When the Green Archers last won the UAAP Championship, Friendster was still the most popular social-networking site, and Smush Parker was still the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Four years removed from the season that saw the squad thrash the highly fancied UE Red Warriors, only senior guard and current team captain Simon Atkins remains from that line-up. And as he dons the Green-and-White jersey for the fifth and final time, Atkins has his eyes set on the same thing which he was able to get his hands on when he first barged into the collegiate ranks: The UAAP Championship.
“I entered La Salle as a champion. I also want to leave La Salle as a champion,” he firmly says.
He is also well-aware that the road towards his goal would not be paved. Not with every other team being stocked with talented players and built to beat each other. He knows that if he wants to bookend his collegiate career with another championship, he would have to fight for it.
After all, he has seen it all.
Aside from being a member of the 2007 championship team, Atkins was likewise in the mix when the team last made the Finals in 2008, when they fell to the Rabeh Al-Hussaini-led Ateneo Blue Eagles. He had also been there in 2009 when the team failed to punch a ticket in the Final Four for the first time since 1986, and was also the captain of last year’s overachieving bunch which made the Final Four before yielding to the FEU Tamaraws.
Playing with the greats
Originally supposed to enter the league in 2006 during the UAAP’s 69th Season, Atkins had to wait in the wings for a year before finally being able to grace the hallowed hoops ground that is the Araneta Coliseum due to La Salle’s suspension. Their prolonged absence, however, was not entirely detrimental, as it helped his transition from being a high school player to being a member of the Green Archers.
“It helped [because] I was able to train with TY Tang, JV [Casio], Rico [Maierhofer] and Cholo [Villanueva] for almost two years,” he says, referring to his teammates who spurred the team to their improbable run. He also relishes the privilege of playing alongside these former Archers. “When they played under pressure, you can really see that they want it. They just enjoy the game and play with heart.”
From tribulation to jubilation
After enjoying a championship and two straight trips to the Finals, the Archers absorbed setback after setback in 2009 on their way to an unceremonious exit from the tournament. Atkins, then a junior, remembers that, “It was really painful for us, especially for me, because I was already one of the senior players during this time.”
After being baptized as the new team captain the following year, Atkins, with the help of new mentor Dindo Pumaren, quickly set their hardworking mantra into motion, and the result was a winning record and a return to the Final Four, a place which the squad has almost always reached. “I was really happy that we were able to surpass everyone’s expectations, since most were only putting us at sixth and seventh [place],” he says of the season which saw him lead his team in scoring and assists.
Nowhere to go but up
After adding ceiling to their frontline and ushering the return of a point guard in the offseason, Atkins has high expectations for this year’s squad. “Basically we have the same line-up from last year and we have added talented players, so we have nowhere to go but up.”
You mean the UAAP Finals?
“Yes. This is one of the reasons why I stayed for one more year,” he continues. “We have a good chance not only of making the Finals, but also of winning the championship.”
Speaking of staying, unlike UE’s prolific scorer Paul Lee and hardworking Tamaraw Reil Cervantes, who have both opted to go to the pros, Atkins chose instead to remain an Archer for one more year, one of his reasons being his stern belief about their chances of winning it all this year.
And unlike four years ago when he merely watched as the team toppled a heavily favored squad, Atkins knows that his role will be bigger this time. “I already won a championship in 2007, but back then, I was a rookie. They all know that year as JV’s time, as TY’s time and I’m not being mentioned. When we win the championship this year, it will be known as my time and I want to be able to do that.”
Another reason would be the fulfillment of a promise he made years ago to teammate and rookie Norbert Torres that he would wait for him so that they would be able to play together. Torres, who attended high school in Canada, had to sit out a couple of years for his residency before finally being able to suit up for the Archers.
And finally, foremost among his reasons for staying as a member of the Green-and-White Squad is his gratitude for the instution which he has called home since his high school days. “It’s my way na rin of giving back to La Salle which has been my home for many years and thanking the people.”
And as he leaves the ranks of one of the most successful basketball programs in the UAAP, Atkins says that he will miss a lot of things. “I have been playing basketball since I was six and I started playing for La Salle when I was 14, so I will really miss the sport. The daily practices with the team, ma-mimiss ko lahat yan,” he says with a smile.
Plans for the future
So after nine years of suiting up for La Salle, what’s next for Simon Atkins?
“I’m not really sure yet,” he says. “But I have a lot of opportunities.”
How about the PBA Draft, where some of his teammates have already gone?
“I’m definitely going to try that. Hopefully.”
That is not to say, however, that his sole option is to enter the pros, as Atkins has also been receiving job offers. He had just finished his undergraduate degree in AB-Psychology and has just started to take his Master’s Degree.
And even when he finishes his final tour of duty as an Archer, he still does not wish to sever his ties from the team. “[Even after I’m gone], I still want to be a bridge between the coaches and the players. Someone whom the players could talk to when they have problems, especially for the younger players whose confidence is not yet built up. I’m willing to do that even if they don’t pay me.”
And what about , ehem, offers in showbiz?
“Hopefully. I’m also going to try that. We’ll see,” and he punctuates this statement with a smile.
Needless to say, the pressure of once more leading a young tem in the 74th Season of the UAAP will be no easy task for Atkins and his fellow veterans. But unlike four years ago when he was just a rookie, he is more than ready to take part in their hunt for the crown this year. “Of course, the pressure is there,” he says, “but when the pressure is there, I tend to play better.”