Most players were seated on the floor, some squatting, some half lying, shoulders hunched in defeat. Jason Ballesteros somehow fit his 6’7 frame inside an open locker. Another player had his face covered with a towel. All the rest looked glum and frustrated, eyes turned downwards on the floor
The silence went on. Three minutes, four, five. Coach George Gallent was making the Stags feel the impact of their having lost to the Mapua Cardinals the last slot in the Final Four of the NCAA senior men’s basketball hoops tourney.
Before the 2 p.m. game, Fr. President and I entered the dugout just as our players were preparing to come out to the arena. Already the Cardinals were warming up. I had just enough time to pat some Stags on the shoulder and urge them to play their best. But I noticed that they were all serious looking. Like sheep going to the slaughter? I remember reading that my favorite NBA player, Lebron James – who is surely in everyone’s short list of best hoopsters in the world – is also the greatest clown at the dugout, making everyone feel at ease. To give your best, you need to be relaxed and confident.
Our players had that look of gladiators coming to combat, rather than people who were going to a game. Perhaps, I mused, NCAA basketball is getting to be more than just a game.
There were other omens, aside from their “morituri te salutant” 1 looks. The windshield of athletic moderator Frank Gusi’s car was shattered in the heat just that afternoon, which was, reminded his Mapua counterpart, not a good omen, as old people would swear. Then, only a few students and administrators had joined the Baste cheerers, disappointed with the Stags’ defeat in the previous game and not very hopeful of the outcome of this one.
I’ve never been adept at analyzing a basketball game, though I do try mightily, by reading and listening to others who speak with confidence, and, it seems, sense. I even try to learn from pretty Carla Rivera’s (of Studio 23) comments about our games, but the background noise, or her way of speaking, or my limited comprehension skills, prevented me from getting much.
But here is how I lived that win-or-go home game last Wednesday, September 17.
During a good part of the first half we railed and ranted against the referees. An irate alumnus a few seats to my right even went so far as to shout to them: “If you don’t want us to win, just say so, and get it done with!”, making constant references to non-calls at the last game with JRU, and another attempted to go over to the referees’ table until a burly official shooed him away.
I saw that our set plays were not coming out, our cagers did not seem to know what to do.
But the half ended with us ahead a point, which Coach G at the halftime huddle said was due to our defense. Defense is the key, he insisted. Confidence in oneself is another. “Believe!” his voice rang as the players filed out for the final half.
But the third quarter was dismal. Offensively, the Stags produced just two points in the whole period, a tournament low. Defensively, well, they allowed rookie Mangahas and reigning MVP de la Peña to combine for 15 points in a 24-2 run that had Mapua leading by 21 heading into the fourth quarter.
I was ready to throw the towel. All around me comments were rife: the Stags refuse to win. They have the skills, the height, the talent, the hottest coach in the Philippine Basketball League but they don’t have the heart. The Guidance Department had held special sessions for them on teambuilding and confidence-building. They even had a 9-game winning streak not too long ago this season. But they don’t have the will to win the key games. Mental toughness. The duty to win.
While in Madrid as provincial councilor in 1997-1998, I used to play squash with the provincial secretary, who had been a classmate in theology days in Marcilla. Aside from being the smartest in class, he was also a sports buff excelling in football, pelota and tennis. In the Spanish capital, we played dozens of squash matches, and he never gave me a chance to win, saying it was his duty to win. Boy, was he serious in his duty! I could understand the feeling of Charlie Brown of Peanuts for his sick record of losses. The duty to win. Surely our Stags could learn some.
But then our boys woke up from their slumber. The Cardinals relaxed a little, we applied the full-court press, forcing turnovers that converted into points. Adrenaline rushed our spines as much as it did the players’. The cheerers came to life. We sensed victory was possible. Rookie point guard Raymond Maconocido converted a triple with 1:17 left to bring us trailing by just three, at 53-56.
A fatal turnover by Stag Semira and an undergoal stab by Pascual followed by a fastbreak by Banal put Mapua out of reach. The game ended at 63-54.
Coach Gallent had not much to say at the dugout, after that very long silence. What else can you say aside from “lost opportunity, lost season, wasted two years”? Obviously, belaboring would have only made him angrier, which he did not want, so he just said, his voice almost drained, “You can go home”.
It was then that I heeded that small voice inside me saying that it could not end that way. But I was also aware that I was treading delicate ground. Fr. President does not even interfere with dugout sessions, leaving the running of the team to the coach and his staff. Coaches have to be tough talking. Perhaps my message was going to be counterproductive.
“I want to say something,” I managed to say to Frank Gusi. He sounded glad to accommodate me and introduced me just in case a few did not know me. All eyes were now trained on me as I started my speech.
“The season has ended. We have lost it. We can cry about it. But that’s spilt milk”.
“Yes, you have failed but that is not the worst kind of failure. The worst kind of failure is that from which we do not learn anything”.
“Jimbo – I said to Aquino, with whom I am more acquainted, so I was not afraid to overstress him –, … Raymond – surely my own nephew Raymond Maconocido would not begrudge me using him as reference – “what have you learned from this?”
They muttered an unintelligible reply. But I had the answer for them.
“Two dismal points in the third quarter. Then you rallied and came very near. You are capable, but you have to believe in yourself and really work for it. Next year, we will do it”.
I felt I had to give some hope to the boys. I felt that they must not equate failure as players (in a particular season) to failure as persons. I felt that inside their muscular frames and athletic genes, they have a fragile psyche which needs to be strengthened with more affirmation. I felt they need to see things in greater perspective.
After all, life is more than basketball, while basketball is just a game.
Or has it morphed – what with all the ugly rumors you hear around, for example, on the controversial transfer of Staglet Buenafe to Ateneo, the near-fatal shooting of UE Warrrior Baracael, the alleged payoffs to referees – into something more than a game?
But that’s another story.
1 The gladiators of Roman times greeted their Emperors as they entered the arena: “Those about to die salute you”