For 16 years in Ateneo, I was batchmates with the Nieto twins. I was classmates with Matt in Grade 2 while I encountered Mike during sportsfests. In my entire stay at Ateneo, if you asked anyone who the best basketball players in my batch was, you would get two names— Matt and Mike Nieto. And for my early grade school life, my initial impression of them was that they were, to put it simply— Entitled jocks.
Matt used to pick on me when we were classmates. I still remember how he made me cry when I failed a quiz in math when we were in Grade 2. Me crying made such a big fuss that our math teacher ended up breaking his ruler out of anger and sending us both to the Grade Level Coordinator’s.
Mike was always scary both because he was a varsity player and since he was, well, big. One time when I was in Grade 7, he asked me to give him a piece of chicken during a class pizza party. I gave it to him. I didn’t give it to him because I was being nice. I was simply scared of what an angry Grade 7 Big Mike Nieto tackling me because of fried chicken would look like.
I could have easily resisted. It would have made my childhood heroes Goku and Spider-man proud! But I never did. One, because I was admittedly scared. Two, and most importantly, because I understood why they had the green light to act the way they did.
The twins were undoubtedly talented and that’s why I initially thought of them as being entitled. They were born to play basketball and with that came corresponding benefits. Said benefits included: 1) an invisible hall pass that everyone in the school recognized; and in Mike’s case, well, 2) free access to my fried chicken. In my eyes, they were allowed to act that way because they were born that way.
As we stepped onto high school, the rise of the Nieto twins continued. They were shoo-ins for the Blue Eaglets during our sophomore year and their playing time increased every season. In their final year in the UAAP juniors, they were recognized as members of the Mythical Five.
They could have easily continued to act like entitled jocks, right? As the best players of our batch, they still had their invisible hall passes, and Mike could still use his big stature to ask for people’s fried chicken. They had every reason to continue acting like entitled jocks especially now that they were UAAP Mythical Five members, but no, Matt no longer made me cry over math exams and Mike didn’t ask for my fried chicken anymore.
The shift started when they played for the 2013 Batang Gilas U-16 team.
It didn’t surprise me that the twins made the team. What I didn’t expect was for the two of them to perform the way they did at the international level. By all accounts, Mike was undersized. Matt no longer looked as dominant as he did during grade school. But someway, somehow, they found ways to perform at an elite level, helping Coach Jamike Jarin lead the Philippine to the 2014 U17 FIBA World Cup.
It was an amazing accomplishment that garnered the twins instant fame. They were seen as heroes that did the impossible, lead a Philippine U-16 team to the World Cup in this lifetime. This could have gotten into their heads. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this should have gotten into their heads. Their crowns should have grown bigger. Their invisible hall passes could have become much more absolute, and their access to other people’s friend chicken should have been codified.
Except that didn’t happen. The very first time I talked to the Nietos after their FIBA Asia run, their aura was noticeably different. Matt still had a certain arrogance to him, and Mike still looked ready to grab my fried chicken if he wanted, but their purpose of playing the game had clearly changed. The FIBA Asia run not only solidified them as batch heroes, but it was the first time they’ve looked vulnerable on a basketball court. Human, even.
They didn’t have the natural gifts that most athletes bank on in order to succeed. Mike was undersized. Matt was limited. The twins embraced those facts. In the process, I, along with the rest of my batch, gained a deeper appreciation of what the Nieto twins were all about. They weren’t entitled jocks. They weren’t as talented as we thought they were. What set them apart was the work they put into their craft.
When they made the jump to the Seniors’ Division, their vulnerabilities became even more exposed with Mike’s heft finally catching up with him and Matt meeting guards of his same caliber. But they never allowed that to stop them from playing the game that they’d been playing ever since they were children. In fact, it pushed them even harder.
Mike worked double time on his conditioning. Matt continued to expand his skillset. It was a bloody process that didn’t pay off immediately. During their rookie years, they only received limited playing time with the Blue Eagles. But their energy never dipped. Their enthusiasm remained constant. They were always ready whenever their number was called, especially at the biggest moments. This reached a climax for them during Season 80, when they stepped up in separate games versus La Salle.
Matt was not known as a good shooter, even during his time in grade school. But during Round 1 against La Salle that Season 80, his moment came when he was called to shoot free throws that would decide the first game of that Finals series. The score read 75-74 favoring La Salle. Miss both and lose. Make two and become a legend.
The immense pressure behind those two free throws would have made any player crumble. Matt didn’t allow himself to crack. He calmly walked to the line and shot each free throw with peace. They both went in and his legend as a Blue Eagle grew. He was no longer just a gritty, tough point guard. He’d made the leap to elite gritty, tough point guard.
Mike had been elite all his career, but in college, he was suddenly expected to just play spot minutes for the Blue Eagles. He was stuck between playing forward and guard, and it was a struggle for him to find a role he was comfortable with. During Game 1 of the Season 80 Finals, he broke out. In the process, he had carved out a niche for himself within Coach Tab Baldwin’s system.
While La Salle tried to rally their way back into the game during the third quarter, surprisingly, Mike was there to repel whatever attempts the Green Archers had. It wasn’t the eruption my batchmates and I had grown accustomed to from Mike. Instead, it was a steady slew of points built off cuts to the rim and fastbreak opportunities. He played just 11 minutes, but he scored just as much points. He was no longer just a gritty-tough role player. He had made the leap to ELITE gritty-tough role player.
And the twins never looked back. Their legend in Ateneo continued to grow, culminating in a three-peat and a legendary sweep, the first of its kind for the Blue Eagles. They were even called up to play for the Philippine Men’s National Team. Fame was aplenty. But that wasn’t why they played the game. This one went beyond the Instagram followers and the shoe deals.
“We just want to be the best versions of ourselves, day in and day out,” mentioned Mike. “Not only on the court, but also outside. Kasi role models din kami ng youth ngayon eh.”
I once thought of Matt and Mike as entitled jocks. That was misguided. In reality, they’re passionate individuals who use the game as a platform to inspire others, even if it means stepping out of their comfort zone, facing new competition and working hard to be on that next level.
The legend of the Nietos in Ateneo shouldn’t be anchored around their talent. They aren’t entitled jocks gifted with all the physical traits nature can throw at them to make them succeed. What makes these twins stand out from the rest is their grit, determination, and most importantly, their heart. They weren’t born elite. They were born ready. Ready to put in the work, take the next steps, and make the sacrifices in order to become elite. They showed it in Ateneo and you can bet they’ll continue to inspire others, especially once they step into the pros.
The Nieto twins were born ready and they’re excited to bring their grind to your homes! Join them as they lead #TeamNike as they Stay Game Ready this May 27, 2020, 6:34 PM, in their respective Instagram accounts.
Come join us as we #Playfortheworld!