What does National University’s UAAP title mean for the school?
More than a week since National University wrote themselves into history and UAAP lore, the celebrations continue to pour in.
NU held a victory party at its campus in Sampaloc, Manila on Thursday, October 23 and they held a victory sale from October 24 to 26 at select SM malls around Manila. Those same malls are likewise hosts to meet and greets with the men’s basketball team that snapped NU’s 60-year UAAP basketball title drought. The school is largely owned by the Sy family of the SM Group of Companies.
Last day of SM Victory Sale. Catch the NU Bulldogs at SM Sta. Mesa, 3:00 pm today. pic.twitter.com/DRtEXOtzmq— National U Forum (@forumNU) October 26, 2014
More parties, appearances, and incentives are also likely to come the Bulldogs’ way.
But is that all there is to winning a historic championship? Parties and celebrations until dawn, media coverage, becoming a recognizable face, granting selfie requests from fans and fellow students?
For a school whose student-athletes practically lived in the cellar of the UAAP standings – whatever the sport – for decades, what does this basketball title, and their 5 other first semester championships, truly mean?
First of all, it’s a start.
“I think for the school it's a breakthrough,” said head coach Eric Altamirano. “Look at NU, it's really a small school. It's really an achievement for the school. We're like a David versus the Goliaths.”
The Bulldogs did look like a David in Season 77, plunging into the cage wars with a depleted line-up. They had no Emmanuel Mbe, no Dennice Villamor, no Robin Rono, no Jeff Javillonar, and the biggest blow – they lost two-time UAAP MVP Ray Parks.
“We were trying to figure out what's gonna happen to this team. We couldn't imagine that we'll be the champions this year,” Altamirano said.
Right after the Bulldogs defeated Far Eastern University in 3 games for the title, it was officially the beginning of something new for the basketball program and the school.
That’s not to say it’s the start of a dynasty, but the more important takeaway is that the title signals the advent of some stability for the NU basketball program.
The last time the Bulldogs won the UAAP hoops crown was 60 years ago in 1954. And it took them 16 years, since the UAAP’s inception in 1938, to get that first championship.
But what makes this title different from the one in 1954? Who’s to say NU will not wait for another 60 years for a follow-up?
The biggest difference is support. This team, this school finally has a financial backer that can sustain the program. (READ: NU championship team is a dream come true for member of 1954 Bulldogs team)
In fact, this resurgence by the Bulldogs in the UAAP is in large part due to the Sy family’s acquisition of majority ownership of the school in 2008. The sports programs were revamped and in a short amount of time, it put the Bulldogs back on the UAAP map.
This first semester alone in Season 77, NU won its first ever women’s basketball crown as well as its third straight in men’s beach volleyball, to go with championships in men’s badminton, girls volleyball and a back-to-back win in the cheerdance competition.
For the school's primary patron and chairman Hans Sy, these titles open the door to bigger things in NU's future – like a UAAP general championship.
“I hope this is just the start for NU,” Altamirano said. “I hope the culture is there and the winning tradition is there.”
No longer pushovers
But perhaps what truly matters, especially for the players – past, present, and moreso the future – is earning respect.
With this title, NU now has the respect of the league. If they were already tabbed as contenders and no longer taken for granted in the years since Altamirano took on the coaching job in 2010, this championship just made all of it official for NU.
“That was our own passage – get through our own walls of Jericho and get to the promised land,” Altamirano said.
The Bulldogs rose from the ashes. They carved a path from ground zero all the way to the top and shed the long-standing image of being pushovers. (READ: For National University, the magic number is 2)
Altamirano recalled how he as a player for the UP Fighting Maroons regarded NU in the late 80s.
“Pag NU (kalaban namin) noon, break namin yun,” admitted the former UAAP MVP who also won the University of the Philippines’ last men’s basketball title in 1986. “Time ng mga bench players yun, sila maglalaro. And you always count it as one win already.” (Every time NU was our opponent, we were on break. It was time for the bench players to see action.)
Year after year, it was always like that for NU. Barely any fans would show up, and for other teams, having the Bulldogs on your schedule was considered a “light” game day.
I’ve personally seen how NU transitioned from being regarded as a “light” opponent to being one of the teams that other squads dread to face if they’re chasing after some wins for the playoffs.
To give you an even clearer picture of how bad it was for NU, nobody wanted to have anything to do with a failed team. Nobody thought it was worth saving – except for Altamirano.
“When I took this job, nobody wanted this job,” he shared. “I was there when we were building the team. It was really a long process. A lot of heartbreaks and heart aches."
Since Altamirano started his program with NU, he made sure the team achieved something with every passing year.
He made an immediate impact on his first year, steering NU to a 5th place finish.
“On our first year, our battle cry was respect. We wanted to earn the respect of the league. We tried to change the culture of the team,” he explained.
“Yung second year namin (For our second year), make them believe that they can win.”
On year two, Altamirano broke through one barrier and took the Bulldogs to its first Final Four appearance since 2001. The following year he brought them there again, as the top seed that time.
“Yung third year namin (For our third year), we can win.”
And although inexperience and immaturity cost them a shot at the title, it set them up for the year that was meant for them.
“Ngayon fourth year ko (Now in my fourth year) it's just an icing on the cake that we were able to win it,” he said.
“Nakita ko yung hirap ng team na 'to, especially yung players na naka-experience nung nangyari last year,” he added, referring to NU’s Final Four meltdown against fourth seed University of Santo Tomas. (I saw the hardships of this team especially the players who experienced what happened last year.)
“I felt bad for them. Everybody was crying. I could still remember the scene inside the dugout. They were really dejected. It either makes or breaks the team. But fortunately for us it made the team tougher and naging hungry sila (they grew hungry).”
Now, the Bulldogs have finally redeemed themselves from years of failure and of falling short. They have earned esteem, and they are no longer nobodys.
No doubt, this title also gives pride to the school and it injected life into its community.
“Dati pag maglalakad ka, NU ka, nahihiya ka at ayaw mo isuot yung t-shirt mo. Ngayon, nakikita ko naglalakad sila, they're very proud of their school.” (Before when you walked around and you’re from NU, you’re ashamed and didn’t like wearing your t-shirt. Now, I see them walking around, they’re very proud of their school.)
In the Season 77 Finals, both NU and FEU broke attendance records twice at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. The fans were electric. That was the first time I've seen a huge Bulldogs crowd, which slowly trickled in and grew in size since the playoff for the last Final Four spot against University of the East. (READ: Racela, Altamirano happy over UAAP Finals crowd turnout)
Altamirano is also happy he took a chance on a team nobody believed in. He took something forgotten, even abandoned, and turned it into gold.
Unquestionably, this title means vindication for the decades long scrutiny and “ridicule” the school’s players had to endure. It means freedom from the years of pent up frustrations, disappointments, and the seemingly never-ending dark ages.
“Para sa kanila 'to,” Altamirano said. “For all the players na nagdaan sa NU na na-ridicule sila, pinagtatawanan sila dati. Yung frustrations nila of not being able to win a game – lahat ng paghihirap na yun, naiisip namin ngayon. Para sa kanila 'to.”
(This is for them. For all the players who were from NU and were ridiculed and laughed at before. Their frustrations of not being able to win a game – all those hardships, we think about it now. This is for them.)
This is for guys like team captain Glenn Khobuntin and Troy Rosario, who experienced both the good and the bad, having been Bulldogs who went through the transition.
“Nagbunga naman yung paghihirapn namin,” said Khobuntin, who played out his final year in Season 77. (Our hardwork paid off.)
It's clear how this Finals between NU and FEU – the first since 1993 that there was no Ateneo or La Salle in the Finals – will change the complexion of the UAAP in the coming years.
But NU emerging as victors does so much more for a team raring to prove its worth and just how competitive it can be.
“I told the team (before Game 3), ‘remember the time we played a D-League team in summer and somehow we were behind the whole game and then we won by a buzzer-beater?’,” Altamirano shared the moment he knew he was on to something with this squad.
“And then I told them after that game that there's something special with this team. I just cannot pinpoint it. And for some reason, they showed it this season.”
Altamirano said the Bulldogs were David this Season 77. But if NU’s 6 first semester titles are any indication, I’d say they’re steadily growing into one huge Goliath. – Rappler.com