WHAT makes the La Salle-Ateneo encounter stir such spirited partisan emotions is hard to define. Other universities will secretly find this vaunted rivalry overblown, and a great part of the public that never attended either elite school will think its significance overrated.
But, here it comes again. Beginning Saturday, the two archrivals will once again unleash white-hot loyalties in the battle for UAAP’s basketball championship. Already, fanatics have badgered long-dormant contacts for tickets, championship parties are being organized, reporters are ready with catchy leads before the first basket is shot, and the game’s television broadcaster is beyond thanking the gods for the financial bonanza.
Nothing compares with an Ateneo-La Salle game — or, for the billing conscious: a La-Salle-Ateneo game — whether we’re talking big championship night or ordinary elimination round or special fundraiser exhibition. Their encounter is always a guaranteed blockbuster, an organizer’s dream match, a coliseum’s answered prayers and, in times past, a ticket scalper’s early Christmas.
Actually, whether it’s a bar exam or a doctor’s Top 10 list, an international science fair or a spelling bee, the clash between La Sallites and Ateneans, from grade-school level up to graduate class, always promises hoopla. But for some reason, emotions run higher and taunts turn a bit meaner when it’s a basketball crown on the line.
Everything becomes electric. Ateneo and La Salle biggies come home, celebrities gather to see and be seen, CEOs step down to join the hoi polloi, government officials use the weight of their offices to get the best seats, and even US ambassadors come around, maybe to understand what the local fuss is about. Why, even current and past presidents have been goaded into joining the serious fun.
Adding spice to all this is the unspoken clash among competing families within the ruling class. The teams’ supporters mostly belong to the country’s elite, to whom competition and one-upmanship are a way of life, and they bring that contentiousness — from plain jousting to going for the kill — to the game.
The games are also a proxy war between two industrial empires, one headed by La Salle patrons Danding Cojuangco and Ramon Ang, and the other by Manny V. Pangilinan, a fierce Ateneo die-hard. (In another sense, it’s also an extension of their rivalry within the PBA, where each empire has three teams.)
And so the stage is set. Players and coaches are ready. Bands have spiffed up their rabble-rousing. Cheering squads have new routines. And, equally important, the wood for the bonfire is already bought.
But before the games begin, let’s pay homage to the guy who made this happen at all: Ateneo’s Isaac Go.
Without his Hail Mary-shot of a three-pointer with eight seconds left, there probably would not be an Ateneo-La Salle title game. It was just one basket, but it might’ve been the night’s most important. It forced overtime against Far Eastern University last Wednesday, when Ateneo, then trailing by three points with 14.5 seconds left, was on the cusp of being toast for the season.
Except that Go did not miss.
Of course, there were many Ateneo heroes in that knockout semifinal game — Thirdy Ravena, Matt Nieto, Chibueze Ikeh, among others — but Go’s basket was the final inspiration. Add the guy’s basket in overtime, while down on one knee, and Ateneo’s finals berth was sealed.
Whether Ateneo will have the same luck against La Salle in their best-of-three series is, of course, still an unknown. But I’ll go out on a limb on this one: It’s La Salle via a sweep.
EXTRA SHOT: Although it seems like the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry has been going on forever, this is actually only their ninth meeting at a championship game since 1939, for both the UAAP and the NCAA. In these head-to-head meetings, La Salle and Ateneo are tied at 4-4, with La Salle winning their last encounter in 2016. The Archers won against Ateneo in their first title match in 1939, with a score of 27-23. Overall, however, counting their elimination games, Ateneo has a 46-36 edge.
Both schools were founders of the NCAA. Ateneo bolted in 1978; La Salle followed in 1981. Both schools cited the extreme partisanship of the other teams and their followers as reason for leaving. Indeed, brawls and riots were common then, on and off the court. One championship game, the Ateneo vs San Beda fight of 1978, had to be held behind closed doors to avoid rioting. San Beda won.