Sunday, September 7, 2008

Spirit of Champions

Let me take a break from my usually profound blog entries, and focus on my current obsession – UAAP basketball. Last Saturday, I watched the Ateneo-La Salle game at the Big Dome with friends. Well, what can I say, the game lived up to all the anticipation and excitement (for Ateneo fans at least, hehe).

As always, the sea of blue and green on opposite sides of the Coliseum cheered fervently for their respective teams. The deafening cheers and capacity crowd showed that more than a mere basketball victory, school pride was at stake here. By half time, the green sea was drained while the blue crowd was overflowing with passionate energy. The Blue Eagles showed why they deserved to be on top (and to be champions) through a dominant, systematic manhandling of the feeble Archers. By the end of the game, I am just so happy to be on the blue side, so proud to be part of the crowd that sings “Win or lose it’s the school we choose!” More than anything, I guess this is what watching a live UAAP game is all about - crowd unity, school spirit, and Atenean pride.

From the way the Eagles played in that game and throughout the entire season, a championship almost seems inevitable. The Eagles’ success this season can be attributed primarily to these six players. Each of them exemplifies the spirit of true champions. Ateneo this is the year! I rank the players from top to bottom according to importance to the team.

Nonoy Baclao – He is the most important player on the team, as he anchors the dreaded Blue Eagle defense. More than his celebrated blocks, it is his ability to alter shots of opponents that makes him such an integral component of the Eagles defense. On offense, he always seems to be at the right place at the right time. Missed a shot? Don’t fret. Trapped by the opponent? No need to fear. Baclao has the ability to redeem a botched play and score when the team needs it the most. He may not be a flashy player, and he just makes his contributions quietly, but take him out of the team and I doubt if the Blue Eagle would even be thinking about Final Four, much less the championship. He is the difference maker that turns the Eagles from good to great.

Chris Tiu – The captain… the heart and soul of the Blue Eagles. Not only is he their leader on the court but off the court as well, giving timely advice to teammates and leading by example. His level-headedness during games and his basketball intelligence inspires his teammates to do their best and play a tough yet clean brand of basketball. An amazing shooter, he has also developed the rare ability of altering his shots in mid-air and making it look easy. His quickness is also underrated, both on offense and defense. His playmaking ability sets the pace for the Blue Eagles offense, and his nifty passes are as beautiful as they are effective. He can be trigger-happy at times, as evidenced by his poor field-goal percentage, but he more than makes up for this by taking the big shots at the most crucial moments.

Rabeh Al-Hussaini – Much has been said about the emergence of Al-Hussaini. Even more might be said after Al-Hussaini wins the MVP award by the end of this season. His transformation from an unmotivated, oversized pushover to an unstoppable beast boggles minds and makes believers out of cynics. Definitely the story of season 71. However, his monstrous contributions hide the fact that he is often soft on defense, and that he still has the tendency to take shots outside his comfort zone. Still, his rise from whipping boy to go-to-guy makes us realize two things: one, the greatness of Norman Black in training big men; and two, how great this big man can still become with one more playing year.

Eric Salamat – His surname definitely fits him, as we could not help but utter words of thanks whenever Salamat steals another ball and fiercely speeds to the hoop for a picture-perfect finish. Salamat is vital to the team because it adds a whole new dimension to the offense of the Eagles: fastbreak points. Moreover, his fearlessness in attacking the hoop and confidence in taking long-range shots prove that there really is substance behind his swagger.

Ryan Buenafe – This superrookie has already lived up to the intense recruitment wars that ensued the moment this NCAA Juniors MVP and triple-double machine became eligible for college. He has excellent basketball IQ that complements his superb upper body strength and wicked crossover moves. Combine this with his above average defensive skills and we have a player who can contribute across several statistical categories on any given game. However, he has a penchant for taking ill-advised shots and his crucial turnovers sometimes negate his contributions. Still, the future is shining bright with Buenafe on the blue side.

Jai Reyes – He is the most consistent shooter for the Eagles, providing firepower whenever the Eagles offense becomes stagnant and adding fuel whenever the Eagles wax hot. Despite his diminutive stature, he is never afraid to take the big shots. A decent playmaker and an exemplary ball handler, Reyes is a living proof that in basketball, size (or the lack of it) could never trump a big heart.

To be continued, and made more profound… soon...

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