One of the top Philippine stories of 2018 — not only in sports but also in national affairs — is the magical run of the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons. For a few weeks, the Maroons became headline news as the team clawed its way back from elimination and upset heavy contenders toward reaching the championship series.
The Maroons eventually lost to the defending champion, the Ateneo Blue Eagles. But Ateneo’s winning ways have become repetitious and boring. On the other hand, the UP’s campaign during the season generated astonishment, excitement, and drama, even among the nonpartisans.
Thus the meme: “Ateneo won the finals… but UP won the Season!” Or: “The UP Fighting Maroons may not have taken home the championship, but they’ve stolen our hearts forever.”
But Ateneo also has a story to tell about how lessons from winning a basketball championship apply to life.
Ateneo’s basketball coach, Tad Baldwin, has instilled in the team a system in which individual talent plays second fiddle to collective effort. Each player has a role to play; each player contributes to the team’s advance and ultimately to being a champion.
It is not surprising then that no player from Ateneo made it to the Mythical Five selection, even if it was the winningest team in the league. Being in the Mythical Five recognizes the talent of a basketball player. But the Ateneo team does not emphasize individual greatness. Ateneo has a rotation in which the so-called second stringers are as good as the first team.
Even the team’s top performers vary from game to game. In one game, the Nieto twins, Matt and Mike, explode; in another game, Thirdy Ravena leads the charge. And so on. But the point is, the individual performance springs from selfless play and teamwork.
To be sure, this winning formula of team spirit and cooperation is not unique to the 2018 champion team. But the lesson got buried in the past, as amateur basketball copied professional basketball’s penchant for superstars and dazzling plays that show off individual skills. Fortunately, the old wisdom has returned in light of Ateneo’s success.
More than three decades ago, an unassuming guy donned the blue-and-white uniform. He was no superstar; he was some sort of benchwarmer. The only Superstar in his mind was Jesus Christ Superstar; he loved rock music and he was spiritual. But he was part of Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan’s team because the coach saw him as an exemplar of the sacrificing and hardworking team player.
His name is Jose Antonio “Joey” M. Pengson. He died in October 2018 without witnessing the championship, which was played the way he learned to play it.
The best tribute to Joey that I have read comes from our classmate Bobby Tesoro. It’s an unpublicized tribute, which Bobby shared with classmates through Viber.
Bobby, the manager of the 1975 champion team that included Joey, recalls a story of the championship game. Upon deeper reflection, Bobby sees it as a life story with a lesson. It is an anecdote that, in my book, is a parable.
Here, I quote Bobby:
“My story is about Joey’s role in the championship game between Ateneo and Letran in 1975.
“We were short of guards. The team captain, Gerry Verzosa, still recovering from hospitalization, showed up pale and gaunt on that championship day. But we had the talented Chito Narvasa, who was acknowledged to be the designated court general, taking over the captain’s brand of play and floor leadership.
“During that season, Chito showed signs of being a prima donna. He skipped practices citing ‘injured, weary knees’ as reason. Coach Baby Dalupan never uttered a word and just nodded whenever Chito gave an excuse. (This was the young Chito, and since those years of unripeness, he has evolved as a mature person. In the book Virgilio ‘Baby’ Dalupan: The Maestro of Philippine Basketball, Chito expresses gratitude to his mentor for disciplining him and molding his character.)
“To return to the game, Ateneo was in trouble. With the team behind, coach D had to make a substitution. At that point, he had already used 11 players. The gallery started calling Chito’s name.
“Baby D stood up and went down the bench, passed up Chito and at the very end of the line, pulled out our Joey Pengson, to the astonishment of the Ateneo gallery. With an arm on Joey’s shoulder and talking to our late friend like a father to his son, Baby told Joey, ‘You will play in this championship game, and you will help the team win.’
“True enough, that move fired up the whole team, knowing only too well that Joey exemplified to his teammates what it meant to be a team player. He rode the bench most of the time, he never complained, never skipped practice, and was always prompt. You name it, Joey did it right. That is why I called him Cap (for Captain). He was the silent force that the team looked up to in and out of the court.”
Bobby is spot on in describing Joey: A team player, looked up to by the team. He was a man for others, a Cap not only in the game of basketball, but also in the game of life.
Indeed, Joey’s being a team player, being a low-profile leader, and being selfless extended beyond the basketball court. He was involved in many worthy causes — in his community, his alma mater, and our society.
He participated in many struggles, always as a team player, contributing significantly albeit silently. He fought the dictatorship; he fought corruption, plunder, and human rights violations. He promoted social awareness among the youth, and encouraged the Ateneo students to speak up on political issues. He was at the forefront of clean and credible elections. He was Mr. Clean.
The 2018 Ateneo champion team has displayed the same team spirit that the 1975 team, Joey included, is remembered for. But the distinct lesson imparted to us by Joey is that there is a larger team that we have to join and a bigger game we have to play.
In this light, Joey exemplifies what the friendly basketball rivals — UP and Ateneo — stand for. UP says: Fight! Ateneo says, One big fight! Ateneo says, be a man for others. UP says, serve the people.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.