This writer had covered two final UAAP play dates in the men’s basketball regular season pitting the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons—the infamous winless season of 2007 at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium and the 1-13 season in 2014. Both games were played against Adamson University. Both in front of near empty UP galleries comprised of mainly pep squad members and cheerleading class enrolees.
For the graduating Maroons in those games, it was a saddest send-off, winding up their UAAP careers virtually with an audience of one.
Paul Desiderio was part of the dark days of 2014 to 2015 as an up-and-coming star whose talent seemingly having gone to waste for playing for a basket case. But he did not let the mockery get the better of him.
“I used to sit on the bench and watch my season go by winless. Loss after loss,” Desiderio wrote on his Facebook account. “Pero nangangarap parin ako noon na sa last game ko sa UP, mapupuno yung venue ng maroon. Ngayong araw, natupad narin pangarap ko. ”
Even after the final buzzer, Desiderio, while fighting back tears, faced the Iskolar crowd beaming with pride.
“My biggest trophy was not the championship, it was seeing this community as one. It’s not 16 strong anymore, it’s the whole community strong,” he wrote.
Bo started it all
In the postgame interview, the graduating Maroons were unanimous in acknowledging head coach Bo Perasol for changing the basketball culture of the Fighting Maroons.
“Kay Coach Bo nagsimula ang mindset of winning. It was a change in culture since he took over. Siya talaga yan,” said Gelo Vito, erstwhile starting center before Perpetual phenom Bright Akhuetie transferred.
“Kailangang magkaroon ng winning mentality ang team. He pushed us to have this mindset to act as winners,” Vito continued. “Hindi nyo lang alam ang nagagawa ni Coach Bo off the court, during our practices.”
“He is not only a coach on the court, but more off the court. He thought us to be better persons, not just better players,” said Diego Dario, the pint-sized spitfire who gave way to Desiderio’s best friend Jun Manzo as the starting point guard.
True enough, the Maroons’ team captain in the early ‘90s assembled a huddle after the loss worth of a sports flick.
“I do not want you to look down,” Perasol pepped in the huddle. “You need to be proud of yourselves. We were in the finals, nobody expected us to be here. You’ve achieved so much, you’ve sacrificed so much, that’s why they’re here (pointing at the UP crowd). So do not look down. We will be better!”
Perasol then instructed the five graduating Maroons—Desiderio, Vito, Dario, Jarell Lim and JJ Espanola—to face the crowd and have their final wave of goodbye. It was one of those rare moments when the losing side had the louder cheer, obscuring the Ateneo crowd, who are much used to winning basketball championships.
Indeed, even the best film directors could not script the ending of the five players’ careers, even if they failed to win a championship. But they know their role—as spark of a revolution to be waged by a better squad in the very near future.
“As seniors, we started something. For the one’s we’ll leave behind, we want them to achieve higher,” Dario concluded on behalf of the seniors, a post script to their well-played collegiate careers.