Fresh off a fourth straight loss, basketball was still the only thing in Dave Ildefonso’s mind. Once he got a hold of his phone, he already knew what he wanted to look at first. He was already receiving a lot of flak for passing the ball to John Lloyd Clemente during the final seconds of the game and he wanted to find out whether he made the right decision or not.

“Actually tinitingnan ko yung Twitter kasi gusto ko makita yung last play!” remembered Dave. “Gusto ko makita kung free ba talaga ako kasi sinasabihan ako na dapat tumira raw ako.” 

A few minutes later, once Dave put his phone down, he had a smile on his face that he couldn’t wipe off even if he tried. It wasn’t because he found out the pass he made was actually a good one. It was because after seeing that last play, he chanced upon a surprise which took basketball off of his mind.

“Tapos nakita ko yung kay Gretchen Ho.. Kilig!” Even a day after finding out, Dave still couldn’t contain his excitement. It was the kind of surprise Dave was willing to take in.

The UAAP season has been full of surprises for all of the teams, but none of them have had more than what the NU Bulldogs have experienced. They had lost five straight games to plummet to the bottom of the standings, a painful development considering how some pundits had them in the Final Four race coming into the season. A 0-5 record is never easy to look at. It becomes even tougher when you find out how the Bulldogs lost most of these games.

Save for a blowout versus the Ateneo Blue Eagles, all of the games of NU have been a box full of surprises. It started versus the Adamson Soaring Falcons, when a supposed game-winning drive by Dave Ildefonso was quickly countered by a dagger by Falcons foreign student-athlete Lenda Douanga. Then versus the De La Salle Green Archers, Shaun Ildefonso’s moment was taken away by a  Kurt Lojera baseline jumper a few seconds later. The next game, Enzo Joson’s attempt at bouncing back from two costly turnovers was quickly erased after the UST Growling Tigers and Soulemane Chabi Yo forced overtime. The Tigers did not look back as they capitalized on the collapse of NU. Finally, versus UP, it was NU who was on the side of coming back, but they fell short after John Lloyd Clemente bricked a three which could have stopped their losing streak.

The scene after that heartbreak versus UP was anything but surprising. The mood was heavy. Players’ heads were facing down, some of them with towels draped over their heads. The dream of a Final Four stint was looking dimmer and dimmer with each passing game. Most importantly, one of the painful realities of college basketball was starting to creep into the team.

Despite basketball being viewed by many as an art or a medium for humans to showcase who they are as beings, it is also a business. The way teams or organizations determine the level of success of a team are wins. The more wins, the better it is for your business. The less wins, the likelier it is for the business owner to shake things up to try and salvage what you are selling. 

More often than not, what is changed when a basketball team is starting to fail is the head coach. The head coach is the barometer for many (whether correctly or not) of a team’s performance, which is exactly how people have viewed Coach Jamike Jarin’s stint with the NU Bulldogs. He came in last 2016 with expectations from the community he’d turn NU into a title contender. Fast forward to 2019, and the Bulldogs are anything but that.

The pressure was starting to creep in. Demands from fans to replace Jarin were increasing with every loss. Coach Jamike could have snapped and blamed his players right there and then. He could have blamed JLC for faking after the catch or even Dave for passing. 

To point fingers is easy. Some may have even argued it was reasonable. But Coach Jamike has never been about taking the easy way out.

“I don’t do the blame game,” said Jarin. Despite the realities of the job, he also knew what all of this was all about. “These are young men, you just guide them and teach them the right things.” Then came another surprise for the Bulldogs, as they tried to wipe away their tears after their loss against UP.

“When we went inside, di ko ineexpect na si Coach Jamike talaga nagdistribute ng positive energy,” said team captain Shaun. “He was really positive, kept telling us how happy he was sa performance namin.

“After Coach Jamike’s talk, iba na yung vibe. It ended on a positive note naman.”

Literally, the Bulldogs had nowhere to look but up, because looking down would have meant looking at themselves. They were at the bottom of the pit called the UAAP and it was up to them what they would do to move from where they were. 

“At this point in the season, we’re past the point of motivation. Lahat naman kami motivated eh,” said Dave. “We don’t need motivation anymore. We just need to stick together to equate all our performances into wins.

“Wala na kaming time to feel sorry for ourselves.”

Dave was right. The easy route would have been to lament how unlucky they are as a team and to complain. But like their coach, NU wasn’t about taking the easy way out. It would have been disrespectful to themselves to focus too much on their failures rather than to move forward and to keep on working. Like what Coach Jamike always says, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Their season has been a box full of surprises and the least they could do was to continue to embrace the grind.

Even though their record suggested they were a cellar-dweller, their actual performance on the court said otherwise. Let me reiterate: outside of their loss versus Ateneo, all of their games were close losses. How each game transpired was different, as it was either them blowing a lead, or them trying to come back from big deficits. But the fact of the matter was, they were able to put themselves in situations to win. That in itself was a big thing for this program already.

“Before, pag step pa lang ng court, lumamang ng lima (yung kalaban), wala na diba. Parang iniisip namin, ‘It’s going to go downhill from here.’,” said Shaun. But things have changed since then. “No reason to give up pare. Lahat close diba?

“If you compare us to last year, most of our games ata blowouts eh. Ngayon, parang kitang kita naman talaga. I think it’s obvious to everyone na we’re a team to look out for. We’re a different team than last year.”

Their play on the court has translated itself to the relations of the team off of it. There’s a distinct bond between these Bulldogs which couldn’t be seen last season. The energy of the team is different. Even though they keep on losing, it’s evident the group likes to play with each other no matter what the situation may be. True brotherhood. The Selfless Way Coach Jamike has been preaching about.

“These guys, my teammates, they’re motivated enough and skilled enough. We’re all leaders in our own way,” said Dave. “Alam naman namin na kaya namin eh.” The surprises for the Bulldogs have been aplenty but the one thing that’s been consistent with the team has been them sticking together. They don’t do the blame game; they simply work and try to get the job done.

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Eventually, luck would swing towards their side. Another surprise was on its way.

For the second straight game, the Bulldogs were involved in a blowout. This time, however, THEY were the ones blowing out the other team, as they led the FEU Tamaraws 47-24 by the end of the third quarter. You could sense the excitement growing with each passing minute on the side of the NU Bulldogs. You couldn’t blame them. They’d waited so long for this moment.

But once the final buzzer sounded, there were no outrageous celebrations from the team. No tears shed nor players jumping for joy. They simply stood from their benches and shook hands with their competitors. At the end of the day, it was another game. More work had to be done after this win. The Bulldogs have zero complaints about that at all.

Plenty more surprises will probably come NU’s way; it’s been the theme of this entire season for them and the rest of the league. Maybe they face more overtimes. Maybe they start to win through blowouts. Maybe Gretchen Ho suddenly makes a surprise appearance in Dave’s streaming page. At this point, you can’t count anything out.

There are some things you can be sure of. Number one, is that the Bulldogs know the least they can do to get out of the cellar. “The things you can control, dapat dun ka magexert ng effort eh,” said Shaun. Coach Jamike said so himself, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Number two, they know there are things more important than winning for their group. “Basketball is fun for me eh!” said Dave. “Pretty positive guy naman ako eh. Siyempre may buhay naman kami outside of basketball eh.” 

The box full of surprises of the NU Bulldogs aren’t empty yet and they’re fine with that. “We lose together, we win together,” said Coach Jamike Jarin after their win versus FEU. The least they can do now is to work hard and stick as a team, no matter what happens.