The Bad Guy: On the UST Growling Tigers’ struggles as a basketball program

Three years ago, a basketball fan base was forced to splash water on its face every morning, so they could look at the mirror and ask themselves, “Are we the bad guys?” After years of being the underdog, holding bonfires to celebrate singular wins, and writing books about second-place finishes, fans of this basketball team were forced to reflect and ask whether those days of being the Cinderella story were over.

That fan base was the rabid community of the UP Fighting Maroons. Expectations were suddenly heightened for that team during Season 82. Game after game, fans were forced to debate themselves over whether they’d be happy over cardiac wins, or if they could actually demand for more. In short, they had to ask whether they were the bad guy.

For years, two teams have represented the bad guy in the UAAP: the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the De La Salle Green Archers. These two teams have been viewed as the bad guy because they presumably won championships because they paid players to join their basketball teams.  

Kiefer Ravena, Greg Slaughter, Jeron Teng, and Ben Mbala do not go to Katipunan and Taft respectively SOLELY because of school pride and education. One of the reasons those players went to play for their respective universities is because of money. It’s okay to admit that, it’s 2022.  

Well, it isn’t okay for everyone. It wasn’t okay for the fan base of the UP Fighting Maroons three years ago. But after a program re-haul and a series of miraculous shots in arguably one of the greatest UAAP Finals games in history, UP fans have learned to accept that. Carl Tamayo, Zavier Lucero, and Terrence Fortea do not go to Diliman SOLELY because of school pride and education. Money played into the conversation. Again, that’s fine. Basketball players deserve to get the bag.

That makes it three teams who are now viewed as the bad guy in the UAAP; Ateneo, La Salle, and now UP. Three out of the Big Four, maximizing money coming from their donors and various corporate sponsors.

What gives with the fourth member of the Big Four? What’s up with the UST Growling Tigers?

They finished the first round of Season 85 at 1-6, the worst record in the entire league. Their lone win was on opening day, and they’ve lost six straight games since. There are no silver linings here. It’s an extremely grim time to be a fan of the UST Growling Tigers.

Yet, despite the struggles of the Growling Tigers, what triggers extreme emotions in fans hasn’t been its program directors or school administrators.  We’ve got two words for you, CJ Cansino.

The surrounding belief is, Cansino’s expose of the Sorsogon Bubble caused the downfall of the program of UST. To an extent, there’s truth to that. But there was a bigger problem exposed out of that entire issue. To quote a part of my piece two years ago on this issue:

CJ Cansino delivered a pipe bomb. A can of worms was opened. There is a flawed system that has negatively affected our athletes, the ones who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the UAAP. Something must be done. This issue must have your attention now.

This issue was the commercialization of amateur basketball. Before you comment, “See, money bad!”, allow me to be more specific.

This issue was how the commercialization of amateur basketball went against the safety, well-being, and interests of its most valuable commodity, its athletes. The UST basketball program then led by Aldin Ayo put CJ Cansino and its players in danger by holding an unsanctioned basketball bubble at a time when COVID-19 was still at its very peak. Why hold that bubble? To win. Why win? Because money.

It’s a can of worms. A lot of worms. This column won’t be enough to completely give us answers over what is truly right or wrong with the issue of the Sorsogon Bubble.

There are also plenty of emotions involved with the debacle, especially on the end of the fans. The UST community lost its best shot at building a sustainable, championship-level program because of all that. Not only did they lose Cansino, but they also lost Abando, Nonoy, and Chabi Yo, the cornerstones of their program then. You can’t blame Thomasians for having such strong feelings over the incident. Sports do that to you, for better or for worse.

But it can’t just be all about feelings. Reason needs to come into play, and if there is one thing that should be treated as a fair takeaway out of that, it’s this: If you don’t give your players the best care — whether that’s through money, a winning program, perks, and benefits — they will make the move to greener pastures.

If they’re talented enough, they will have options of greener pastures to go to. It happened to CJ Cansino. It happened Kean Baclaan. If they’re not careful, it might happen to Nic Cabanero after Season 85.

To be fair to the Growling Tigers, they were supposed to have a stronger roster than what they currently have, even with the departure of Baclaan. Losing Sherwin Concepcion and Bryan Santos hurt the depth and talent in their roster. A core of Nic Cabanero-Adama Faye-Concepcion-Santos could have caused problems in the league. Not exactly championship-level, but good enough to join the current Final Four carambola that we have.

But at this point, focusing on that what if is throwing the UST program a bone. For an institution so rich with alumni and history (trivia: they’re one of the oldest universities in Asia! That’s supposed to matter!), slotting them as just a competitive team feels insulting to their ceiling as a program. The program and its fan base have long relished being underdogs.

They were the PUSO team of the UAAP for years. But in the modern age, PUSO simply won’t cut it. It doesn’t work for Gilas. It won’t work for the Growling Tigers. They should be a powerhouse, not a mere Final Four contender. The only way they’ll reclaim championship glory is if they learn to be comfortable with being the bad guy.

Splash water on your face, look in the mirror, and tell yourself, “Yup, I’m the bad guy.” It’s okay to be the Salt of the Earth, especially if it means winning diamond rings.

Championship rings.

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