For UP, the bonfire signals an end and a beginning

MANILA, Philippines – In local college basketball, the bonfire normally signifies a huge accomplishment, like the end of a long, arduous and fruitful journey to winning a championship.

The bonfire that lit up the night sky from the Sunken Garden at University of the Philippines-Diliman on Saturday, August 9 was meant for something far from a title, but something just as significant – a win that marked the end of a long, painful drought from a 27-game losing streak in 720 days.

The UP Fighting Maroons saw it fit to celebrate their first win in two years. They blasted the Adamson Soaring Falcons, 77-64, in Saturday's opener and reveled in the loudest cheers they've heard from the Maroon gallery so far this season.

It was a seemingly trivial win that moved the Maroons up to 7th place, second to the last, in the standings. But it wasn't just about the win over Adamson. 

"The celebration, I think, is more of celebrating the end of a losing streak rather than the first win," Maroons team manager Dan Palami told Rappler as the party raged on around him.

The dancing flames represented not only the end of a losing skid, but also the beginning of a new era.

"The significance is more on the fact that the team realizes that it can actually win," Palami said. "From there they have more confidence to go for other wins. Maybe the second win will not be as far between."

For Wes, a 5th year Music student, the lone win brings hope to a team that has long been a doormat and to its community that has long yearned for a turnaround.

"After 27 straight na losses, nakakapang-refresh siya ng excitement, nakakapang-enlighten siya and bigay ng hope sa mga UP students na kaya pala," said Wes. 

"Kaya pala manalo, bumalik yung energy, support and lumakas ulit."

(After 27 straight losses, it refreshes our excitement, it enlightens us and gives hope to UP students that we can do this. We can win, revive our energy, support and rise again.)

Uniting the UP community

Saturday's battle between the last two previously winless teams in the UAAP was witnessed by a decent-sized, boisterous crowd. The match noticeably drew out the UP faithful, who buoyed the Diliman-based squad despite Adamson fighting to steal the win.

For the first time in a long time, the Fighting Maroons' 6th man was in full force.

Katreena Ramos, a 21-year old graduating Computer Engineering student, wasn't at the game when her alma mater halted its losing slide. But she was a witness to UP's last win over UE in Season 75.

She and her high school friend Angelene Baradero, 22 and a graduating Chemical Engineering student, have been fans since freshman year. And their support never wavered, even when they weren't physically at the games.

"Super saya talaga. Kung ano siguro yung nafe-feel ng players, ganoon din ang nafe-feel ng fans," Ramos said. (We're really happy. The fans feel the same joy as the players.) 

Even when times were rough, Ramos and Baradero still followed the games.

"Medyo struggle siya na every game natatalo and every game heartache pero hindi nawawala yung pag-support mo dahil taga-UP ka," Baradero admitted. (It was a bit of a struggle to watch our team lose and every game was a heartache but we never stopped supporting because we're from UP.) 

Ramos quickly chimed in, "Pero para sa amin hindi siya problem. Kung manood kami ng game, kahit alam namin na matatalo, manonood pa rin kami for the support." (But for us, it's not a problem. Even when we know we'll lose, we still watch the game to show support.)

As students gathered at the Sunken Garden, posing for photos, gathering more wood to burn and just enjoying their evening, alumni also arrived in droves to reminisce and celebrate the victory they've long awaited.

"Actually ngayon gabi parang nung nag-champion yung UP eh. So this is like a championship (celebration)," said Renan Dalisay, 46 and a Political Science graduate, who was a student during UP's last title in 1986. (Actually tonight feels like the night UP became champion. So this is like a championship celebration.)

"1986 was really the height of our being fans of the UP Maroons." 

Dalisay was a witness to UP's decades-long dark ages and how they couldn't replicate their success in the 80s. (RELATED: [Last Lap] Recalling UP's glorious basketball past)

He saw first-hand how the feeling of winning abandoned the Maroons over time, and how being cellar-dwellers, punching bags by other teams, and being consistently winless made UP the butt of jokes among fans.

But as he watched his team win again from a bar and rushed to the Diliman campus right after, Dalisay understands this one small step is a huge leap. (RELATED: UP wins, Twitter goes nuts)

"It's very big because every time we talk to the players, we felt that their morale is very down," he shared. "They don't know how it is to feel to win the game. Winning one game is very critical kasi at least now alam na nila kung paano manalo."

(Winning one game is very critical because at least now they know how to win.)

Former Fighting Maroon Mike Silungan, who played his last year in Season 75, was also present together with other former Maroons.

Seeing this triumph come together after being part of the team that last won a game makes him feel accomplished as well. 

"Very happy that they finally got the win. They deserve it because they work hard," he shared.

"I was very happy when I saw they were up 20. I knew they were gonna finish it out."

For Palami, uniting the Iskos and Iskas behind its men's basketball team holds more weight.

"I think for me the bigger win was not on the court but off it, when we're able to unite the whole UP community to come together and be one," he said. "For us that's something that is priceless."

Rebuilding the Maroons

As UP wins, the rebuilding process that started with Palami taking over managing duties last summer, bringing in new coach Rey Madrid and going through a rigorous summer training program is finally taking shape and moving forward.

"I became manager of a team that was on a skid and I was trying to look at the right formula to make sure that we end it," Palami shared. "When it ended, somehow, that's a lot of weight off my shoulders." 

With the first win down, then comes the second.

And what does UP need to do to get another mark on their win column in the next round?

"For a second win they just need to have the mental toughness and work as a team," noted Dalisay. 

"I think we're on the way to a really massive, serious rebuilding of the UP Maroons," he added.

For students Wes, Ramos and Baradero, what the team needs more than anything is consistency and confidence.

They must also keep building on the kind teamwork they displayed on Saturday. 

"Gusto ko lang naman talaga mabalitaan na matalo ng UP yung Ateneo eh. Kasi Ateneo yun eh," Wes exclaimed. "Feel ko hindi na sila masyado naha-hype pag nananalo yung team nila kasi sanay na sila."

(I just want to hear that UP beat Ateneo because they're Ateneo. I think they don't get hyped up anymore because their team is used to winning.)

"May tiwala talaga kami sa kanila, yung fans. Alam namin kaya nila," Ramos added.

(The fans have faith in the team. We know they can do it.) 

According to Dalisay, the alumni and the team are looking at a 3-year process of putting together a new, improved and competitive team.

In 3 years they hope they can already contend for a Final Four slot. Dalisay is among the alumni who rallied together to support the Maroons this season.

"I think this is the start of a resurgence," Dalisay said as fireworks rose to the air from the Sunken Garden.

"They are very talented players individually. Kailangan lang sila mag-jell as a team. Now that nakapagpanalo sila ng one game, every game they would be hungry to win."

(They are very talented players individually. They need to jell as a team. Now that they've won one game, every game they would be hungry to win.) 

Fully acquainted with the typical UP script of crashing and burning in the fourth period, Palami points this out as one of the team's greater weaknesses.

He believes any team is beatable for them in the second round given the proper tools, especially with how UP made life difficult for UST and their other opponents.

Just how ambitious are the Fighting Maroons in the second round? 

"Well, hopefully, if we get 3 more wins we can call it a very successful season already and move on to the next."

The bonfire, meanwhile, is likely the start of a rewarding system. If UP wins some more, they'll also get more celebrations with the community that have yet to be decided.

"These players don't need any more motivation than the fact that they're playing for the University of the Philippines," Palami said. "After having seen the support they are getting from the UP community, I don't think any more pep talk is necessary. They know what could happen with a win."

The flames and embers may have burned out at the UP campus. But after a game day like Saturday's, it still is a reminder of a faint, bright light at the end of the tunnel.

The celebration is over, it's time to look forward and see how far this team can go. But for a rejuvenated UP, the flames will continue to dance from this point forward. –