WHEN UAAP FIRST TURNED BLUE: Ateneo’s unforgettable back-to-back titles in 1987-1988

September 13, 2017

By Gerry Plaza

They were exciting, thrilling, and awesome to the sterling beats and cheers of the Blue Babble Battalion.

Considered the apex of an eight-year build-up since joining the UAAP, the 1987-88 Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles was a culmination of dreams and aspirations that lit up the Loyola-bred community. Since last winning a collegiate basketball championship in 1976 when the Steve Watson-led and Baby Dalupan-coached Blue Eagles nosed out the San Beda Red Lions in two straight games in the NCAA Finals, the scene was terribly glum along Katipunan. Rarely do we hear the Fabilloh screams nor the blaring drums in the air, except of course when there was reason for it—when Ateneo joined the UAAP in 1979.

But beating the likes of the Tamaraws, Red Warriors or Glowing Goldies in a new turf was terribly hard for the new, scrappy Ateneo team, even if that live eagle was brought in the Rizal Coliseum (or the Araneta during big games) to cheer them up.

Missing link

Until 1987, a year after their Katipunan neighbors UP Fighting Maroons made history in taking its first UAAP title in 47 years. Just like what Benjie Paras did for UP, a lanky upstart from its Blue Eaglets ranks has brought out the Blue Eagle power like no other—the 6’7” center Danny Francisco—providing also that missing link to glory.

Add to that a spark plug named Olsen Racela, who would bring more excitement in the succeeding years. But on center stage during those champion years for the Eagles were its vaunted starters—Gilbert Reyes, Joseph Kenneth Nieto, Eric Reyes, and Nonoy Chuatico now strengthened by Francisco’s presence in the paint.  Off the bench, Jayvee Gayoso, Joseph Canlas and Alex Araneta also provided the spark for its memorable run. Coach Cris Calilan was never surer about the Blue Eagles’ chances that year.

And another school’s misfortune added to its surge—the forfeiture of UST’s four wins in the eliminations due to the ineligibility of a Goldie, Federico Oblina, who was deemed not enrolled after an unreported failure of the National College Entrance Examinations (NCEE).  With the added wins to its slate, Ateneo emerged on top of the eliminations and a twice-to-beat advantage.

1987 Finals

Facing the second-place UE Red Warriors in the Finals, wherein they just needed that victory to claim the title, the Blue Eagles were relentless and hungry. Not even the absence of the heralded Francisco in the Finals game 1 due to a lung ailment and the menacing presence of Jerry Codinera, who was in his last year playing for UE, could stop them.  

Despite facing a 51-38 deficit at halftime, the Eagles never gave up and clawed back with a 22-2 run, behind a hail of threes from Nieto and Chuatico, to even the score at 85-all. The Red Warriors, however, were not rattled. After Gilbert Reyes and Nieto lifted Ateneo further to a 92-86 lead, a series of free throws from UE stalwarts Bernie Villarias, Modesto Hojilla and Conrado Barillo tied the game one last time at 92-all, with just a few seconds left.

Hojilla, however, was called for an intentional foul on a driving Chuatico who earned a trip to the charity lane. He split his charities and gave Ateneo a 93-92 lead. With the Blue Eagles retaining possession due to the intentional foul, Codinera hacked a driving Eric Reyes with three seconds left. Reyes also split his free throws as the Warriors failed to score in the ensuing play, giving the Blue Eagles its first championship in the UAAP, 94-92, and a sea of jubilation among the jampacked Rizal spectators filled with Ateneo students, alumni and followers.

Fabled rivalry

The proud defending champions the next season faced what became a stellar re-commencement of its fabled rivalry with De La Salle University after the Green Archers also rebuilt its team and now boasted a championship-worthy lineup, with superstar guard Dindo Pumaren backed by Teddy Monasterio, Richard Bachmann, Eddie Viaplana, Joey Santamaria, and George Peralta. But what made them a real threat was the entry of talented rookies Zandro “Jun” Limpot, Johnedel Cardel, and Jonas Mariano—all recruits from the Philippine juniors national team.

Both the Eagles and the Archers dominated the Season 51 eliminations, carrying league-leading slates until their first face-off on a hot and humid August night at the end of the first round. It was a rugged, closely fought game animated by cheers and jeers from the opposing galleries. And to prove to the defending champs, they are no longer pushovers, the Green Archers upended the Blue Eagles that night.

Legitimate threat

With its ego bruised and a legitimate threat to their title already seen, Ateneo would revisit its sleek offensive and strengthen its defensive wall to stop the surging Archers. First-time Blue Eagles Coach Matthew “Fritz” Gaston, taking over Calilan’s reigns, would want the team pillar Francisco to step up, as with the rest of his wards to remain focused on their game, sans the pressure brought about by revitalized rivalry.

And Gaston’s efforts was to be proven worthwhile as Ateneo emerged more determined in their road to the finals, not even with a controversial, bench-clearing, fight-marred game against UP that almost stifled it. It was again the fabled rivalry rooted in the NCAA that will have its first confrontation in a UAAP finals game.

It was preceded with their final game in the eliminations, which Ateneo won by a squeaker, 73-72 behind Gilbert Reyes’ heroics, and gave the Blue Eagles a twice-to-beat advantage in the Finals for the second straight year.

1988 Finals

If you were an Atenean at the time, you surely won’t forget that somewhat drizzling October afternoon. Apart from hard-to-find tickets to the game, with some priced at P35,000 from the scalper network, that oven-scorching Rizal Coliseum all turned blue—both on the court up to the stands.

That insane Ateneo-La Salle finals in 1988, however, had the Green Archers leading at halftime of a low-scoring start, 21-11, behind Pumaren’s efforts. But just like the previous year, when the Blue Eagles faced what was considered an insurmountable deficit, Ateneo again made a searing comeback behind Canlas, Francisco, and Nieto, and gave Ateneo a 74-68 lead in the final two minutes.

Here, the Blue Eagles’ stonewall defense and dominating rebounding might behind Francisco proved too much for the Archers as they were held scoreless from the field in those last minutes, except for Pumaren sinking two free throws off a Nieto foul. And in the last four seconds, Santamaria fouled Francisco, who calmly sank the two free throws ahead of a Limpot miss at the buzzer to settle the final score, 74-70, and left the Ateneo crowd in utter jubilation.

These years of the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ back to back championships would prove to be spark for subsequent batches to fly high in the UAAP, with even a jaw-dropping five-peat from 2007-2012, and make the school among the winningest squads in recent UAAP history.