What if you got everything you wanted in life? Good looks, a slot in the varsity team (and a good one at that), an intellect that can get you places, more money than you could ever need, a beautiful childhood sweetheart whom you eventually marry, joining the professional league just for the heck of it, and being adored by everyone.
Let me simplify that: What if you were Chris Tiu?
It was the summer before Season 66. The Ateneo Blue Eagles just won their first title in 14 years and were losing key personnel in season MVP Enrico Villanueva, Gec Chia, Sonny Tadeo, Epok Quimpo, and Marco Benitez. Paolo Bugia and Magnum Membrere were slated to return after missing season 65 with injuries, and the core of Larry Fonacier, LA Tenorio, and Wesley Gonzales were still intact. Coming in were two rookies, San Beda Red Cubs Juniors MVP Clifford Arao, and Xavier School standout Chris Tiu. The 2003 team was still in talks of contention, but it would be an uphill climb.
Many were familiar with Ford Arao. After all, he came from the fabled San Beda high school program under multi-titled coach Ato Badolato. He is an agile big man who can bang bodies in the post and has a soft touch when facing up in the elbow.
Chris Tiu was known only to scouts and hardcore fans who watched leagues outside the UAAP and NCAA. The one thing that people said when you mentioned Chris Tiu were his looks. He was also a Management Engineering student, a course that graduated only about half the students they admitted. Basketball? That took a backseat in these talks.
Needless to say, he played spot minutes on his first and second year in the league. He was there to give a breather to LA Tenorio and Macky Escalona. He played when the game was all but settled, garbage minutes even. He was often overlooked, including in their second-round Season 67 matchup against their archrival, the De La Salle Green Archers. The Blue Eagles unloaded a crazy rally that shrunk a double-digit Green Archer lead down to a close game. Chris got the ball and went all the way to the hoop.
Tiu missed the layup, and quite badly. This sucked whatever momentum the Blue Eagles had, and whatever hope the fans on the stands were clinging on to. The Blue Eagles lost 72-61, the start of an ugly five game losing streak against La Salle that saw the Ateneo Blue Eagles lose games in grand fashion against the Green Archers.
Chris was suddenly at a crossroads. He loved basketball so much, but there was a feeling that the love might not be mutual. Self-doubt was starting to creep in, and the call to join the family in the corporate world was growing louder.
When the final lineup was announced for Season 68, one omission was noticeable. Number 17, the face that transformed thousands of girls to shrieking banshees was not in the lineup. Forget that the Blue Eagles needed a backup guard for Magnum Membrere, the people needed a tantalizing smile to plaster on tarpaulins and magazine covers. The question rang around the Ateneo campus: Where was Chris Tiu?
The third year guard was accepted to Ateneo’s Junior Term Abroad program, a prestigious student exchange program reserved for those who were academically qualified. Chris Tiu was set to go to Lille, France for one semester. He was going to be away from family, friends, and basketball.
It is always hard to be away from the country for a long time. No matter how much you love a country you are in, you realize that there is no place like home. For Chris, home was the Philippines, as well as the basketball court. Even if he contemplated on quitting a few times over the course of his playing career, the bouncing ball and squeaking shoes was always be music to him. While in France, he found some friends who would play basketball with him. No flashing lights, no drums and a thousand fans screaming, and no pressure. It was just pure love for the sport. This renewed his drive to play, and eventually returned to the Blue Eagles to finish his tour of duty.
By the time he came back, the team was then coached by Norman Black. The multi-titled coach used Chris more, inserting him into the starting lineup. He was confident but not cocky, an embodiment of Norman Black’s “No Yabang” policy. There were those who questioned the move, but Chris made sure he earned every bit of playing time. Suddenly, his performance was getting as much attention as his smile. According to Coach Norman before the start of the Season 69 finals, Chris was his best three-point shooter, and someone whom you could give the ball to in clutch situations. He was the chief gunner, scoring close to 12 points per game and dishing out almost two assists per outing. After winning game one by a Doug Kramer Hail Mary banker, the Blue Eagles got blown out in game two, and lost in overtime in game three. It was a painful loss for Chris and Ateneo.
The finals loss just added to the hunger.
2007 was slated to be Chris Tiu’s final year. He was about to finish his course this school year and was a candidate to graduate with honors while being named captain and King Eagle. The triumvirate of JC Intal, Doug Kramer, and Macky Escalona was gone, so he had been handed the license to score. Graduating center and batchmate Ford Arao showed his brilliance as early as the first game. West Negros transfer Nonoy Baclao was the team’s defensive anchor. Faith Academy Vanguard Kirk Long and Ateneo Blue Eaglet juniors MVP Bacon Austria added size and skill to the guard position. The Season 70 Blue Eagles were ready to contend.
They did a good job. The UE Red Warriors were clearly the best team in the league, but they managed to keep in step, alternating between second and third place. The La Salle curse has been lifted in the elimination round, sweeping the elimination round matchup in dramatic fashion.
Then things went downhill.
Ateneo lost to a pre-Hans Sy NU team that had been eliminated long ago and lost the battle for the second seed and twice-to-beat advantage against DLSU. In the stepladder round, Ateneo exorcized the demons of the past season by eliminating the defending champion UST, and this set the stage for another rivalry series. One shot at redemption, and one chance for the King Eagle to finally claim the crown he deserves.
It was a nip-and-tuck affair, with neither having and advantage or giving an inch. The DLSU Green Archers boast of an athletic big man in Rico Maierhofer, a deadeye court general in Jvee Casio, a bully ball guard in TY Tang, and a coaching legend in Franz Pumaren. Ateneo gave them all they had, and it all boiled down to the last 12 seconds with DLSU leading 64-63.
Chris got the ball from Rabeh Al-Hussaini, who set a pick and trapping the defender in the process. He gets a free lane at the basket but was ultimately met by PJ Walsham and Jvee Casio down low. He puts his shoulder forward, takes a step, and cradles the ball upward. 7.3 seconds to go. Miss this and the crowd is reminded of that kid who blew a wide-open layup. He was the goat or the GOAT either way.
Chris jumped. Released the ball. It kisses every part of the rim. MONEY.
The Blue Eagles lived to fight another day.
It was not meant to be, however, as they ultimately bowed out to the eventual champions of Season 70. As a consolation, Chris Tiu was awarded a spot in the Mythical Five.
This could have been a perfect point to end the story. He could have graduated and moved on, establishing himself as one of the best players in Ateneo history. He could have been drafted into the PBA, and teams would have surely hd a spot for him. Conversely, he could enter the corporate world and be a big shot in no time.
The thing was, he still had one year of eligibility left, and he still wasn’t done cementing his legacy.
After the season, the world was at his feet. He had finished his Management Engineering course, and took up Applied Mathematics in Finance, on top of a minor in Chinese Studies. He was not satisfied with his accomplishments and did not want to have any regrets. The Ateneo Blue Eagles got the best rookie crop in Nico Salva, Justin Chua, Vince Burke, and some kid named Ryan Buenafe. The team trained overseas and won a title in the preseason. This team was pulling out all the stops, and they meant business. This squad was ready to roll and just need a leader. There was only one man for the job; the same man who almost quit a few years back because he thought basketball was not for him. With a championship in mind, Chris Tiu decided to stay one more year.
The Blue Eagles opened their season against their rival and defending champions DLSU. In that game, Chris Tiu seemed to be unstoppable, scoring at will, draining shots with ease. He ended up with a career high of 26 points, 17/19 from the free throw line including dagger free throws, a statement that the captain is out for blood.
Ateneo steamrolled over their competition, save for a July 31 meeting against the FEU Tamaraws. Rabeh Al-Hussaini had a coming out party with a double-double of 33 points and 20 rebounds but were no match for a Tamaraw squad who was playing for their teammate Mac Baracael who was gunned down after a practice.
The toughest challenge that Ateneo faced was against the UE Red Warriors, who were leading by three in the dying seconds of the game. The ball went to Chris Tiu, who was not particularly shooting well the whole game. He dribbles going to dead center and pump-fakes. His defender Marcy Arellano comes flying across and proceeds to cash in on a game-tying triple to send the game to overtime. He was also responsible for the assist to Ryan Buenafe who put the game away. The Final Four matchup against them, however, was night and day. The number one seed demolished the Red Warriors 70-50, setting a finals match against DLSU. One last shot at redemption.
Game One was a long night for the graduating Tiu, as he got shackled at every turn. The fabled Pumaren press was ready for whatever Chris had planned, and limited him to 19 minutes of playing time. His lone two points came in the fourth quarter, as he drained a Dirk Nowitzki-esque one legged fadeaway jumper from the free throw line with 3:20 left, his team up 65-52. The Blue Eagles took game one 69-61, and a game away from sending their captain off with a title.
Prior to Game Two, Chris Tiu was awarded his second straight mythical team honors. It was a culmination of hard work and a celebration of a stellar career five years in the making. It was time to seal it with another piece of hardware.
But as always, it did not come easy.
The odds were stacked against the Blue Eagles as the newly-minted MVP Rabeh Al-Hussaini was whistled for two fouls early in the first quarter. The La Salle defense also restricted Chris Tiu, committing a turnover via a wayward pass to Ryan Buenafe. The Green Archers were up 8-5 with six minutes left. Tiu was rejected by Ferdinand as he drove to the basket, adding to his misery. His first basket came at 2:38, and everybody who saw it knew he was in rhythm. Tiu caught fire as he scored 13 points in the first half alone (4/6 FG) along with three rebounds and one assist. He would go on to score just three points in the second half, but the statement has been made.
It was only fitting that he held onto the ball as the time was winding down, Ateneo up 62-51. As the buzzer sounded, he flung the ball up with all his might. The frustration was over, and his reason for returning a final year has been realized. The first thing he did was to look for coach Norman Black, the person who trusted him since he returned and tell him how much he loved his mentor.
Graduating with honors? Check. Two-time Mythical Five member? Check. UAAP Champion? Check. It could not be any sweeter.
Chris did not turn professional right away. He was part of the first iteration of the Gilas program by coach Rajko Toroman. He was a steady guard with loads of leadership to offer. While players like Mark Barroca were more skilled, he provided a stability to the system that Toroman was trying to instill. He was also named captain of the Sinag-Pilipinas team, a developmental team sent to Southeast Asian tournaments. He won gold in 2011 SEABA and the SEA games, and Bronze in the William Jones Cup that same year. In between stints with the national team, he was a TV host and managed various businesses.
Six years after his last playing year in the UAAP, he decided to join the PBA Draft. While he had a stellar amateur career, there were questions about how he would translate to the pros. Can he handle the physicality of the PBA? Can he shoot over the taller guards? Is he fast enough to cope with the pace? In Yeng Guiao and Rain-or-Shine’s mind, all that was a resounding yes, as he drafted the former Ateneo guard seventh overall. He was a perfect fit to the Yeng Guiao smashmouth brand of basketball. Behind the tantalizing smile was an elbow that was as sharp as his wit. He would be named to the All-Rookie Team and win the 3-point shootout title, while averaging numbers of 5.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2 assists over the course of his career. He was solid through and through.
On November 3, however, the Rain-or-Shine faithful saw a glimpse of the old Chris Tiu, and probably for the last time.
Against the NLEX Road Warriors and his former coach, the gunslinger scored a career-high 30 points in a 101-81 win. The Elasto Painters bucked an 18 point deficit, with Tiu scoring 17 in the second half to lead the depleted team to victory.
It was a throwaway game as Rain-or-Shine was already eliminated, toting a 3-8 record. But for his fans, it was like a perfect ending to the basketball career of one of the most respected players in the league. Seeing him dominate brought back memories of him in an Ateneo jersey, playing his heart out to get that win. He did not have did not have to play in the PBA. His post-college career was nothing more than icing on a pretty delicious cake. This was ultimately for his love of the game that was rekindled in the courts of Lille. Much like his season of grace with the Blue Eagles, he did not want to regret anything, asking “what if?” down the line. Who knows, his 30-point game might not be the last time you see him wearing that colorful jersey. It might be a renaissance of a career remembered throughout the ages.
Let me ask you again. What if you were Chris Tiu?
It isn’t the perfect life that people perceived it to be. There are hardships and missed layups. But in the end, you get back up, and you damn well better keep shooting.