“It’s good to be home.”
Coach Bo Perasol said this in a text message to Rappler last May 2016. He had been hired to coach the UP Fighting Maroons then, the team he played for back then during college. While the use of such a word, “home”, can be considered as mere PR and sugar coating, it still holds plenty of weight.
There are various definitions to the word “home”, but we’ll go with the ideal one for this piece. Home is more than just a place we go to after work to rest. It’s more than just a shield whenever we need safety during storms. More than anything, “home” is a safe space. A space where you can be who you are, and you won’t be judged no matter what may happen. Be you. Grow as you. You have this space to do just that when everything else is failing.
At that time, the reputation of Coach Bo was at its very worst. A big reason for this was the outrage Ateneans had regarding his coaching of the Ateneo Blue Eagles from Season 76-78. There were various words thrown around, but the most telling were, “Hindi marunong mag-coach”, “DIsappointment”, or in his very own words, “Kiefer-centric”. That’s why reactions to his hiring in UP was mixed. Some laughed it off, finding hilarity in UP believing Coach Bo could bring some form of winning culture to the program.
All things considered, you couldn’t blame these people for doubting. The track record wasn’t exactly pristine. But Coach Bo wasn’t just going to UP. He said so himself, he was going “home”. He was going back to his safe space, where he could just be himself. Grow as himself. He finally had this space to do just that, when everything else was failing.
Perasol, for the longest time, has been described as an “offensive coach”. But to dig even deeper in that, he’s been characterized as someone who likes to run his system around one player. With the Powerade Tigers, it was Gary David. With the Ateneo Blue Eagles, it was Kiefer Ravena. With the UP Fighting Maroons, there weren’t any immediate candidates at first, but eventually, it emerged to be Paul Desiderio.
Such a concept of running a “*insert player here*-centric* offense seems counter-intuitive to the trend in the NBA today of building pass-happy systems, but this was how Coach Bo liked to operate his teams. In his defense, such a system creates a clear sense of order to how the offense will flow. Critics, however, remarked how such a framework takes away the team concept in basketball. We were witness to this with how frustrating the Ateneo Blue Eagles were to watch in Season 78 despite their potential. There were fears we would see exactly that once more in his run with UP.
To the credit of the critics, that was initially how it worked out, with UP’s system running around Paul Desiderio aplenty during Coach Bo’s first two years as head coach. During Season 79, they ranked second to the last in terms of assists, while in Season 80, they ranked last. These weren’t encouraging returns to look at if you were a UP fan. However, beneath the Desiderio isolation stepbacks and post-ups, there was something beautiful happening while their struggles were piling up.
The UP crowd was alive. The team in itself was alive. That winning culture they’ve been wanting so bad was slowly creeping into the picture. Coach Bo looked the happiest he has in quite some time, seemingly having complete control over his team. This was indeed home for him, and despite statistics not supporting him initially, he was brewing something up in preparation for Season 81.
Season 80 was quite the turnaround season for UP in a number of ways. Aside from winning the most that they have since Season 67, they were also starting to realize their talent as a basketball team. This is built around two guards, Paul Desiderio and Juan Gomez de Liano. Coming in was Bright Akhuetie, adding even more spice to the Fighting Maroons.
Come Season 81, Coach Bo changed things up with how he ran things. It started with who his “main guy” was going to be. This was no longer Paul’s team, seniority be damned. This was going to be Juan Gomez de Liano’s team, the uber-talented guard out of the UPIS Junior Maroons program.
Even though he was playing as a spark plug rather as an entire engine for the Fighting Maroons during his rookie season, you simply could not deny the talent of Juan GDL. While he showcased elite off-ball play, he was at his best with the ball in his hands. This kid was 6’2”-6’3”, and he had the skill to play point guard with his ball screen mastery. A sophomore leap was possible, and Coach Bo decided to give the kid the keys to UP’s offense.
To Juan’s credit, he hasn’t simply been isolating and isolating every time this season while waiting for a ball screen. During the first game of the season, he showcased how he can use the ball screen as an initial attack, in order to move off of the initial action to get an easy look. Trust in your teammates right?
But Juan has truly broken out by showcasing his mastery as a ball screen guard. An absolute maestro who’s a threat in three ways when using it: pass, pull-up, drive. He’s smart enough to know when to whip out the ball to either the corner or to a rolling big man, but he’s so skilled he can either elect to shoot or to drive. At the core of this action is one word: ATTACK. Coach Bo wanted Juan to attack and create options for his teammates. Attack he has with this action, and with the kind of flair you can only expect out of Juan Swish.
While Juan initiated the offense with his PnR magic, Paul and Bright were helping him out to make things easier for the team. Bright is clearly the roll man in these pick and roll actions, so it’s easy to imagine what his role is when it came to their offense. Thinking of how Desiderio would fit in, however, was a far tougher task.
The multiple isolation plays of Desiderio made us think that’s all he was. Stepback, post-up, pull-up, brick or swish. His primary attack off isolations: the post-up. It seems like such an old concept to use in the modern times, but the reality of it is, it can be something used usefully. You just had to be responsible with it.
To start the season, Paul played off the ball to Juan and didn’t look too comfortable with it at first. He seemed to be hesitating at times. Whenever he’d get good looks at the basket, he’d either put too much effort into his jumper causing it to go overboard, or he’d miss badly whenever he had opportunities at gimmes. In no way was this Juan’s fault. This was just new ground Paul was in after having played as THE guy for the last two years.
Coach Bo mixed things up, putting Juan off the bench and going with Paul and Jun Manzo at the backcourt instead to start. This wasn’t meant as Juan deferring to Paul, or Paul gaining the keys back to the team. This move had multiple effects to it. Number one, it allowed Paul to gain rhythm while operating within this offense Coach Bo had installed into his team. Number two, and probably the most important, this allows Juan to play against the bench players of other teams. A top 5 player in the UAAP, matched up against bench players. That’s probably not going to end well if you’re against the Fighting Maroons.
While Juan continued to showcase mastery while playing the James Harden 6th man role, Paul started to gain his mojo again and then some. He would be used in post-ups during these instances, but no longer did he solely use this to attack. He’s used it to make an offense flow, getting easier opportunities for his teammates.
UP’s offense was a well-oiled machine. It started with a Juan PnR, a rumbling Bright Akhuetie to the rim, and along the wings was a Paul Desiderio who was willing to defer and allow his other teammates to shine. A big three filled with plenty of talent but is more than willing to let the other shine when need be.
It was translating, as UP now ranks FIRST in the league in terms of assists. They’re averaging 19.9 per game, a whopping 4.8 assists more than the next team in the list. That 19.9 was meant as more than just a number. In the process, a culture was being built. A culture of sharing one’s blessings was being created in the process. A culture of playing as a team, going for GREAT shots rather than good shots. A winning culture. The type UP fans have been wanting for so long.
Open three? Good. An open three in the corner with beautiful rhythm created? GREAT. UP’s been doing just that.
With all their work and sacrifice, the UP Fighting Maroons have finally made it to the Final Four after 21 LONG YEARS. The crowd was absolutely ecstatic as the moment came about. Who could blame them? But even more so hyped were the players themselves, and Coach Bo.
Getting here wasn’t easy. The start of this journey was rocky, one filled with plenty of doubt. But Coach Bo said so himself when he came into the fray as UP head coach, “It’s good to be home.” Home. He was going back to his safe space, where he could just be himself. Grow as himself. He finally had this space to do just that, when everything else was failing.
He became himself, he grew, and slowly but surely, things are no longer failing. Things can only go up, for Perasol and the UP Fighting Maroons.