“…Ah talaga? Oo nga ano…I can’t believe it’s been that long.”
Eight p.m., Zobel Gym Four. His older brother was doing Bobby Knight-style walk throughs with the Junior Archers, readying them for another championship clash against Ateneo High School, too amped and involved to notice us. His father merely nodded, then turned to watch practice. So when a mutual friend, Gang Green’s Peepsqueaks introduced us, we just shook hands. Then he jogged off to shoot some baskets on the far side of the gym, knee still heavily braced from a recent pickup game. He didn’t have a clue.
Here’s the thing. It’s a team sport, it’s the system that wins, and no one is bigger than the school. But once in a while, a moment comes that is absolutely central to your feelings about the game. That moment is twinned for all time with a name that quickens the blood and fires the memory of that day one warrior broke a curse with courage, and wreaked magnificent retribution on behalf of the tribe.
For three straight years in the 1990s, the La Salle Green Archers fell to the same team, the UST Growling Tigers at the final hurdle, each time more heartbreaking than the last. In October 1999, they met in the Cuneta Astrodome once more for the championship. Fernando “Dino” Aldeguer III, in his final playing year, had lost his place in Franz Pumaren’s starting five.
Part One: False Dawn
As far as I’m concerned, the story really started two seasons back, in the Final Four game against UST, the reigning four-peat champions. UST was twice to beat in that series but we beat them in the first game. Then in Game 2, the rubber match, do or die for them, UST were up by two in the dying seconds and had possession.
But they didn’t score. We managed to get possession with six seconds to go. I looked at Jong (Uichico, Green Archers head coach) and he signaled me to ask for a high screen. I dribbled down with the ball, used the screen, and saw a free layup. Richard Yee or one of UST’s big guys went to help. When he did, I dropped the ball to Mark Telan. Right on Mark Telan’s shot, the buzzer sounded and game went into overtime. It had been a lost cause but right at the buzzer Mark Telan scored and I think those were his only two points of the second half.
The game went into overtime. I scored the first basket and I think the first six points. But UST came back strong. I remember that during the last play, I had just scored and we were up by two. Melencio brought down the ball for them. Coach’s instruction was not to leave Dale Singson. But my instincts said to leave him, and I managed to steal the ball from Melencio. But although I stole the ball, I wasn’t able to hold it; it was rolling loose. So I ran and dove for the ball and threw it to Cali (Orfrecio) who was right there. Game over, we won by two points and finally dethroned UST. Don Allado was in the middle of the court crying his heart out, Joseph Uichico was running wild, not just because it was a big win but because after all those years, we thought there was no way to remove the stigma. It was just so difficult to take that away.
After we won, we were in the Finals against FEU. FEU won Game 1, I think by four or six points. In Game 2, we faced the exact same scenario, we were down two points, I had the ball in the last ten seconds and I saw Joseph Uichico calling the same play. I used the screen properly; when I drove, I saw Ritualo but he was covered; Robin Mendoza of FEU screened, but just as I passed the ball – boom, charge on me, ref called an offensive foul. FEU took the ball, wasted the clock and that was it. We lost the game, the championship. It was very painful for me.
But I will never forget what happened next. When everyone was blaming me for that loss, (former national team coach) Ron Jacobs went up and told me, “If it were not for you, we wouldn’t be here in the Finals.” He remembered what I’d done during the UST game. He said, “You did your job, you did your job.” He was team consultant at the time and very active during our workouts. That was one thing that really stayed with me. I don’t really cry over games but during that time I was feeling so low and it didn’t help hearing people say why didn’t you pass it, etc. When I went to the dugout, I just didn’t want to talk to anybody. But apparently the first thing Ron Jacobs told the players was “when he gets here, lift Dino up because if it were not for him, we wouldn’t be here.” That was such an inspiring and motivating thing that Ron Jacobs did. It made me tell myself that come next year, come the following year, I was going to be a better person.
To Be Continued