I don’t know for certain if in between poring through the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Viktor Frankl, or getting giddy about film masterpieces such as Cinema Paradiso, Coach Juno Sauler has read Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, wherein Isiah Thomas reveals the secret of basketball to be more than just about basketball.
But every time I’ve seen this La Salle team execute a 40-minute master class in championship-caliber hoops, it sure seems like Coach Sauler keeps that secret– whose foundation lies in everything that weaves a team together through thick and thin to keep it focused and hungry–neatly folded right in his back pocket.
During Saturday’s win over the FEU Tamaraws to force a knockout game for a finals berth, the ball movement that remained quick and purposeful the entire game; the disciplined floor spacing that allowed aggressive post moves, open shooters or clear lanes for off the dribble baskets; the decisive movement off the ball; and the team rebounding and defense anchored on communication and judicious help all may have seemed like a welcome relief to the faint of heart but is nothing really new to a team whose every nuance has been predicated on solidarity from day one.
Being fortunate to have seen up close the inner workings of this team a handful of times, right after big wins or during stretches when the faith of its community seems fragile, there may have been slight changes in expression and body language due to frustration and momentary lapses but the collective movement towards a common purpose has never been deterred.
As much as every single member of this unit loves playing the game, they love playing it with each other. It should be no surprise for a team with a head coach whose very first move was to house them all together. And because there is not an ounce of energy nor a single movement or breath wasted on the frivolous for this La Salle team, the payoff is always just the icing on the cake.
Winning the title the first time was simply proving to the rest of us that this system worked. Long before the temporary struggles of last year’s first round ensued, every single player was on board even before stepping onto the hard court, with even both Jeron Teng and Almond Vosotros later exuding gratitude and heaving praises on a system that seemed nonexistent to most with then a 3-4 record and a string of meltdown games. All ancient history by now, it seems.
But it’s been no different this year, despite all the subpar games that fell way below our lofty expectations and overbearing anticipation for a powerhouse team to dominate and make us all champions once again, only this time in a more comfortable manner. As always, marching to their own unique beat orchestrated by a coach who is equal parts mentor and brother-in-arms, there has never been any need to rise above–or hide underneath–all the hype and noise generated externally.
Because they’ve all never bothered to pretend to be anything they’re not: never athletic demigods thriving on attention, but simply blessed individuals given the rare opportunity to represent a revered institution with a proud community. Nothing more, nothing less.
When we see Jeron Teng’s continuous evolution as a complete player and a relentless offensive machine–along with his development as a leader much more than a celebrity who could have just been content with the warm fuzzy glow of the spotlight to smugly shrug off all criticism–I can see a few of the roots of this maturation in a conversation between him and Coach Sauler held in the MOA arena locker room on the day before last year’s title-clinching game regarding a recently held preseason NBA match. Just two fans of the game on equal footing sharing the love.
Or when we see even increased trust and constant playing minutes given to an obviously struggling and frustrated Arnold Van Opstal–even during crucial stretches of a knockout game-the exact same one given to a previously slumping Vosotros—it’s quite clear that freely giving that trust is its own reward, so much more than the payoff of having last year’s most improved player nearly matching the rebounding output of FEU’s starting frontline.
With head coach and quirky center turning into fanboys talking about the availability of tickets to a much anticipated event featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers shortly after bagging last year’s PCCL title, it’s really the unshakeable bonds created within this team that is the greatest prize, with titles just inevitable bonuses picked up along the way.
Pressure-packed games expectedly bring out one’s true character. While I continue to believe that below the belt hit on Teng or all the Tamaraws suddenly pulling each other away animatedly to prevent any helping hand for any Lasallian momentarily down on the floor were all just products of frustration and incidental loss of composure, the Green Archers seem to thrive on adversity and never use it as an excuse. Always only an opportunity to let their true character shine.
And it’s a type of character founded on all the simple things that lie just beyond the fringes of statistical sheets or equations. Because while we can rightfully churn out numbers for player efficiencies per predetermined number of minutes played, or proportion of free throws taken to number of bizarre fouls committed when the game is clearly out of reach, there are no numbers to fully give justice to the amount of trust easily handed to a player struggling all season; density of joy showered upon this season’s crowd favorite finally getting his first point of his UAAP career; or fierceness of game face such as that of the usually stoic Vosotros, raising his hands towards the Lasallian faithful in attendance after nailing his third three-pointer of the game.
Faith is also one of those ethereal things that is always hard to measure, or stack up against what every other team and community has. All I know is there is something greater than what transpires on the hard court which binds both this team and the zealous community it represents. And it never remains otherworldy or elusive, constantly enacted in the arena and beyond.
From Assistant Coach Allan Caidic giving me a confident, bemused look as if I committed blasphemy by trepidly asking about the team’s mood in a still generally empty arena during one of our fortuitous encounters; or younger Sauler brother (and reportedly better basketball player) Nino assuredly replying as we were filing in that this definitely wouldn’t be the last game of these champions we were about to witness, I can always count on one thing.
With passion forged by many years of past glory and struggle, and faith nurtured and polished off with a dignified quality on 2401 Taft Avenue, our footing remains secure all the same whether in triumph or defeat.
Certifying that on any given game day, when the Green Archers hold court, from the bench to the courtside seats and way up to the vertigo-inducing sections, if you’re clad in Green and White, there will always be more than enough faith and love to go around.