Ten-Year Throwback for the UP Fighting Maroons
Paolo Mariano on Sep 10, 2015 12:28 PM
"I told the players to stay humble. What we’ve been doing, we have to take it up a notch. Tuloy lang, wala pa kaming napapatunayan (We have to carry on, we haven’t proven anything yet)." -- UP coach Rensey Bajar.
In 2005, University of the Philippines (UP) head coach Rensy Bajar was toiling in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) as a backup of Mike Cortez on the Alaska Aces. A star point guard for the San Beda Red Lions, his career didn’t actually pan out in the big league. He lasted six years in the PBA but never really found much success.
During that same year, UP team manager Dan Palami was working as country manager for a Belgium company based in Manila. He was also busy playing pick-up football games at the UP Sunken Garden every Saturday.
At that time, being part of the Fighting Maroons never crossed their minds. They probably weren’t even paying attention to the team, especially with its string of miserable seasons.
Fast forward to today, they are integral parts of the early resurgence of the Diliman-based squad in Season 78 of the UAAP. After upsetting De La Salle University on Wednesday, UP—yes, UP!—has now started its campaign with a 2-0 record for the first time since, you guessed it, in 2005.
That year, the Fighting Maroons defeated University of Santo Tomas (UST) in its opening game and incidentally, La Salle in its second assignment. In fact, they stretched it to three straight victories after walloping NU. The team was then led by Axel Doruelo, "Marvelous" Marvin Cruz, Jireh Ibañes and Nestor "Nestorminator" David. It was coached by Lito Vergara.
Most of the current Fighting Maroons, however, have no idea that it has been a decade since they started the season with two straight wins.
"Really? I wasn’t aware," said Bajar.
"Wow! It’s surprising that it has been 10 years since it happened," said Palami, who had to pause for a few seconds before mustering a reaction.
The always articulate JR Gallarza was quite the linguist.
"Holy sh*t!" exclaimed the senior forward. "Ten years?"
Ten years ago
How much time has passed? In 2005, Arwind Santos was still playing for Far Eastern University, 50 Cent still had a best-selling album, Judy Ann Santos and Piolo Pascual were still a love team, and Twitter wasn’t even invented yet.
As for Gallarza, he was still trying to finish high school in Canada in 2005. Two years later, he got acquainted with the Fighting Maroons for the first time when his Filipino-Canadian team toured the Philippines and played against several collegiate teams. One of his teammates was UST’s Jan Sheriff.
Jett Manuel was still in high school too in 2005—as a freshman. He was part of the varsity team of Xavier, where he played alongside Jeron Teng. But unlike Gallarza, he wasn’t too shocked that it took a decade for UP to have another 2-0 start.
"I know about UP’s past. I’m not that surprised anymore," said Manuel with a chuckle.
The do-it-all guard led the Fighting Maroons in their win over the Green Archers with 14 points, including several key baskets, plus five rebounds and five assists.
While Gallarza and Manuel were looking to survive high school in 2005, Diego Dario and Paul Desiderio haven’t even graduated from elementary.
"I was only eight years old back then. ‘Di ko nga alam nun na may UP pala sa UAAP (I didn’t even know back then that UP had a team in the UAAP," said Dario, who studied grade school at Community of Lourdes in San Juan.
Desiderio, meanwhile, was a regular student at Liloan Central Elementary School in Cebu. He wasn’t playing competitive basketball then.
"Sa mga half court lang ako naglalaro nun tsaka minsan, sumasali sa mga basketball clinic (I was only playing in pick-up games and basketball clinics)," said the vastly improved wingman, who tallied 13 points, five rebounds, and three assists against La Salle.
Now, Dario and Desiderio, who were also teammates on Batang Gilas that played in the FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Dubai last year, are part of UP’s youth movement along with Gelo Vito, Andrew Harris, and Pio Longa. They are a huge factor to the team’s fantastic start.
"You can really feel in our young players that they want to win," said veteran guard Henry Asilum, who was also still in elementary school in Davao in 2005.
Change in culture
All the players credit Bajar for instilling a never-say-die, no-superstar culture to the team.
You can feel the positive change in the Fighting Maroons’ body language. They’re pumped up and raring to compete every game. Unlike previous years, there’s not a tinge of resignation in their visage. They share the ball and communicate constantly. Most importantly, they look like they genuinely enjoy playing with each other.
"Our chemistry is amazing. No one cares who scores the most, or who gets the limelight. Our whole team is selfless," said Dario.
"Laging sinasabi ni coach sa amin na palag lang nang palag (Coach always tells us to just keep on fighting)," said Desiderio.
"It’s all about our attitude. We’re playing as a team. It’s a new program. We’re trying to learn how to win and that’s what we’ve been doing," said Manuel.
Of course, there’s also the immeasurable support from Palami, who took over the managerial chores last year. He graduated at UP with a degree in accountancy in 1991.
"Like I tell everybody, it all starts with Sir Dan (Palami). He brought in Coach Rensy and Coach Joe (Ward). He brought in the puzzle pieces. Then the coaches fit the pieces together," said Gallarza.
"In the off-season I told them that I don’t want to see them in the dugout looking at each other and asking ‘What did we do wrong?’" said Palami.
But then again, two wins doesn’t win a championship. Despite their strong start, the Fighting Maroons must temper their expectations. Besides, with the way they’re playing, the rest of the teams will surely keep a keener eye and adjust.
In 2005, after a 3-0 start, UP stumbled to a 6-8 slate. It wasn’t good enough to advance to the Final Four. The team ended up in fifth place—it’s best finish in the last 10 years as well.
"I’m not going to take anything away from the win. We’ll enjoy it because we deserve it. But the season is still long. We have to keep our feet on the ground," added Manuel.
"We’re excited. We’re going to soak in the moment. It would be stupid not to, right? A win is a win, especially for UP. But after this, tomorrow’s a new day. We need to focus on the next task," said Gallarza.
Well, right now, the task the UP mentors are facing is to keep everyone’s ego in check.
"As far as emotional barometer goes, this is a big boost," said Palami. "But we have to be cautious na hindi lumaki ang ulo (we don’t allow it to go into our heads). We still have to prove we can beat the other teams."
"I told the players to stay humble. What we’ve been doing, we have to take it up a notch. Tuloy lang, wala pa kaming napapatunayan (We have to carry on, we haven’t proven anything yet)," said Bajar.
Fortunately for State U, the rookie coach knows a thing or two about Cinderella teams. Last year, he led erstwhile unknown Diliman College—a small school in Commonwealth with only about 600 college students—to a berth in the Philippine Collegiate Championship League.
Success in the UP camp is as frequent as a meteor shower. This year’s players, however, are sick and tired of being the butt of jokes and easy targets for Internet memes. They don’t want to be dismissed as nobodies. They don’t want to celebrate like champions after just a solitary win.
After its strong showing in 2005, the Fighting Maroons spiraled to the lowest rungs of the UAAP. Most teams belittled them like the last guy selected in a pick-up game. But now, with their best start in a decade, the entire league is taking notice.
"No one expected us to have a 2-0 start. Pero hindi na ko nagugulat sa mga bata (But I’m not surprised with my players anymore). I believe in these guys. I see them every day in practice, their hard work, their sacrifice. We’re very motivated," said Bajar.
A few minutes after their win over La Salle, Manuel, already in casual clothes, was approached by a group of reporters and campus journalists.
When he was done accommodating them, a lady waiting outside the UP dugout said to him: "Dami interviews ah (So many interviews)."
Manuel replied: "Oo nga po e, dati dinadaan-daanan lang kami (True, before they just walked past us)."