“I do not want you to look down. I want you to be proud!”
In that moment, it was difficult as an athlete to be proud of what had just transpired.
After an inspiring run, the UP Fighting Maroons ended their season by suffering an 81-99 loss against the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Inspirational as it was, from an athlete’s perspective right after the final buzzer, the feeling wasn’t pleasant. If there’s a saying that a win is a win, well, a loss is a loss.
The UP Fighting Maroons lost and it showed in their faces.
For a team coming from a school named UP, the Fighting Maroons couldn’t help but look down. Packed together in a huddle, their head coach, Bo Perasol, had to tell them to put their heads up. He wanted them to be proud.
“We were in the Finals! NO ONE EXPECTED US TO BE HERE!”
Considering everything they had gone through to get to that moment, the Fighting Maroons had every reason to be proud of themselves. No one expected them to even make it to the Finals. Teams like the Adamson Soaring Falcons and even the FEU Tamaraws were expected to be the final challengers of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
Instead, it was them. These cellar dwellers turned inspiration who electrified an entire league with their heart.
“You achieved so much! You sacrificed so much!”
The road to the Finals wasn’t easy for the Fighting Maroons. Getting to the Finals wasn’t even part of their plans in the first place. Making it to the Final Four after a long drought was already an achievement in itself. Yet somehow, they were able to exceed expectations by doing the unthinkable.
It would be criminal to just limit the Fighting Maroons’ run to heart, of course, they played actual good basketball to make it to that stage. At the core of their excellence was their one-two punch of Juan Gomez de Liano and MVP Bright Akhuetie. Juan’s pick-and-roll mastery and elite scoring ability were maximized to the brim by UP’s offense, while Bright’s two-way brilliance earned him the league’s most prestigious regular season honor. Those two superstars were supported by a bevy of role players such as Javi Gomez de Liano, Diego Dario, Janjan Jaboneta, Jarrell Lim, and Gelo Vito. Make no mistake about it, they had decent pieces. They just needed heart to allow their skill on the court to push itself to the limit so they could make the leap from Final Four team to an actual Finals participant.
They sacrificed time with their families so they could practice as a team during that season. They sacrificed settling and celebrating too early in the hopes of making the Finals.
They did sacrifice so much. They also did achieve so much, especially when compared to their preseason expectations. That’s why the UP crowd was there.
“That’s why they’re here!”
Empty arenas can be difficult to play in, especially when you’re losing. That was the life of a UP Fighting Maroon before Coach Bo Perasol joined the program. No one really wanted to watch the team.
How quickly the tides changed.
The growth of UP’s fanbase was rapid. Alumni started to come in droves, especially when a spot in the Final Four started to become reality. But it wasn’t just those with UP diplomas who started to join in the Maroon fun.
Supporters from all across the Philippines (even the world!) started to go to games and understandably so. Aside from their love of the personalities (and looks) of certain individuals, the heart the Fighting Maroons showed the entire season drew them to support this group of underdogs. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story, right? Some are so good you’d even have to write a book about them.
UP’s story was that good. The fans, in their own little way, did their part by attending the games. The results, and the moments created, were unforgettable.
“We will be better!”
After making it to the Finals once, the expectations dramatically increased. The hype continued its rapid rise when the Fighting Maroons rolled out a star-studded roster for Season 82. Imagine including Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero with the Gomez de Liano brothers and Akhuetie. Crazy, right?
It happened, except it didn’t lead to their expected result. The Season 82 Fighting Maroons technically ended the year with a worse standing, failing to make it to the Finals after being eliminated by Renzo Subido and the UST Growling Tigers. Heads were down in that moment and an inspirational speech wouldn’t have been enough to console that group. They knew they let people down with their performance.
Losing Season 82 wasn’t the end of the UP program. As a matter of fact, they had nowhere to go but up after that disappointment. They loaded up on new players and introduced a new leadership structure that changed the game for them. Coach Goldwin Monteverde was made Head Coach while Coach Bo Perasol was named Program Director. Utak at Puso.
It was only fitting that Coach Bo was promoted to that role. He’s always been a master recruiter, but more than that, he was a culture builder. Without him, UP wouldn’t have moved on from their days of being 0-14. He was able to set the tone as early as Season 79. All of his work in enriching Diliman’s basketball program finally paid off when the Fighting Maroons won its first championship in 36 years in Season 84.
Fast forward to December 2022 and the Fighting Maroons find themselves in quite a predicament. After winning Game 1 of the Season 85 Finals, they wound up losing Game 2 against the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 65-55. But they didn’t just lose a basketball game. They also lost Zavier Lucero after he tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee.
“I’m done,” Zav said to his teammates with tears in his eyes. It was a difficult moment for the Fighting Maroons.
Allow this author to venture a guess. If Coach Bo was the one leading the charge at that time, he probably would have said this.
“I do not want you to look down. I want you to be proud!
We are in the Finals. WE ARE STILL IN THIS.
You achieved so much! You sacrificed so much!
That’s why the fans are there!
WE WILL BE BETTER.”
On December 19, Monday, we will find out if The Fighting Maroons will be better. Game 3. Do or die.