PAUL Desiderio's heart is filled with gratitude seeing how far University of the Philippines has come since he arrived in Diliman.
"Dati ilan lang ang nanonood sa amin. First year ko, mabibilang mo lang, mga 20, pero ngayon, sobrang dami na. Sobrang tuwa ko lang," he said after the Maroons fell short of capturing the UAAP Season 81 crown following a 99-81 Game 2 defeat to Ateneo on Wednesday.
The former Batang Gilas took the road less travelled and spent the better half of his past decade at UP, enduring all the ridicule and runs of futility hoping that one day, all of these sacrifice will be worth it.
"Player akong mula Cebu, 0-14 ang start mo. Ine-expect mo lilipat ako talaga ng school, pero nagpasensya lang ako. Tinitiis ko, yung mga taon na one win lang kami, kahit na parang mukha na kaming loko," he said.
Slowly, the Fighting Maroons showed signs of promise. And Desiderio was there at the forefront of that renaissance, helping the squad rise from the cellar to a team decent enough to contend for a Final Four spot this season.
But the 23-year-old guard knew that his team needed a better version of him — UP needed a leader.
"Nung Season 80, ako yung unang option. Pero nung dumating si Juan (Gomez de Liano), dumating si Bright (Akhuetie), so as a captain talaga, ibababa mo ng pride mo para yung team mo umasenso," he said.
Desiderio's sacrifice paid dividends for the Fighting Maroons, with Akhuetie living up to his promise to be named as this season's MVP and Gomez de Liano joining him in the Mythical Team.
A more fulfilling prize awaited Desiderio. the team also ended a 21-year Final Four drought and reached the title series for the first time since winning the cup in 1986.
"Yun ang ginawa ko, nagpababa ako ng pride, yung ego ko binaba ko na kaya kami nakarating kami dito," he said.
Desiderio bailed UP time and again with his clutch baskets and fearless demeanor, towing the Maroons to an unlikely finals appearance and a feel-good runner up finish.
"Sobrang happy ako dahil nakaabot kami sa championship. Sayang lang kasi di namin nakuha yung championship, pero para sa akin, lahat ng nangyari dito sa UP, pag-graduate ko naman, nasa finals kami, special talaga," he said.
With his words now a battlecry, Desiderio's "Atin 'To" cry could be seen as one of his biggest contributions to the renaissance of the UP basketball program, one which he hopes will live on as he bids his goodbye to his fellow Iskos.
"Never give up at think positive lang parati," he said when asked what his parting lessons are to his fellow Fighting Maroons.
"Yun ang problema namin dati sa UP, na kapag nilalamangan na kami, nawawalan na kami ng gana at tuloy-tuloy na yun. Pero happy naman ako na nabago yun. Lagi nang sinasabi ng teammates ko, 'Atin 'To,' kahit hindi na ako yung nagsasabi. Sobrang saya ko na ganoon na kami."
Desiderio also believes that though he failed in his quest to help UP claim the throne, the crop for Season 82 will be better equipped to end the 33-year title drought in Diliman.
"Hopefully, next year. Ine-expect ng tao na next year, dapat malampasan nila yung nagawa namin. Napakalaking pressure sa kanila yun, pero sa akin, kaya naman nila Kobe (Paras), Ricci (Rivero), yung at nung mga papalit sa amin," he said.
"Tingin ko kaya na mag-champion next year. Para sa akin, sila next year ang babawi sa amin."