It has been three days since the Green Archers’ lackluster 66-57 win over the Adamson Falcons, all of which have been spent mostly basking in Gilas glory and trying to run through as many adjectives as I could to appropriately describe the team’s uninspired performance on that humdrum of a Sunday I nearly ended up entitling this piece “Fifty Shades of Dreary.”
There would be no difficulty in rattling off a laundry list of how that strange lack of intensity concretely manifested itself throughout the game: the 13 fast break points of Adamson (compared to La Salle’s 6) which reflected a more energetic Falcons offense capitalizing on the lack of transition defense; feisty Adamson actually winning the rebounding battle 50-49; or that 23-8 La Salle lead after the first quarter which once again got cut down hastily, turning what should’ve rightfully been a blowout into a relatively close game that was too tight for comfort, with the Falcons outscoring the Green Archers 49-43 the rest of the way.
Any keen eye would also have taken note of other unsettling things that really didn’t bode well for Coach Juno Sauler’s boys: Assistant Coach Allan Caidic slumped back with a crumpled expression in the second quarter due to the lifeless play on both ends which allowed the Adamson comeback, reminding me of how the usually cheerful hoops legend once vented about the inanity of internet trolls with that same look of dismay on his face; Almond Vosotros asking to be taken out for a brief spell to catch his breath in the 3rd quarter, seemingly exasperated at how much effort was being expended on putting away a winless team already out of contention; what looked like mild jeering amongst themselves during the usual La Salle players’ halftime bench huddle that probably should have been snarls in light of an Adamson team brazenly punching above their weight class.
More than anything, perturbed is the closest word to encapsulate the general mood of the Lasallian faithful in light of the last three games, despite two of those being victories. Coming off an inspired win over the Blue Eagles, what followed was the unacceptable UP game, the heartbreaking FEU loss, and an uncharacteristic performance on Sunday.
There is probably only one other community that is as fervently involved with their men’s basketball team as the Lasallian supporters. In our various daily pursuits which are personally more consequential, we easily find time to preoccupy ourselves debating over perceived optimal final rosters and cuts during board meetings, huddle in coffee shops or whatever establishment still has seats before and after games—and even in designated rooms that are perpetual health hazards during halftime—offering up the best antidotes for such horrors as a UE press; or enjoy our seats with perfect angles to not only cheer ourselves hoarse but actually attempt to conduct pays by pointing maniacally to the open man or similarly gesture when things should be slowed down.
But that is who we are. With our basketball, as well as with most other things in life. Passionate. Zealous. Ardent. With a bar set very high—rightfully so—that coming close to such heights will only always leave us shaking our heads. Absolutely no room for “Pwede na yan.”
And that is exactly why I feel so at home with Coach Sauler’s stubborn dissatisfaction with everything that falls short of excellence, even while basking in the afterglow of victory. To the point of inspiring my own endeavors outside of sports arenas, my own beliefs resonating tremendously with the “one game at a time” approach to most things; a philosophy so profound in its simplicity–that it often comes across as tongue in cheek—I often find myself thinking in the chaos of my own setbacks in life, “What would Coach Juno instruct me to do in this scenario?”
However, any which way one looks at it, whether from the “one game at a time, constant improvement, the devil is in the details” paradigm, or through the more fiery “seize the day, fight like there’s no tomorrow” mantra, the last 3 games have shown more signs of regression than symptoms of being title-hungry.
The 1-17 shooting from the three point line, slow recovery to mark open outside shooters, disorganized floor spacing that yields rusty offense, and, among other things, the absence of that familiar inside dominance on missed shots and hustle after 50-50 balls that has always been reliable in providing points after the initial play goes off-book and shots go awry. Add Jason Perkins yet again involving himself in some extracurricular activity which are really just opponents’ attempts to get in his head due to the futility of trying to go through or around his heft (staring down Celedonio Trollano before taking a free throw, only to be giggled at by the streaky Falcon), or Jeron Teng missing his last four free throws as his growing frustration over his cold shooting day was getting to his head; it was clear that contrary to W.B Yeats, the centre could still hold while being evidently fragile.
Whether the team plays down to its opponents’ levels, tends to lose focus in crucial stages against more disciplined squads, has yet to really hit its stride collectively, or basically misses the offense and brand of orchestration of Thomas Torres more than ever (who really was playing well in the preseason)–or all of the above– its inner hunger is still hard to question despite as yet the inability to manifest it in every single offensive play or defensive sequence. And all I know is Adamson’s Jansen Rios was already anticipating a hero’s welcome on school grounds the following day as he deliberately missed his second free throw late in the game. Because for a team trying to salvage anything positive from an already lost season, a single digit loss against the mighty Green Archers was a tremendous victory in itself.
In unison with the entire nation, I am deliriously enthralled by the courageous performance of our national team in the ongoing FIBA tournament, where for an undersized team heart goes a long way, multiplying the immense talent and basketball know-how already there. But UAAP men’s basketball is a vastly different animal–albeit heart and guts will always be indispensable–where I still believe this La Salle team is the most talented team (deliberate emphasis on the word “team,” to include management, its conditioning coach and other assistants/staff, down to the last player on the bench) and remains just right on track for another title.
Particularly for a team culture instilled from day one by Coach Sauler, within which heart, mental stamina, and good ol’ fundamental basketball all blend harmoniously and bear equal weight. Note how he remarked on the importance of outside accuracy for his own team after that now legendary Croatia game, or how his first move as a coach was to house all the players together to emphasize and set the tone for utmost cohesiveness. It goes beyond analysis from my point of view, this appreciation for every single ingredient, no matter how trivial, that makes for La Salle championship basketball.
There are moments when I even feel the futility in trying to articulate what lies at the core of this proud La Salle team, or whatever little I’ve come to know of it. Maybe along with all the other external buzz, right now Coach Sauler just has that trademark smirk and shrug, with a silent kind of hunger and drive that has seeped into the character of his players; just as he once casually demonstrated was exactly how he reacted even to all the written criticism during last season’s first round slump. Because despite mastering the fine art of brushing off external buzz, make no mistake that the first step he takes entails full awareness of what transpires, on and off the court, within and around the team he leads.
So after all forms of discussion on heart and fundamentals takes place, and regarding that sacred place where both become one in the world of this La Salle team, along with my fellow basketball-crazy Lasallians grasping our bars of expectations set to the heavens, there is one more ingredient that makes all the difference and will drive us to arrive at that common goal, same as last year: Faith.
The faith that eases initial scathing remarks and instead ferments these into that extra juice for our next gametime battle cries, now certainly to be louder than ever. The faith that makes us believe shooters and scorers in slumps or big men playing tentative (or whatever caused all of Arnold Van Opstal’s fouls to be committed on the offensive end) or unheralded players still not proving their full worth are all there to serve a common, triumphant purpose. The faith that a particular switch to finally yield 40-minutes of championship-caliber basketball will soon be flipped and remain so up to the final buzzer of this season’s final game.
And it’s the kind of faith that makes a fanatic plan ahead. Turning back at the last minute due to a fellow alumnus’ advice regarding an already overbearingly thick crowd during last year’s on-campus championship celebration (because we don’t just set fire to wood, we rock out), this year I’m planning to save a spot as soon as the gates open. Because among many other on and off court essentials, this La Salle team and its community also runs on faith.