By Aljo Dolores 

“Diego, call something!”

It was UP’s opening day game against UE. At some point in the first half, Coach Bo asked Diego to call a play for his team. His words resounded across the bleachers of the patron area. However, Diego failed to respond to his coach’s directive, as he walked away from the court without anything to add to his stat sheet, except two missed shots and a turnover.

That moment could have perfectly summarized Diego’s UAAP stint at that point. The frustrations. The disappointments. The unfulfilled promises.

It was only four years ago when Diego, along with Paul Desiderio, were the bright spots of the bottom-dwelling UP Fighting Maroons. After all, their stint with Batang Gilas created a lot of moments that would make anyone think that these two were just a cut above the rest within UP’s roster. They were the future of the team.

Of course, Desiderio established himself in Season 80. The promise. The shot. The battle-cry. He became the face and heart of a revolution that echoed across the corners of the entire UP system. Meanwhile, as Desiderio carved his path towards becoming the undisputed King Maroon, Diego struggled to keep his game together on the hard court.

A promising Season 78 saw Diego score 9.6 points and dish 1.9 assists per game. But as soon as Coach Bo Perasol took over the team, the young guard’s struggles started to surface. “Coach Bo wanted a different type of point guard. Before, I was a scorer lang. Now, I had to set up my team. I had to make sure everyone’s happy,” Diego said.

Not being able to play to your strengths is usually a recipe for disaster for any player, Diego included. It was a long adjustment period for him, one bad game after another. With every failure he experienced, Diego seemed to be pushed farther away into the background.”There were times na I wanted to quit already,” he said. “It was hard, ang daming bad games for me. I wanted to sit out my last year sana.”

True enough, Diego’s on-court contributions weren’t anywhere near valuable compared to what Jun Manzo or Juan Gomez de Liaño could give. His numbers dipped so hard that anyone could argue the team could have just cut him off and given his spot to a developing player, or simply someone who could put up anything on the stat sheet.

But Diego meant more to UP than what his stats could tell. Fans would readily attribute the change that happened in Diliman to the arrival of Coach Bo, the Gomez de Liaño brothers, or to Paul Desiderio. But contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a major coaching acquisition, or blue-chip recruits, or a game-winning shot that started the change in Diliman. Instilling a winning culture to UP was a long, mostly exhaustive process that started five years ago, and Diego had a major role in it.

Together with his batchmates, Diego first stepped on a team plagued with a losing mentality. Players were unwilling to do extra work outside of practice hours. They would prefer parties over rest, even if the season was just right around the corner. “Nagulat na lang kami, bakit ganoon? Yung mga players, darating lang 10 minutes before the practice, tapos aalis na rin agad after,” Diego exclaimed.

What transpired during practices and off-days reflected in the games. The winless seasons. The long losing streaks. The empty seats. Diego knew that this culture won’t bring them any closer to the Final Four, let alone winning games. So he, along with Desiderio, Gelo Vito and Jarrell Lim, vowed that they will change this losing mentality within the team one day at a time. “Kaming mga freshies, we made sure that we’re gonna change the culture until we’re seniors and when we graduate, we made sure that we’ll succeed,” Diego shared.

The extra hours in the gym and the weights room. The effort to accomplish academic requirements on time just so he can get enough rest. Rise. Grind. Sleep. Repeat. It took Diego Dario every ounce of his will to bring the much-needed change in the Fighting Maroons, and it paid dividends. “Sina Jaboneta, Webb, Juan, Javi, when the new guys came in, the culture changed already. We seniors made sure that there’s a positive outlook within the team,” Diego said.

Perhaps, that’s why he kept the fight in him. His quest wasn’t over yet. As a rookie, Diego promised he would end his UAAP career as a successful player with a winning UP squad. As a graduating student, he intended to fulfill the vow he made to himself and his team. Even as doubts lingered, he chose to fight on and play his final season. “My mindset was day to day, I’ll get better. I try do the right things on the court. Off the court, I take shots, go to the weight room. One day at a time,” he said.

Even if Diego didn’t have his shining moment from their opening day game against the Red Warriors, he continued to rise, grind, shine and repeat. His breakout game came over a month later against the same team. He scored 13 points in what was his best game in ages.

It took years, but he finally settled down and found his role on the new UP Fighting Maroons that he helped create. He unleashed a string of good games in the second round. He helped his team just in time for them to reach the Final Four, and eventually the Finals—something that was unfathomable when he first entered the UP CHK gymnasium as a college player.

In the end, Diego succeeded in the UAAP. His numbers may not show it, but his legacy to the UP community will live on for the years to come. “I wanna be remembered as someone who fights, no matter what circumstances there are, 0-14 man or championship. I wanna be remembered as someone who never stops, who continues to work hard,” he said.

He might not be the guy who rallied the whole community with his battle-cry or fired the crowd up with his flashy plays, but Diego will always be the man who started the winning environment in UP. He dared to dream, took action one step at a time, and delivered when it mattered the most.

Perhaps, Diego called something. He called for a way to end his UAAP career on the best way possible.

He called game in a way only he can.