UAAP: That 'pathetic' bonfire actually lit something under UP

Norman Lee Benjamin Riego on Nov 15, 2018 02:13 PM
That 'pathetic' bonfire actually lit something under UP
Slowly but surely, UP has moved far forward from the days when it celebrated a one-win season

From 2016 to 2018, the University of the Philippines has registered a win-loss record of 19-23.

Not that impressive, by any means, for any team that has long enjoyed a winning tradition.

But in Diliman, the standing, which is not even at .500, is to be celebrated.

After all, from 2007 to 2015, the Fighting Maroons only had 13 wins to show out of 126 games.

Players from that time are candid enough to call those years the “dark days.”

As it turns out, though, Harvey Dent was right all along – indeed, the night is darkest just before the dawn.

ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS

During the so-called “dark days,” without a doubt, wins were hard to come by for UP as in the span of nine seasons, it experienced three winless campaigns and a couple of one-win showings.

The squad’s sorry state could be looked back to as recent as five years ago when they went winless in 2013 and then had to wait until the last game of 2014 to be able to call themselves winners.

On a 27-game losing slide, the Fighting Maroons, 0-13 thus far that year, were taking on 1-12 Adamson University for their final assignment.

At long last, on August 9, 2014, things went the way of the maroon and white and they barged back into the win column with a convincing victory, 77-64, versus the Soaring Falcons.

While that win was a breakthrough, it was by no means, a win that had any bearing in terms of contention and yet, the Diliman community organized a bonfire to celebrate it.

Safe to say, it raised eyebrows, including those of players themselves. “Kaming mga rookies, coming into the bonfire, nagtaka kami na parang, what was it for. Ang strange lang,” Jarrell Lim, then a fresh recruit out of a winning high school program in Xavier, said.

Mikee Reyes, the squad’s star guard then, went further. “Medyo pathetic isipin na one win in one year, bonfire tayo. Coming off 0-27, because of one win against, during that time, a rebuilding Adamson team, medyo pathetic,” he said.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

Fast forward five years later and there was not going to be any celebration of that sort even after UP had just ended its 21-year playoff drought.

“Walang bonfire. We’re gonna enjoy this for the next few days then get back to work (for the Final Four),” head coach Bo Perasol said after he and his wards topped De La Salle University to take the third-seed in Season 81 last Wednesday.

They now head into a Final Four match-up with second-seed and twice-to-beat Adamson a week from now.

Indeed, the Fighting Maroons have come far as they are adamant that they are not yet satisfied with just their first playoff berth since 1997.

Still, the players themselves, especially the seniors, could do nothing but admit that they will never forget this moment. “Sinabi talaga naming mga seniors na dream namin ever since na one day, we’re gonna rise. Now, it has come to a reality,” Lim said.

Gelo Vito – another player who trekked the long, winding road from the “dark days” to the return to relevance – could only agree. “Ito na yun. Pumasok kami five years ago, we talked about na pangarap naming mag-Final Four,” he said.

He then continued, “Right now, we’re living the dream.”

And for Vito, “medyo pathetic” as it was, the origins of UP’s rise will always be the bonfire. “Today, ito yung naging culmination ng five years from bonfire. Iisipin mo, yung bonfire, yun na yung naging start ng change,” he said.

WAKING UP THE SLEEPING GIANT

Ateneo de Manila University celebrates its championships with bonfires.

In neighboring UP, a bonfire was lit to punctuate a one-win season.

Now looking at the big picture, though, it wouldn’t just be the planks and twigs that were lit that fateful night.

That coming together in Diliman’s famed Sunken Garden was actually a coming together for the Fighting Maroons. “That was the first time in a long time na everybody was preparing for that game – the players, the management, the fans. Everybody believed na ito na, may chance kami,” Reyes said, remembering how energized the community was in gearing up for that game.

And when they did pull off the long-awaited, much-wanted win, it served as a reminder that there remains the State U faithful who have tasted all the bitterness there could be and just want a taste of sweet, sweet victory. “Considering na yung laro, sa MOA, then nag-dinner pa and na-traffic pa kami sa EDSA on the way back to UP, nagulat kami sa nakita namin sa bonfire. Sa totoo lang, sinabi na naman before pa na magbo-bonfire, pero sa tingin ko, wala namang pupunta dun,” Reyes said.

He then continued, “But when we got there, the moment the bus arrived, nag-wild yung mga tao. Sa isip ko nun, wow, winning is really big in UP ‘cause it doesn’t come often.”

Indeed, waves upon waves of supporters came to the Sunken Garden to celebrate with their Men’s Basketball Team as if they had just won a championship. “That one win showed na all we needed to do was win kasi iba yung excellence na hinihingi ng UP in all aspects,” Reyes said.

From that point, the UP Fighting Maroons increased their win total year after year.

And from that point, the Diliman community would never leave their side.

SLOWLY BUT SURELY

Since the bonfire, UP has proven, little by little, that there is nowhere to go but up.

A 3-11, seventh-place finish in 2015 became a 5-9, sixth-place finish in 2016 which then became a 6-8, fifth-place finish in 2017.

Now in 2018, they have, at long last, barged back inside the playoff picture – and with an impressive 8-6 standing to boot.

Along with that, the Fighting Maroons have also proven that if you build it, they will come – it, meaning a fighting program and they, meaning an invested community.

And again, it was all because of the bonfire – which, five years later, turned out to be the beacon of where State U needed go. “Baka nga wake-up call yun. Even though it was a one-win season, we won,” Reyes said.

Lim only shared the same sentiment. “Parang ngayon namin nare-realize na maybe it was what we needed to spark the community.”

Indeed, even an outsider – at that point, of course – believed that bonfire to be the turning point for UP’s program. “I believe that is the beginning of NowhereToGoButUp. We all understood then na meron palang community ang UP that just wants to win. It was just a matter of gathering them together,” Coach Bo said, referring to the alumni network that is now backing the team.

TURNING SKEPTICS INTO BELIEVERS

Of course, when UP celebrated with a bonfire, Coach Bo was still calling the shots for Ateneo.

Through and through, though, he always bled maroon and green. “Nasa Ateneo pa siguro ako nun, but I remember having mixed feelings then. Iniisip ko na kawawa naman ang alma mater ko na isang panalo tapos ganun,” he recalled.

He then continued, “But then, I also understood na, with the struggles they had, alam kong mahirap din para makakuha ng panalo para sa kanila.”

As it turns out, it would take an alumnus in Coach Bo to change the fact that “mahirap din para makakuha ng panalo para sa kanila.”

After leaving Ateneo in 2015, the always amiable mentor was signed up by the Fighting Maroons a year later.

And from the moment he arrived in Diliman, he wasted no time in giving back to his alma mater.

His first year was the first time in recent history that State U was still in contention late in the season thanks, of course, to Jett Manuel’s leadership and Paul Desiderio’s emergence.

His second year was more of the same as they remained alive and kicking up until the last game of the elimination round behind the continued development of Desiderio and the arrival of eventual Rookie of the Year Juan Gomez de Liano.

Still, it took until his third year for the UP Fighting Maroons to break through – effectively putting an end to the “dark days.”

LIGHT A BONFIRE FOR THE BONFIRE

If it wasn’t for the bonfire, UP would have had no light to guide it as it made its way out of the deep, deep hole it dug for itself.

“From Team B pa kasi ako so I felt the real struggle – having no jersey, having no service during games, having no food after practices and games,” Vito said. “Ito na lahat yun. Ngayon, buong community, nasa likuran namin. It’s really amazing that we’ve come this far.”

If it wasn’t for the bonfire, UP would have had no signal to direct it to where the promised land is.

“Ito yung five years na pinaghirapan namin,” Vito said. “Nagutom kami para rito. We all know that.”

If it wasn’t for the bonfire, the Fighting Maroons would have had no reminder just how great it feels to win.

And if it wasn’t for the bonfire, the Diliman community would have had no reminder just how great it feels to have your team’s back – whether it be a one-win season or a Final Four campaign.

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.

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