’re the veterans, who have been so used to losing that they forgot to win, suddenly pumping out speeches to rile you up.
That’s what makes sports movies truly impressive.
In a way, the Fighting Maroons checked all of those. They are your local, living, breathing, Texas Western College Miners, now known as the Unversity of Texas El Paso Miners. The Miners were the first NCAA champions to start five black guys, breaking the then-racial norm, and got turned into the best sports movie I have ever laid my eyes on my entire life: “Glory Road.”
They reflected the way these Fighting Maroons, who have fought tooth and nail to gain a Finals entry, were brought together, of how it started. While Bo Perasol is no Don Haskins, who was played by Josh Lucas, he was quite a big name coaching hire coming out of the PBA. He was tasked to revive this program that has been languishing in ignominy for the past 32 years. 0-14, 1-13, 3-11 records pockmarked its existence, with only a single championship to show for, the 1986 title team brought by Benjie Paras and Eric Altamirano.
The closest it came to success was during the years they paraded Marvin Cruz, Nestor David, Josant Cervantes, Toti Almeda, Abby Santos, and some legends whose names are whispered in hushed tones: Robson Bornancin, Kenneth Robin, Mike Bravo, and the manliest of them all that will make Saitama look silly, Ira Buyco. They came close to breaking a Final Four drought, but it was not meant to be. Back to the caves they go, their winless records tacked on their backs.
As years passed, in came the likes of Kyles Lao, who, let’s face it, was severely overhyped and only looked good because he was on a bad team. There was also a time when the Fighting Maroons faithful got tantalized by a certain Mike Silungan, who turned out to be quite the dud. It was so bad, as bad as the 9-win New Jersey Nets team in the history of ignominy.
It was hopeless. It was directionless.
Even as they have all-nation chucker Paul Desiderio in the current generation of Maroons, who warrants that defensive attention by merely being able to create his own shot, they were just mere doormats, being listed as “sure win” by the scheduling gods. It was an eery reminder of how Texas Western was so bad in the movie, that they were a stat-pad team, you know, that squad where even the bench player can get good numbers.
They were chockfull of Willie Worsleys, Harry Flournoys, Nevil Sheds, the players Haskins inherited when he came to UTEP. But lack that single generational talent to push them over the hill of mediocrity and into the mountain of championship contending. Or they just lacked talent and skill period, aside from a hulking interior presence.
Ibrahim Outtara was nice and all but when your pipeline had Alinko Mbah and Andrew Harris as forces in the middle? Lord God heavens almighty have mercy on your soul. That’s rough.
And that’s where UAAP MVP Bright Akhuetie’s David Lattin comes into play. You see, in the movie, Big Daddy Dave as he was called, was the star of the Miners. He was a force. He was THE force. He gave the Miners the inside presence that they sorely needed to be competitive. That’s what Bright brought to table the day he arrived. Waiting in the wings, you already know what you’re going to get from him after his stint with the Univ. of Perpetual Help Altas. He’s a walking bucket in the post, and he’ll eat up rebounds like he’s in a buffet line. He was the force needed by the Maroons to contend with the big boys.
But what about the generational talent? The Bobby Joe Hill? The five-star recruit who is tired of seeing his team lose?
Do we even have to look further than Juan Gomez De Liano? He’s the smoothest ballscreen operator this side of Robert Bolick. And he’s a real baller too, backing up all the talk with his wizardry on the floor. Juan is the Maroons’ Bobby Joe Hill. Their leading scorer, the one tasked to carry the offense despite the presence of veteran players. His battle with Matt Nieto is similar to that 1966 title game the Miners had with the Wildcats, where Hill played All-American Louie Dampier.
Coupling Hill (Juan) with the veterans who have forgotten the taste of winning (Desiderio and starting point guard Jun Manzo), David Lattin (Bright), Nevil Shed, Willie Worsley, and Harry Flournoy (JD Tungcab, Jan Jaboneta, and Diego Dario), you have the right mix for one glorious ending to a Cinderella season.
The only problem, however, is that Bo’s Don Haskins doesn’t stand a chance against Tab’s Adolph Rupp in this reality.
Like the Texas Western Miners, the UP Fighting Maroons defied the odds, one big team after another, eking out wins against De La Salle University and Adamson University.
However, an all-time Ateneo Blue Eagles team was in their way, that even defiance couldn’t make them overcome the odds. Unlike the Texas Western Miners, they didn’t get their Glory Road ending. At the end of the day, this is reality, and Coach Bo Perasol closed out Season 81 for the Fighting Maroons with a speech that even Don Haskins can’t match.