New year, new mission: How Tab Baldwin is keeping Ateneo grounded

Naveen Ganglani

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New year, new mission: How Tab Baldwin is keeping Ateneo grounded
From a scale of 0 to 10, the 60-year-old tactician rates the Blue Eagles as a 2 heading into UAAP Season 81

MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo Blue Eagles huddled around their 60-year-old mentor in the early hours of a Tuesday evening at the Moro Lorenzo Gym in Katipunan. The rain was strong, cold, and unforgiving all over campus, but inside the action-packed and intense sports center, practice and competition were about to heat up for these UAAP defending champions.

Leading the young men was their accomplished leader, someone who in just two years’ time led a proud basketball program back to a familiar position: on top of UAAP basketball. When Baldwin was hired to coach Ateneo in 2016, there was no doubt the Blue Eagles were going to become consistent championship contenders regardless of the players on the roster. That’s what happens when you have a coach who’s well regarded for establishing systems that equate to winning.

But to do it that fast, and in the nearly-undefeatable manner they portrayed, was a little bit surprising and downright spectacular.

So here was Baldwin again, preaching the importance of the team over the individual as Ateneo held a practice session with a little over a month to go before UAAP Season 81. His basketball coaching odyssey is as adventurous as anyone this side of the world, so it’s safe to assume his knowledge has become a guiding voice for the young basketball players he was prepping for battle.

“In my mind there’s no such thing as defending champions,” he told Rappler. “This is a different team than last year. Last year’s team was champions; these guys are nobodies. It’s our job to prove ourselves over the next four months.”

There has been talk of Ateneo pulling off the impossible and going undefeated en route to winning another UAAP title. There’s no overstating how difficult a feat that is, but it’s also easy to see why many see the Blue Eagles are unbeatable.

In this year’s Filoil tournament, not once did Ateneo lose a game en route to winning the title over the NCAA champion, San Beda, in the finals. Baldwin’s boys played so well that they represented the Philippines in the William Jones Cup in Taiwan, where they finished fourth against bigger and stronger competition from Asia. To say they were impressive wouldn’t do justice to their performance.

While almost everyone else in the UAAP faces questions and concerns as the senior’s basketball tournament approaches, there are times it feels the rest of the league are competing for who comes in second to a Blue Eagles team that went 16-3 last year and arguably got even better.

But Baldwin, who’s been in the profession for 35 years, doesn’t buy into the hoopla.

“We’ve had an excellent off season, in terms of results I think our work has been pretty good but there’s still a lot of holes that need to be filled and that’s what August is all about. I’d like for it to be just fine tuning at this point, but it’s not.”

He added later on, “Where would I rate us from 0 to 10? Two.”

Why’s that?

“We have a long way to go and we haven’t beaten anybody from the UAAP, because it hasn’t started and to think that we can go out and beat anybody is foolish, we have to go out and prove it, we start proving it on the practice field.”

Ask anyone who’s worked with the NBL champion and FIBA gold medalist and they’ll tell you he can get more meticulous than you can ever imagine when it comes to preparation. After all, there’s a reason why most of his teams – many of which have been underdogs – have performed higher than expectations. Now armed with a college team known for developing standout players from a young age and attracting blue-chip recruits, it’s wild to imagine how much the Blue Eagles can accomplish in this new era of their rich history.

But to do so involves looking at even the tiniest of details first.

“Our motivation is not to win the UAAP, it’s not to win the next game. Our motivation is to have a great practice and have a great possession after possession after possession. We don’t get caught up on the big picture, it’s not where we’re going to get better; it’s not where these players are going to reach their potential,” he said.

“We keep everything in the very, very most my minute picture as we can and we stay there. And we believe in the process, we believe the process would yield results so motivation is in the moment. It’s not trying to figure out what we’re going to do in December.”

Baldwin constantly advocates the importance of the process, and he isn’t shy to admit that even he had to undergo a similar pattern when he first arrived at Ateneo. Prior to taking over these Eagles, Baldwin had coached national and professional team who were acclimated to the requirements of being full-time basketball players.

Dealing with college players was different, especially when taking into account their academics and the other variables when boys are in the process of turning to men.

“The first year, I don’t really believe I did a very good job because I think I was still trying to coach them like pros, which I had been coaching for 30 years,” he revealed.

“So after 30 years it took me time to adjust and adapt to the amateur mentality to the young player and to the teaching that we have to do here and I got to give all the credit to the coaching staff and to the players – they’re the ones that really helped me re-learn what I had to do to coach at this level and it’s been a lot of fun, it’s been a lot of hard work.”

There’s a saying in sports that defending a championship is more difficult than winning the first one, which holds even more true in the collegiate level. There’s a reason why there hasn’t been back-to-back UAAP champions since the Blue Eagles’ five-peat run from 2008 to 2012. Random distractions can occur, both within a team and against the obstacles they face on the way back to the mountain top.

So for Baldwin and his staff, the next challenge with their boys is to keep their eyes on the immediate goal ahead, which is trusting in the process, not getting caught up with what they’ve accomplished over the past year, and focusing their energy on what they can control.

“Everybody around us, including the media, including yourselves, including the fans, they look at what is, and what was because they don’t know what’s going to be. Our life is about what’s going to be,” said Baldwin.

“So it’s very easy for our players to get caught up in the focus of the fans, and the focus of the media, which are things like the Filoil and the Jones Cup and performances that they can hold in their hand, they can look at that. Our alumni, same thing. For us, it’s irrelevant. So we’re trying to get through to our players that there is no past. We’re not defending champions, what we did at Jones Cup is irrelevant. Its simply a tool to help us prepare for the UAAP.”

Not even preparing for every single detail can guarantee the outcome of a specific future.

But with how Baldwin is shaping this year’s Blue Eagles, rest assured Ateneo has all it needs. –

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