The best and worst of 2015

Ray RoqueroConclusion

THE year  2015 was a season of nostalgia in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP),  a time when the Azkals rose to superhero status and ended up mere mortals. It was a time of jarring change in Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), when the new leadership showed it did not have wings but feet of clay.

But it was the varsity battles that kept the adrenaline flowing. Old glory came to crown University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University, two of the UAAP pioneers. They were back in a familiar zone, the title series, and were at their best—rocking, running, sizzling. In a league glittering with big names in seven decades of cage wars and rivalries, they were in 2015 a class of their own.

They went at each other in an epic best-of-three, when the championship trophy didn’t fall in the grip of either team until Mac Belo made the key plays to seal—or was it steal?—the win for the Tamaraws in the rubber match. Belo played like a caped knight who willed his team over the Growling Tigers, who refused to wilt. Neither had won the UAAP basketball crown in a decade—and FEU’s triumph belonged to the annals of a superhero feat.

In the face of pressure, Belo was true grit personified. In a fan’s phrase, “he played like a man possessed.” His nerves held like strands of steel, and his legs and lungs were cast in iron. When finally he was taken down by something he could not physically overcome, he had the Tams within seconds of celebrating their first UAAP title in a decade, and he the treasured Finals’ “Most Valuable Player” award.

This was a season of second chances. Kevin Ferrer fired up the proud Thomasians when the chips were down. With UST on the brink of being swept away, he turned in the year’s best shooting performance from the three-point zone to force a deciding third game.

The stardust of immortality fell on him; he was an Achilles who turned back an entire horde of hungry Tamaraws out to celebrate a return to the UAAP summit. “Ferrer drilled one impossible shot after another,” a long-time UST fan wrote to me. “And gave us an eternity of magic.”

It was also a season of rebirth, a rediscovery of pride and self-respect. Since winning their last title in 1986, the University of the Philippines’s Fighting Maroons had not returned to championship form. This time they rode a wave of nostalgia, first destroying the University of the East Red Warriors and then shooting down the La Salle Green Archers.

Two wins in two starts. No one could remember when the Maroons had such a sizzling season opener, or for that matter, the last time they won a UAAP game. Those victories woke up the alumni; they returned to the gallery, gathered around a bonfire in their Diliman campus, and unabashedly talked about winning the crown.

Over at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the rubber match between the Letran Knights, the league’s heartbreak artists, and the San Beda Red Lions, the master of the savage kill, had the gallery of the Mall of Asia in the grip of deathly tension.

The Red Lions were looking for their sixth straight NCAA title. Hungry and determined, they had something precious to live for, a title trophy to add to their silverware, and an extraordinary date that would be etched in stone.But the Knights survived the Red Lions’ fury in extra time, and found a new hero in Jomari Sollano. He sealed the win with a jumper and a free throw, 85-82.

It took one tough, pulse-pounding tournament in Taipei, the Jones Cup, to unveil a player of sparkling abilities and potential. He is Terence Romeo, the rookie point guard of Gilas Pilipinas. PBA fans know he can be a streak shooter—in the PBA’s own turf. But in Taipei?

Romeo, a package of versatility, answered the doubting Thomases. He was sensational, with an inimitable style entirely his own creation. He dazzled with his three-point shooting and his speed in the paint, weaving his way past the defense, faking off the big men, and launching a twisting shot or flicking a pass to the open man in the corner.

They were his signature moves, as instantly recognizeable as his spiky hair dyed blonde and almond eyes that turned him into a gallery heartthrob. Some beguiled fans have started calling him “The Bullet” or “The Spark.” From where I sit, I know of a better name. He should file a petition in court to include “Magic” as his second official name.

There were highs and lows during the past year.

The lowest of the low was the Philippines’s sixth-place finish at the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore. “We are a nation of 104 million souls,” wrote a critic to me, “yet are we all cripples that we can’t even compete to be the best power in the region?” We can, I wrote back. But our wounds are self-inflicted. The Philippine Olympic Committee cannot lead, and the Philippine Sports Commission has no vision at all.

On the same breadth, I said, just look at how some PBA ball clubs—out of spite for the godfather of Gilas Pilipinas, I suspect—turned unpatriotic. They withheld some of the best PBA talents from the Gilas five. Now Gilas is forced into a difficult final qualifying round to earn a ticket to the Rio Olympics this year.

In this basketball-crazy nation, Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez became the face of women’s volleyball. She has charisma. That was a bonus. Her booming spikes stole the limelight from the visiting imports brought in by commercial teams Foton and PLDT.

The Azkals surprised us in the Fifa World Cup qualifying series. They upset Bahrain, 2-1, and blanked Yemen, 2-0. But their magic fizzled out.

Now they face a future more uncertain than when they opened the 2015 season.

Is this symptomatic of Philippine sports’s future?


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