MANILA, Philippines – "I came in as an 18-year-old teenager who wanted follow a basketball dream that everyone just wanted to chase."
That was how the Ateneo Blue Eagles captain Vince Tolentino began his speech during Ateneo's Thanksgiving Mass that was held after the team bested the Season 79 champions De La Salle University (DLSU) in game 3 of the dream finals rematch.
"Standing today a champion in front of all of you has taught me so much about myself."
Tolentino took a great leap of faith since the beginning of his basketball career in the Philippines. Born and raised in Canada, he was glad to have his parents' support to allow him to pursue his dreams as there are more opportunities in the country.
Ironically, the graduating captain of the Blue Eagles first tried out for the camp of their archrivals DLSU. During La Salle's week-long tryouts, he met his father's friend who told him to give Ateneo a shot. As if it were destiny, Tolentino had already made a decision to enroll in the Loyola Schools in 2012 after his first day of try outs with the Blue Eagles.
The Fil-Canadian player had to start playing under Coach Yuri Escueta in Team B in compliance with the UAAP residency rule for foreigners. He went on with his residency despite not being promised a slot in Team A.
"I started off playing in Team B for Coach Yuri and I was never promised a spot in Team A. I was never given a scholarship until I got to Team A," recalled Tolentino.
Fortunately for Tolentino, he was called to suit up for Team A in 2013 under new head coach Bo Perasol.
Back then, the Blue Eagles were gunning for a 6-peat championship. But even during the preseason, they were already not considered as contenders because of a young squad in the post- Coach Norman Black era.
The Katipunan-based squad did not only lose Black, their 5-peat head coach. The Season 75 championship also saw the exit of 7-foot center Greg Slaughter, Season 74 Finals MVP Nico Salva, defensive stoppers Oping Sumalinog and Tonino Gonzaga, and second string big man Justin Chua.
As predicted by the Ateneo community and UAAP fans alike, the Blue Eagles plunged into a dark period as they were unable to make the final 4 for the first time since 1999.
The unsuccessful Season 76 campaign of the Blue Eagle team resulted to numerous jabs of criticism that left the squad in embarrassment and heartbreak. But to Tolentino, the season's outcome was more painful for him than for the rest of the Blue Eagles.
The rookie forward spent most of his time on the bench during games and barely registered minutes on the floor under Perasol's system. He came here to the Philippines to play basketball, but his desires were left unfulfilled in his first year of playing in Team A.
"The first few stages of my Ateneo career, I sat on the bench. It was very difficult for me because I was a young teenager who was so far away from home chasing a dream and not being given a chance to go onto the floor to prove himself," said Tolentino.
At one point, Tolentino even thought of going back home to Canada or even transfer to another school who would value him and his basketball skills.
"That was very hard. I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated going back to Canada, even moving schools. But for me, that all seemed like an excuse."
Even in his 3rd playing year with the Blue Eagles, Tolentino got more minutes on the court, but he was still be unsatisifed. But he never gave up and he continued to toil through the finals appreance-less season of Ateneo.
"Finally, my 4th year came along, and in the distance, a beacon of white light came shining down in Ateneo – Coach Tab Baldwin!"
That was how the Blue Eagles co-captain described their championship-caliber head coach who came to Ateneo as a team consultant in 2016. After Baldwin's stint with Gilas Pilipinas, he turned his focus towards the Blue Eagles and even led the young team to an unexpected finals appearance in Season 79.
"This man has taught me more about the game of basketball in the last two years than in my whole life time," said Tolentino of Baldwin.
Being one of the players who went through the title-less seasons of Ateneo, Tolentino adored Baldwin and his ability to develop players not only through a rigorous training routine, but by giving them confidence and creating a brotherhood among the players.
"He has this ability to give you more confidence than you have in yourself. Through this season, Coach Tab will test us and attempt to break us," said the captain.
"In this process, he was creating a brotherhood. Something that I’ve never felt in my previous years in Ateneo. They say when you’re going through struggles with your brothers, you create an unbreakable bond. I think that bond we built was one of the main reasons of our success this season."
Because of Tab Baldwin, Tolentino completed his 5 UAAP playing years with his last two seasons being the most memorable ones for him. He will now be graduating from the team with two finals appearances against DLSU, a championship title and a satisfied UAAP career. (READ: 'BEST GAME EVER': Netizens react to cardiac UAAP Season 80 Finals Game 3)
"For me, personally, Coach Tab gave me what a player wants from their head coach, which is a CHANCE. And I am so thankful," said Tolentino. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.