For the ages: How LA Tenorio, Ateneo ended La Salle’s dynasty
MANILA, Philippines – “Sakit, pare.”
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably said the same words.
The themes that arrive with sports – from the trials, to the victories, and especially the defeats – parallel the unique journeys we have in life.
Losing the chance to lift a trophy isn’t as terrifying as being jobless, or losing someone close to heart.
But losing what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has its own heartbreak.
Especially when triumph was a fingertip away.
For casual sports fans, “Sakit, pare (It hurts, man)” might mean sleepless nights. For diehards, it’s unforgettable memories. For the young men playing the game, the wound runs deeper.
“Alam mo yung feeling pag bata ka at kinuhaan ka ng candy ng kaibigan mo? Yung sobrang gustong-gusto mo yung candy, tapos kinuha sa ‘yo?” explained Lewis Alfred ‘LA’ Tenorio.
(You know the feeling when you’re a kid and someone took your candy? You wanted that candy so much but it was taken away from you?)
The rivalry runs deep
The Ateneo of today is the standard of Philippine college basketball. In the last 12 years alone, the Blue Eagles won 8 championships – including each of the last 3 dating back to 2017.
Now led by disciplined tactician Tab Baldwin, they play straight out of a coach’s handbook.
But more than two decades ago, the Ateneo seniors’ basketball program starved for success.
When the school hired new head coach Joe Lipa – he led UP to a title in 1986 – the Blue Eagles were coming off a 1998 campaign which had them tied for the UAAP’s second-worst record (5-9).
The Eagles returned to the Final Four in 1999 and 2000 (twice-to-beat) led by new recruits, including the graduates of Ateneo’s successful high school varsity, but were eliminated by UST and FEU, respectively.
Lipa’s job was on the line after his second season, but management retained him in honor of their initial three-year developmental plan. The pressure to win a title increased, if it wasn’t the expectation.
Accomplishing that meant halting the quest for a fourth straight title by that era’s powerhouse, the La Salle Green Archers, a bitter rival of the Ateneo.
As many former and current Archers and Eagles love to say, you throw everything out of the window when it comes to Ateneo vs La Salle.
“We felt that year that we could get the championship already,” recalled Tenorio, a freshman in 2001.
“Yun yung time noong feeling namin makukuha na namin kasi hindi kami underdogs... Feeling ng lahat talaga, ‘This time, we can beat La Salle!’”
(That was the time when we felt that we can get the title because we’re no longer underdogs. Everyone felt, ‘This time, we can beat La Salle!’)
But did Ateneo really believe it?
Tenorio was a hotshot out of San Beda’s famous high school program, running a team with reigning UAAP MVP Rich Alvarez, Enrico Villanueva, Larry Fonacier, Magnum Membrere and Rainier Sison. They had trust in Lipa.
La Salle (12-2) and Ateneo (10-4) finished the elimination round as the top two teams, but it was the defending champion which prevailed by a combined 28 points both times they squared off.
Was Tenorio wrong?
Was Ateneo not ready to beat La Salle after all?
Alvarez won MVP again, but Tenorio lost Rookie of the Year to La Salle’s freshman standout Mac Cardona.
Ateneo gained payback on FEU in the Final Four, to set up the first Eagles-Archers finals showdown since 1988.
Tenorio will never forget the aftermath of what turned out to be a dramatic three-game battle.
“Sobrang tahimik ng locker room (It was so quiet in the locker room)… a lot of news came in that we were going to change coach Joe Lipa.
“It was really painful.”
It starts from the top
As Lipa and his Eagles squandered a golden chance to end the reign of Franz Pumaren, Joel Banal departed early from the deciding Game 3 at Araneta Coliseum to attend a prior commitment.
But before he left his seat, he had a thought. Or maybe it was a premonition.
“If Ateneo loses,” he was quoted saying in a Philippine Star report from 2002, “I’m going to be the next coach.”
Lipa was on the last year of his contract and a return looked unlikely. His loss would come painfully to the Blue Eagles, who had a bond with their coach special enough that they wore jersey patches saying “I love Joe” during the finals.
“It was our support for coach Joe,” admitted Tenorio, who recalled how many wanted Lipa out in 2001.
Banal reportedly saw himself as a good candidate for 3 reasons: because he was available, because he had a good image, and because he felt he could get the job done.
“The job” was to figure out how to dethrone the kings in green, led by a leader whose intensity his squad took after.
So when Banal made the final 3 of Ateneo’s coaching search, his case to the selection committee was short but compelling.
“They asked me why I wanted to be the Ateneo coach," he recalled in the report. "I told them somebody had to stop Franz (Pumaren) and La Salle."
His resume – championships with Mapua in the NCAA and with Alaska as an assistant to the legendary Tim Cone in the PBA – spoke for itself.
That same day, his prognostication came to light.
“We realized coach Joel really did a good job of instilling in our minds and believing that we can beat La Salle,” said Tenorio.
To get there would be no walk in the park.
Better late than never
Banal knew Pumaren’s Archers had faith in him, while he needed to earn the respect of his team.
That gave La Salle an early advantage in the anticipated rematch of Dynasty vs Destiny.
Banal made two preseason decisions to get going:
He sought nerve-racking situations by letting Ateneo join the Philippine Basketball League (think of it as yesteryears’ PBA D-League), where they impressively prevailed as champions, led by the MVP performance of Villanueva, by then a senior.
The new head coach also successfully recruited the comeback of Wesley Gonzales and Sonny Tadeo, two physical players who would play key roles.
Motivation from a finals defeat occasionally catapults runners-up to strong starts the following campaign, but that was something the Blue Eagles couldn’t rely on.
“Sa sobrang gigil – alam mo sa sobrang eager mo to get to that level right away? – parang nagkaraoon kami ng struggle,” Tenorio remembered.
(We were too tight – you know when you’re too eager to get that level right away? – so we kind of struggled.)
“We didn’t take it slowly, like ‘step-by-step, we’ll go through this.’”
They were in danger of missing the Final Four halfway through the elimination round.
“Minadali namin: ‘Kaya natin, ginawa natin last year eh.’”
(We were in rush: ‘We can do this, we did it last year.)
The early confusion resulted in a discouraging stretch where Ateneo won only once in 6 games, as it took plenty of tinkering plus some trial and error for Banal’s new system to produce favorable results during competition.
The losing was also compounded by reported unease behind the scenes, as players were unhappy with their roles and time on the court.
“The next year, 2002, we even ended up as underdogs,” Tenorio said in retrospect.
Tenorio has stood out as an “Ironman” in his pro career because of his durability, but he suffered a major injury – a hand fracture – during a practice that season.
It required more than a month to fully heal. Yet in his absence, the Blue Eagles started to click, and somehow made a push for the second spot in the standings, which ultimately went to James Yap, Paul Artadi, and the University of the East.
That was fine, because Ateneo would enter the Final Four on a higher note anyway.
La Salle was one win away from a 14-0 sweep of the elimination round, and in reward, a direct ticket to the finals.
Even without Ren-Ren Ritualo, the Archers remained formidable thanks to Mike Cortez, a college Fil-Am as good as a pro, and Mac Cardona, the recruit from Carson, California who scored like a vet. DLSU also had its big man by committee, a deep bench, and Pumaren.
The defending champions looked invincible.
The only thing standing in their way from validating that was Ateneo, who at that point had lost 9 out of 12 to Pumaren.
A sweep didn’t mean the Archers would automatically become champions, but from a morale standpoint, beating them in the finals would be more difficult had they gone undamaged.
That wouldn’t be the case.
“We were really motivated because we beat La Salle,” said Tenorio. “Pinigilan namin yung sweep (We prevented a sweep).”
They didn’t just beat them; Ateneo dominated La Salle, giving the Archers their first taste of adversity.
But more importantly, that’s when the Blue Eagles started to understand what Banal preached.
It was only in Game 2 of the 2001 Finals that Ateneo won against DLSU that year. The victory set up a winner-take-all, but by then, La Salle had defeated Ateneo thrice in 4 goings, gaining the upper hand in confidence.
The Eagles, despite lacking do-or-die experience, built an 11-point lead until a vintage Ritualo explosion put La Salle back in the driver’s seat.
Spearheaded by Tenorio’s now-classic 30-point bonanza, Ateneo countered to go up a few scores with minutes to go.
The dynasty hung in the balance, but was saved by scores from Carlo Sharma and Willie Wilson, who out-muscled Villanueva and Alvarez in the trenches.
With the title on the line and the crowd noise roaring, Villanueva missed makeable shots, opening the door for the La Salle community to celebrate again, but not before Cortez put the icing on the cake.
“Maybe it was because of the lack of experience in the championship,” explained Tenorio, who was clueless to how many points he was recording as it happened.
“After that, I went to Ateneo. We had a mass after the game. Everyone was cheering me on. I was like, ‘What’s happening? I don’t know what’s happening!’”
But the Blue Eagles sulked. They felt they let a title they could have won slip away, so they distracted themselves by playing Counterstrike (think the OG version of Call of Duty) until 9 am.
“That was so painful,” Villanueva would admit in a future essay. “We were like idiots, walking around Katipunan, crying, so depressed. And we had to keep seeing the La Salle team on TV.”
A year later, Ateneo changed the script. Denying the sweep accomplished Banal’s original plan: that the Blue Eagles should feel in equal footing with the Green Archers, if not superior to them.
“Now, I think [that was the] difference – our confidence level, knowing that we beat La Salle for the sweep. We had that confidence level that we can beat this team,” said Tenorio.
It was up to them to prove it, but before doing so, another foe stood in their way.
Tenorio returned from injury quicker than anticipated and was effective as Ateneo beat UE to force a rubber match in the Final Four.
With Yap, Artadi, and Ronald Tubid playing admirably, the Red Warriors were poised to win the clincher, until Artadi’s costly turnover awarded the Eagles another chance to win.
Gec Chia, a present-day folk hero, rose up for a jumpshot after a Tenorio pass and scored as time expired to complete the 3-over-2 upset.
After a turbulent start, fate was flying the Eagles’ way.
Bring on the rematch.
Moment of truth
Game 1 went down to the wire. With less than 10 seconds to go, Villaueva was fouled and made one of two free throws. Ateneo protected a two-point lead.
Cardona received the ball on the inbound. Fonacier impeded his path.
Mac-Mac maneuvered right, and threw up his patented floater.
Fonacier blocked it.
Cardona got the ball back, then attempted a miracle.
Fonacier blocked it again.
The Ateneo crowd went wild.
This time, La Salle would have to play catch-up.
Cortez took over Game 2. La Salle was up big early, although the Eagles fought back, their rally coming up short.
The series was tied, but the defending champions no longer had the same mental advantage.
And in Game 3, Ateneo was in control from the opening tip. The Archers attempted to rally, but each time they did, the Eagles were ready with an answer.
And not just from Villanueva or Tenorio, but from the entire team – including Tadeo and Epok Quimpo, who now manages the team.
On the other end, Cortez had a nightmare of a game, hounded by the Eagles’ pressure.
They ended the dynasty, fulfilling their destiny.
“Para sa amin talaga, (It was meant for us),” Tenorio described it.
They became the first Ateneo team to win a title since 1988. Olsen Racela, the man Tenorio would pattern his career after, was on that team.
“I remember the last two minutes,” Villanueva would write. He was named Finals MVP in addition to league MVP in his collegiate swan song.
“I saw the dream becoming a reality. I felt it, but I couldn’t believe it.”
Ateneo and La Salle battled again the next year in the Final Four. Unsurprisingly, it was a series not lacking in the dramatics.
The Eagles prevailed, but then lost their title to the up-and-coming Far Eastern University, which like the champions before them also suffered through losing seasons before tasting glory.
The Tamaraws were coached by Koy Banal, Joel’s brother.
Joel left for the PBA and was replaced by Sandy Arespacochaga. Tenorio made the Mythical Team in 2004 but his Eagles were eliminated by Cardona’s Archers in the Final Four.
“A lot of coaches were telling me and a lot of my teammates were telling me, ‘You can play in the PBA, why not?’” recalled Tenorio.
Norman Black, who later that decade would lead Ateneo to 5 straight championships (2008-2012), arrived in 2005 convinced Tenorio to come back. Reportedly, it was what the coach prayed for during Holy Week.
“I was 50-50 to play in my last year in the UAAP because I was practicing already with a PBA team, San Miguel,” said Tenorio.
Tenorio made the Mythical Team again, and led Ateneo back to the Final Four, where they were eliminated by La Salle.
“Wala akong regrets kahit hindi kami nag champion (I had no regrets even if we didn’t become champions),” he said, that confidence from his youthful days still alive.
“It made me become a better player and more so as a person – my values, I developed my values as a player and as a person – and my physical and my mental toughness also.”
Tenorio ended his UAAP career making the Final Four every season and the finals thrice.
Plus, a triumph for the ages. – Rappler.com