By UP diehard, Josh Buenaventura 

1997.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had just released. Titanic became the highest grossing move of all-time. The Chicago Bulls just won their 5th title over the course of the decade. Kobe Bryant was in his sophomore year.

Franz Pumaren had not even won one of his five titles with La Salle. Gilbert Lao – now an assistant coach for the FEU Tamaraws in the last 6 years – was in his rookie year for the University of Santo Tomas.

Ramil De Jesus wasn’t even head coach of the De La Salle Lady Spikers yet.

Twenty-one long ass years ago.  That was UAAP Season 60.

That was also the last time the UP Fighting Maroons made the UAAP Final Four.

A person born that year would be a full-fledged adult right now. Think about how long the drought is.

But all that can come to an end with a win against the De La Salle Green Archers on Wednesday afternoon at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Since time immemorial, there have been all kinds of reasons and excuses for why State U has not experienced the success other teams in the league have had in this modern day era. No funds. No facilities. No supporters. No recruits. No superstars. And most of all, no fans.

They say for an institution that has so much going on about it, basketball was the very least of its priorities. The students had so much to study. The alumni were so busy. There were bigger and farther issues to be dealt with at hand. So on and so forth.

And for a little while, I thought it was.

The UP Fighting Maroons may be one of the last – if not the last – team in the league to realize how much support is needed for its basketball program.

It all ended though in 2014. With the beginning of nowheretogobutUP, a foundation dedicated to the lone purpose of backing all of UP’s varsity teams, they said the UPrising has begun. With one simple step, the plan was set in motion. No amount of words could ever say how thankful UP fans, students, and alumni are right now if it was not for them.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Myself, the coaches, the staff, and the players can only attest to that. If only people knew how bad it used to be, compared to all the things they are experiencing now.

Life in UP is hard. That’s how they’ve always put it into words. From high school, to college, and even upon graduation, everyone would agree.

Mahirap makapasok. Mahirap makapasa. Mahirap makalabas.

And for many years their men’s basketball team also experienced the same way inside the four lines of the hardwood floor.

Kung alam lang ng lahat gaano rin kahirap para sa koponan nila sa mga nagdaang taon na iyon.

To put it simply: how can UP – with no big names and recruits  – compete with all the other programs of the league? How do they match up against the brightest future teen stars of the country in the Arwind Santoses, Renren Ritualos, Rabeh Al-Hussainis, Bobby Ray Parks, etc.?

For a little while after those back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1996 and 1997, they tried to. Six and five wins in UAAP Season 64 and 65 for back-to-back 6th place finishes.

Not many remember they almost broke the drought in 2004, in UAAP Season 67. After a dismal 1-6 finish in Round 1, they went on a winning steak in round 2 of that year as they went up the standings to a 6-6 win-loss mark. They needed a win– ironically against De La Salle to force a knockout for a playoff spot. But after a shadily called game, it was the University of the East who got the final ticket to the playoffs.

(Note: Current Nike Philippines Country Marketing Manager Jino Ferrer was played for that team.).

After fifth and sixth place finishes the following two seasons, it reached its lowest point come 2007, UAAP Season 70. Despite getting stellar recruits such as Mark Lopez from the FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws and Mike Gamboa from the Ateneo Blue Eaglets and being headed by coach Joe Lipa, the team went winless to end up with its worst finish in the Final Four era. It would happen again two more times after that year, in UAAP Seasons 73 and 76. From UAAP Season 70 to 78 – nine full seasons – the Fighting Maroons only had a combined 13 wins. They finished in 8th place six times, tied for 7th twice, and 6th once.

I remember vividly because that was the first time I tuned in to the league and its games. I was a fan, and I rooted for Ateneo. I wasn’t sure if it was due to Norman Black. Or Kirk Long. Or Chris Tiu. I was in high school back then, and all I knew I wanted was to go to Ateneo to finish my school years.

But then again, there was this team. Clad in maroon, and green, and white. Representing the premier – or as they say #1 – university in the country. I could not imagine how tough it was. How do you juggle training day in and day out, and still survive in that kind of academic environment?

UP was host in Season 71, with the year being their centennial one. I remember them debuting these new black uniforms with the Oblation right in front. That was sick. I wanted those. I fell in love with it right then and there. It didn’t help they won that day. I think it was against National U. Those were the pre-Henry Sy/SM NU Bulldogs so not many people were impressed.

I guess you could say that was the start.

July 26, 2009. The Battle of Katipunan. That was still held at the old Philsports Arena. I didn’t know who to cheer for. But somehow, someway shots fell for the Diliman squad. I remember Woody Co’s dagger three from the top of the key to seal it away. 68-58 the final for the Maroons wearing those sick ass STATE U black unis. That was Ateneo’s only loss that season.

I was like: Is this a sign? The UPCAT was a week away from that day.

And then there was Mikee Reyes – the rookie – and his breakout game 2 weeks later against La Salle. He unloaded 25 huge points on Franz Pumaren’s Green Archers to deal their Final Four hopes a big blow. They would go on to miss it that year and he would resign as head coach.

(Writer’s Note: That’s still my favorite Mikee Reyes’ game. Even more so than his scorching hot torching of Adamson in Season 77 for that lone win.  And definitely more than that game vs Ateneo where he could have won it with 2 made free throws with no time remaining. Just kidding, you the best bro.)

Fast forward a year later and here we are cheering as a legit freshman. They said at the time that the process was coming to fruition. Michael Jeffrey Silungan would lead UP back to contention. Kung may namesake si Michael Jordan sa team mo gaganahan ka talaga. I remember Jett Manuel’s first game against La Salle. I still remember his high-leaping putback with a foul for his first points in the league.

Sad to say, they went bonkers again that year. Itlog. Zero.  NA NAMAN?!?!? For the 2nd time in four seasons. And I watched them live for around 10 whole games. I’d even spend my allowance on tickets just to see them play. Sayang lang pera ko. Nakakaiyak. Nakakapanghinayang. Para kang tangang gumagastos para sa wala.

Pero then again, what did we expect? They fired the head coach 2 games into the campaign and made the consultant the head tactician with no training camp. And all the other teams ramped up that year, including the first of the Sy-led Bulldogs and the Leo Austria-led Falcons peaking.

Come 2011, it was a fresh start. New coach, new system, new recruits yet again. One of the Ateneo Blue Eaglets’ Big Three in Paolo Romero joined. There was an import in Alinko Mbah. Maybe they can upset some squads. At the end of Round 1, they were 2-5, beating UE and FEU. I still remember inviting my dad to get off work and watch with me during that UE game. It worked. That was my legit first experience of victory as a UP student. It was priceless. Jett Manuel exploded for a then career-high 20 points against a stacked FEU squad who went to the Finals. I remember watching all the way from Upper Box B of Araneta and screaming “Future namin yan! Mythical Five yan!” (Labyu Jett. NSD.)

Photo Credit: SPIN.ph

But they wouldn’t win 1 more game after that. Sakit. Itlog na naman come Round 2.

In Season 75, they said it was time to get out of the doldrums. Fil-am Chris Ball and transferee Raul Soyud solidified the frontcourt. A budding future was promised with the arrival of Ateneo De Cebu standout Henry Asilum. But nearing the end of the 1st round they had no wins and were again up against the UE Red Warriors.

Asilum heeded the call and scored 14 points, including a 9-3 run to finish the game to give them their one and only win of the year.

It would be the same story for Round 2, going winless for 6 games and finishing again with UE. But this time, Chris Javier wanted a different ending and broke UP’s hearts by hitting a game-winning three pointer in the corner of the newly opened MOA Arena.

79-76 Final. 1 win rather than 2.

“Naaalala ko pa rin yun hanggang ngayon. Bakit? Kasi sa harap na harap ko niya tinira. Napakasakit. Literal mga 1 foot away lang siya sakin sa corner.”

What a sour, sour way to end the year.

And then a couple of months later, the team looked for a student manager.

I hesitated. But I went with it anyway.

Shortly after that, I was fortunate enough to be able to join the team. For nothing. No allowances, no payment, no whatsoever. It was just purely for the love of the game and the joy of representing your school. Nothing more. (Thank you after all these years coach Mark.)

I was very fortunate to get to know the guys from the 1st one to the last guy down the bench. What made them tick. Why did they choose this, over any other environment that is far, far better off.

That was where I saw how tough it was. Compared to other schools, they really were struggling. Struggle was not even enough of a word to describe it all.

There are times they don’t even have any food whatsoever. Pre-game or postgame. They relied on their own. Rodic’s was the best we got, whether in practice or a game. But it wasn’t even consistent. Once in a blue moon lang. And you see all the others having dinners at buffets and fancy restaurants.

They didn’t even have their own physical therapist. No full-time, 7 days a week available to treat the players when the need arises. While others have their own clinics and sports facilities, they didn’t even have their own PT to treat them aside from an intern or in-house one at their home in CHK.

Imagine that.

I remember that fateful day in February of 2013. There’s this scrawny kid that was new at practice. I had no idea who he was. He was there, all alone in the bleachers with his own bag. I asked, “Sino yun?”

“Ano ka ba, si Paul Desiderio yun, galling U-16 team ng Pilipinas.”

Deep down I was still like: “Who?!?!?”

Photo Credit: Patrick Gunnacao

So I went up to him. And he flashes that biggest smile on his face he still flashes up to today. Who would have thought there would be a big, BIG difference between that guy sitting there in 2013 to who he is now.

He wasn’t as polished then as he is now. There were times I was his ball-boy at practice. Good Lord all the misses went everywhere.  No stroke, no rhythm whatsoever. Kung saan saan pumunta yung bola napagod ako habulin. Langya.

What I saw though, was his dedication. He had that look in his eyes where he wanted to be at the top, that he wanted to improve, that he wanted to lead this team out of the abyss and back to the top. That was Paul back then.

It’s why I’m not surprised to see what he’s doing right now.

He willed every shot, every jumper, every fadeaway, every lay-in to pull his team back to relevancy. If he didn’t have the skills, he definitely had the heart. And that was what helped him become the Paul ‘Atin ‘To’ Desiderio we know now.

Sad to say, it didn’t go well that year. After 2 close wins in the Filoil Pre-season tournament, we couldn’t win one more game after that. Another coaching change. Another injury. Another winless year. It just seemed like the basketball world wanted to see this team rise.

I told myself I wouldn’t cry after losing that last game – again to the UE Red Warriors. We could have won 2 games – both at their expense. But late game lapses and calls never let it happen. Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Hindi, hindi ka iiyak.’

Pero mahirap pala pigilan.

Tears flowed swiftly as we left that Araneta floor for the last time that season.

I think everyone in that locker room cried. For the 3rd time in 6 years, they were winless.

This was rock bottom.

But in case you forgot, rock bottoms teach people lessons that mountaintops never will.

Fast forward to that bonfire on August 9, 2014. That started something. A run. A race. A call-to-action. To believe. To support. To cheer. For the UP Fighting Maroons. Always. To the very end.

And it just might reach its goal in a couple of days.

UAAP Season 78 was the beginning of the process. UAAP Season 79 was the stepping stone. UAAP Season 80 the coming out party. And UAAP Season 81? We can only hope that it’s the finishing of a masterpiece.

But this wouldn’t all be possible without that one guy.

That guy from Nigeria. Who went here to study and get a better education. Who left another school because he said he wanted to leave a lasting legacy here. Not many foreign players do that.

I still remember my disbelief when I heard news of him transferring in January 2017 to Diliman. I couldn’t help it. I just would not believe it.

“May import na tayo?!?!?!”

But man, all the wait was worth it. This season, you saw how he put in work, how much heart he had in him.

Bad back? No problem he’ll give you an easy 20-20.

He’ll also lead the MVP race.

If you asked my college self if we had any chance of scoring a recruit like him, I wouldn’t believe you. Baka murahin pa kita. LOL.

Funny how a decade goes by.

If you’re from Diliman and are a Fighting Maroons fan, there’s no way you haven’t heard of the legendary Papa Rod. Our iconic, utility guy. He was there when they won it in ‘86. He was there in their last Final Four appearance in ‘97. And he was also there for all those dark years. If not for his health, he’d still be pushing that Gatorade cooler to and from the locker room ‘til this day.

“Ang gusto ko lang lumaban kayo. Laban lang ng laban. Yung panalo dadating din yan,” he said while holding back tears five years ago.

Hindi natin alam, baka yung pinakamalaking panalong inaasam niya ay makakamtan na nila.

That’s why the jokes – all of them – have got to stop.

“Nanalo UP? Himala!”

“Sinong kalaban? Yun kapwa kulelat?”

And the worst of all:

“Bonfire na!” (After a win. Or two, if umabot).

For the love of God, it needs to end. If you saw them play this year, you know it has to.

Wednesday’s game will be the Fighting Maroons’ biggest game since that shady debacle in 2004. How fitting that it’s also against the same team?

It’s also fitting that everyone comes out and support them.

Cut class. Get off work. Set aside the scheduled things. As we’ve come to know, it’s tough to be in a position like this these days.

They’ll need every cheer, every shout, every prayer up in the air in Pasay City, inside the walls of the Mall of Asia Arena.

Para sa mga noon ay nakipaglaban.

Para sa mga nagmamahal ng pamantasan.

Para sa pinakamamahal na Diliman.

Para sa UP nating mahal.

Atin nga ba? Tignan natin.

“I will go with you, and I will give you victory.” – Exodus 33: 14