N.S.W.F. 11 Aldeguer 99 – Part 3 of 4

Part Three: Victory Rituals

As we started getting used to the way Franz wanted us to play, we felt pretty confident and strong. We only lost twice in that 1998 season, both times against UST. We swept the first round though, so come the Final Four, the entire league was so scared of the “Big Three,” that was me, Don, and Ren-Ren. There was a reason for that: Don was number one in stats, I was number two, Ren-Ren was number three. Those were the best times for me stat-wise; I averaged double-doubles, assists and points, then led the league in steals. Basketball was fun with those guys because we were winning and winning.

We ended up number one, but UST beat us in the first game of the Final Four. You can just imagine how scary it was because the jinx came back. On paper, UST was weak compared to us; five of our players were in the PBL, three of us were in the PBL Mythical Five – then we lose the first game!

All of us were dead scared. I remember in the dugout, we were dead scared and thinking it’s going to happen again. I remember what (former Green Archers head coach) Derrick told us, though. Back in the dugout, UST was shouting and so excited, jumping for joy. One of the guys wanted to close the door to the dugout and Derrick Pumaren said “No, don’t close the door. You listen to how they’re cheering. You listen.” We were all there sitting and we could hear them shouting, although they still had to win one more game. Derrick made a good statement saying, “If you don’t want to hear that again, make sure it doesn’t happen the next time you play. Make sure you have it in mind.”

That was the one time in my career I was so scared because during those times if you remember, whenever UST would be in that situation down the wire, it would be Dale Singson isolating the point guard. Against Tony Boy (Espinosa), he makes a layup. Against Jason Webb, he runs, fakes then makes a jumper in his face. I was the next victim in line. I knew that; in the Juniors I used to watch it happen. Every time UST needed a play, 1-4, everyone could see it coming but it still happened. I don’t think there’s ever been a point guard as scary as Dale; he was tall, aggressive, he once gave me four stitches.

But the next game, we came in all focused, wanting to go to war. I remember coming into the game, punong-puno yung Araneta, we were up by a small lead at the half and then Aric (del Rosario, UST head coach) made his grand entrance from Pampanga. Their crowd went really wild when he came in. We were all so scared because Aric was the author of all those UST championships. He used a helicopter and I thought, well, things might happen. The game was close but I stole off Dale Singson in the last minute. They were up by a few points, but I blocked his drive, he picked up the ball and looked for someone to pass to and then I stole off him. After that, I think the game was broken. We won and Franz turned out to be right when he said “I’m still confident we’ll win the series.” He knew we were going to win and when we entered the Finals we put their championship ambitions to rest again.

Then the Finals rematch against FEU. We were just too dominating; we won the first game by more than 20 points. We were just so excited the last two minutes of that first game; we couldn’t believe we were so close to winning a championship after nearly ten years. But (Green Archers team consultant) Derrick Pumaren came out of his seat, jumped into the players’ bench and told us “I don’t want anybody jumping for joy or celebrating!!!” – and I love what he said then – “the trophy is still with the other team!!!” We’d just won Game 1 but nothing had been accomplished. That’s what they told us. So at the final buzzer, we all just shook hands and treated it as another game, then went to the dugout. Derrick reminded us to keep our heads – which was really helpful because you have to remember that up until that time, we’d never known what it was like to win a Game 1. And we won by 20 points, so what did that tell you? It told us we were going to win the championship! But he told us not to even buy newspapers. He said he’d go with us to buy all the newspapers we wanted after we won the championship. But as long as we’ve not won, he said, no one buys, we just practise.

During the last hard practice, Franz called the three of us: me, Don, and Ren-Ren. He said, “this is the last game, this is the moment, this is history, this is the time to win the championship.” I remember him telling us: “where the three of you bring the team, that’s where the team goes.” He said “I need you guys, it’s winning time. Where you go, the team goes.”

Game 2 came and it was scary, the game was close all the way with all the lead changes. All of a sudden at this point in the second half, we couldn’t steal the ball. All of a sudden, FEU was playing good defence and breaking our press. Too close, it was scary; and even when I was bringing down the ball I felt it. Also, we still had that gorilla on our back saying we couldn’t win it. What did the newspapers say? Will they be the bride this time? Watch that – even Ren-Ren couldn’t hit anything until the end! He only hit one three pointer. Even Don was tight. We were plagued by the thought na “eto na yun”, and the whole history of it. And the crowd also knew – they’d been there before and had gone through all the heartbreaks. I mean, if you hadn’t had five or six heartbreaking games in the past, you would have said “atin na yan!” But because everyone knew the history, it seemed too good to be true for La Salle to win. Even for us.

But Pumaren kept saying we could win it. He kept saying, “you guys have to remove the thinking that you’re just runners up!” One other guy who just told us to believe was Johnny Valdes, our manager after Danny Jose. He said “guys, you can win it!” – but no one believed. History would tell us we’d always just been so close.

But Ren-Ren hit that three point shot, made a steal then was fouled, and shot those free throws. Watch the end of the game. By that time we were up four or five points. Six seconds to go, two FEU guys are about to foul me. I was so scared thinking if they fouled me, mamaya I don’t shoot the free throws, they score, then may mangyari pang milagro. So you know what I did? I threw the ball at the ceiling! Inside I was telling my guard, if you want the ball, pare go get it! But don’t foul me anymore because I might spoil the party! It’s funny but in those six seconds, the officials should have stopped the game, but they let the time run…

And that’s when the unbelievable happened. I was told that La Salle had to pay a huge amount of money for all the damaged fixtures. The entire court was covered in an invasion. Yung mga tali around the court – pare, useless! You couldn’t see the floor. Some championships today, people just say, yes we won. But that one was dramatic. It was all those bridesmaid finishes, to be so close all those years. It was wild. Coming home, I had blood on my arms and my face, I couldn’t see where to pass, where the players were. You know how we found our way? Don climbed one ring, I climbed the other! That was the only way we were going to be free from everybody. Ren-Ren got his jersey ripped, Don got a scratch on his cheek. It was wild, one of the greatest feelings.

One thing good was Jason was there, Mark Telan, Dindo Pumaren, all the guys who missed out. They could always have said I hope these guys wouldn’t win it para may kasama kaming bridesmaid, but they were cheering us on. It was just too wild you couldn’t even tell if there was a dugout, it was all flooded. That was a great feeling. The only downer was that everything was so wild that my Mythical Five trophy broke – someone stepped on it and I had to try to put it back together!

To be Continued