As I woke up from well deserved sleep, with thoughts of checking FanDuel, and only half recovered from the Green Archers’ heart-pounding win over a UST Growling Tigers team fighting for its final four life, there was one basketball sequence that vividly resurfaced in my mind.
It weren’t any of Jeron Teng’s head-on barreling drives, one of which sent Karim Abdul scurrying back. Neither was it one of those championship caliber defensive stops on UST’s last three possessions, nor Arnold Van Opstal’s familiar hard pivots to the basket warmly welcomed back by the Lasallian faithful. Rather, it was a game winning shot that was made 22 years ago on a cemented basketball court on a humid summer night, during the last possession of the boys division championship game of our subdivision’s summer league between the Green team and the Juno Sauler-anchored Yellow team.
An inbound pass to a much younger Coach Sauler at the top of the key, with one quick pump and a dribble to split two defenders, then executing a George Gervin-style finger roll in the paint that just left his fingertips, sailed over the defenders’ arms and into the basket as the rusty-sounding official’s buzzer sounded. The open court thickly lined with spectators erupted in pandemonium. If it hadn’t been formally settled before then, that basket certainly instituted Coach Sauler as a playground legend to this day. With the same firm, stoic expression–just the slightest of half smirks if you look close enough—glued and unflinching from before that pivotal inbounds pass to well after all the revelry died down and the court lights were shut off.
Not only was it the same expression he had on his face when I tried telling him about that incident–and having had to defend him on one occasion during an after school pick up game on that same court which made me rethink a future in basketball altogether—the very first time I dropped by the Enrique Razon Sports Center during last year’s break in between rounds.
But it was that same look that remained firm throughout all of UST’s furious rallies to stay in contention with on fire long-range accuracy; in each team huddle after each lead change to restore order in the face of looming chaos; as he re-inserted Van Opstal in the third quarter to give last-minute fatherly advice; and even as he defended Almond Vosotros post-game to remind skeptics of what valuing a player’s worth and all he’s laid on the line really means.
There has been so much said about trying to evoke a smile from Coach Sauler. But that never concerned me as I noted, as early as that muggy summer game, the fire is in the eyes.
I was fortuitously reminded of this after collecting myself and heading out well after Saturday’s final buzzer. Running into and exchanging warm pleasantries with all three Sauler siblings and their devout mother in the lower seats; Good ol’ Mang Jack still making my back quickly straighten in the MOA Arena corridor standing calmly as the throng buzzed round him and proudly exclaiming that he still makes his way to the games while giving me a steely reminder that our next match is on Wednesday; and my old neighborhood coach (who displayed his own hoops know-how back then by rightfully benching me) and fellow game day regular in the adjacent building who as always gave his breakdown of the game in the same concise, impassioned manner whether through winning seasons or losing ones.
Our voices and body language all gave off shades of exhausted relief, with eldest Sauler sibling Rhia (half) jesting about compounded concern for our collective blood pressure levels. But there was fire in our eyes. Familiar as ever, cultivated along the hallowed halls on Taft Avenue. And suddenly I understood.
Maybe it also took something transcendent that occurred in the past week, in between that Croatian thriller, Gabe Norwood posterizing Luis Scola, Jimmy Alapag redefining Mighty Mouse range, up to Chot Reyes finally pointing triumphantly to the Filipino crowd which turned every Gilas game into a virtual fiesta. It’s still difficult to articulate, to give it justice through words; but the 0-2 start to the season, the lackluster games, the heartbreaking loss to FEU, the ugly wins. None of those mattered anymore. Only the fire in our eyes, the hunger in our bellies, and this La Salle team that unifies our passions before, during and after any given game day.
I finally understood this relentless quest for excellence I’ve tried so hard to immortalize through words, just a bit more, down to my gut. A standard certainly bred and accordingly set by our alma mater to give our drive a furious yet dignified quality. To always keep searching for what can be improved, what can be done better; all to subsequently set the status quo.
And in the wild wild world of UAAP men’s basketball and this La Salle team, I understand now that standard is there to keep us unconditionally and unequivocally focused. And hungry. And to believe. Not merely with fingers crossed, knocking on wood. But with fire in our eyes.
Because it’s this same zealous faith the team offered to an obviously frustrated Van Opstal, momentarily reduced to venting to Jason Perkins in one ear and to Yutien Andrada on the other as they sat on the bench waiting for the second half buzzer. And as he was put back in midway through the 3rd quarter, after Teng walking up with a hand-to-mouth feeding gesture to the erstwhile quirky center (curiously the same gesture he gave Paulo Pe in the first round encounter after one of those trademark in your face chest-to-chest drives: ‘I just ate you up’), the floor was spread and every play was called and executed to duly feed Van Opstal and get his mojo back. All resulting in consecutive fouls on his defenders, en route to 11 points and 7 rebounds.
It’s also subtly there in Kib Montalbo’s wares, not only looking for his shot with more courage, but buckling down and being the instigator of those last two steals to stave off UST, amidst all the recurring “What ifs” pertaining to Thomas Torres.
If I wasn’t strapped in enough for this year’s ride the same way I’ve been since the very first game of this Coach Sauler-led team (a loss to UST in last year’s season opener), and with all the past La Salle teams I’ve been fortunate to witness, I’m now locked in more than ever. Whether it’s a scenario for a second place tie or whatever fast and furious finish the last week of elimination play UAAP men’s basketball never fails to deliver, the next game day is all that matters. And the next one after that. And so on–heads down and eyes locked in, getting the job at hand done as efficiently as possible before moving on–until the last team standing is the one decked in Green and White.
More than ever I’ll be holding my arm and finger up on every free throw attempt with the same faith whether the previous was a miss or a make; despite all the offensive struggles, line up and rotation adjustments and demand for better turnover numbers; or just like the team and along with the rest of the Lasallian faithful standing up and signaling three with every shot Vosotros takes. Or instead of wincing, ready to pump my fists and roar on my feet with each shot Robert Bolick takes, each cross court pass Julian Sargent dishes, each post move Abu Tratter attempts.
As we all brace for Wednesdays’ duel against a resilient UE Red Warriors, with the same certainty I know Coach Sauler has already stayed up well into the night reviewing tapes of the Pumaren press ably spliced during ungodly hours by Assistant Coach Paolo, the only way to traverse the road to the crown and outrun all the other contenders is not through a mad dash but by calmly conquering each next immediate step. One game at a time it is. Getting better, nearer the ultimate goal, after each win secured in the bag.
Whether in the face of One Big Fights, Let’s Go Tamaraws, UE Fights, or Go Bulldogs. Bring it on.
Animo La Salle.