Chips off the old blue and white block

column-rick olivaresMIKE Nieto waited for the pass at the right-corner pocket. When the ball was whipped over, he was wide open. A UP (University of the Philippines) defender scrambled over to challenge what he thought was a three-point attempt but the 6’1″ forward blew past him down the baseline where the Junior Fighting Maroons’ power forward Joselle Tupaz switched over to meet him. Nieto pumped-faked Tupaz—who is 2 inches taller—off his high tops, took the hit, then banged the ball off the window for an and-one; 70-45, at the 9:14 mark of the fourth period with Ateneo leading.

A minute later, Mike’s twin brother, Matt, drilled in a jumper from the outside to add to the lead as Ateneo coasted to an 83-66 victory, their 12th straight in as many games.

Over by the stands, the Nietos’ proud father, Jet, raised his fist to join the traditional postgame singing of the school hymn.

That’s two generations of Nietos’ wreaking havoc on the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) hard court. Jet who is a practicing medical doctor, was a bruising 6’2″ forward for Ateneo teams that won the 1984-1985 Juniors title and back-to-back seniors crowns in 1987 and 1988. Not only could the elder Nieto post up but he could also finish the fast break and hit long toms as he famously did during the Blue Eagles’ rally from 2 points down to defeat Jerry Codiñera’s University of the East Warriors in 1987. After he helped Ateneo to its second UAAP crown over La Salle, he skipped his final year of eligibility to enroll in medical school. That prompted former Green Archer and television pundit Edu Manzano to exclaim—when he had the Blue Eagles on his show as guests—“after breaking bones in the UAAP now you will fix them.”

Aside from his ability to score points in bunches, the elder Nieto was a tough player who was very physical (which is an understatement). He also liked to get into the heads of opposing players. With his kids, he constantly reminds them to eschew the rough stuff and simply play the game.

Between the twins, Mike almost always is told that he plays just like his father. “I feel proud when people say that,” admits the burly forward. But his father is quick to dispel any similarities. “He is an improved version of me,” he says. “Mike can dribble with both hands, behind the back, and attack from either side. I couldn’t.”

In a recent match an opposing player known for his dirty tactics was trying to get Mike’s goat. The son seethed. When the opportunity arose, he sent his foe crashing to the deck in the subtlest of ways with no foul called. “Tama na, ha?” he admonished while helping up his falling opponent who simply nodded.

Matt, 2 inches smaller than his twin, plays a different position from his dad—point guard. Aside from his quarterbacking skills, his strength used to be his strong drive to the basket. But this year Matt, along with Mike, has improved his outside shooting. “I have been on them to work on their shooting,” the father said. “That should serve them well when they move on to their college careers as the players are taller.”

Against UP, Mike finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.  Matt ably backed him up with 16 markers, nine boards and two assists. Both are first and third in scoring for Ateneo (junior gunner Jolo Mendoza is second in scoring) and they form a formidable 1-2 punch.

Matt credits working with Philippine Basketball Association great Jimmy Alapag as the reason for his improvement. The Blue Eaglets practice normally follows the practice of Talk ‘N Text at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center. Matt constantly sought the mentorship of Alapag, who taught him the finer points of playmaking and shooting.

Jeff Napa, head coach of rival National University Bullpups, marveled at the talent of the brothers in the vernacular, “They aren’t that tall, but they are quick, smart and know how to make the best use of their bodies.”

Right now the brothers are focused on leading Ateneo to a championship that was last tasted in 2010. Last season they lost to the Bullpups in the Finals in heartbreaking fashion. “It’s not an excuse but they were really tired,” related the father. Some of the Blue Eaglets saw action with the national team postponing the finals showdown. When they returned they hardly had any rest and were tired come the championship. “But no excuses,” Mike said. “We felt bad for the seniors who graduated without a championship. We promised Aaron [Black] and Thirdy [Ravena] that we’d do our best to win a title for them and the school.”

The brothers admit they would like to add to the school’s legacy and doing their father proud by winning some championships. “We were about seven years old when we saw a tape of dad’s games [against UE and La Salle]. We also saw a tape of the 2002 championship team [of Enrico Villanueva] and we knew that we wanted the opportunity to do the same,” Matt related.

Right now they are two games away from a possible sweep that would send them to the finals with a thrice-to-beat advantage. “Right now we don’t want to think about that,” Matt said. “We just want to take it one game at a time.”

“And enjoy our last months in high school,” Mike chimed in.

With that, the two joined their father as they made their way to the car. Just like chips off the old blue and white block.