IT'S been far too long since University of the Philippines last tasted the air of the Final Four.
Twenty-one years feels like an eternity at this point, with 1997 coming up as something from a far too distant past.
The world was still grieving the death of Princess Diana, which unsurprisingly, put Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" atop the Billboard Hot 100.
Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone were also dominating in the airwaves, while here in the Philippines, president Fidel V. Ramos was approaching the end of his term.
Putting things in perspective, only four of the current crop of Fighting Maroons, namely Bright Akhuetie, Diego Dario, Gelo Vito, and Jarell Lim, were born when the Iskos faced FEU and went a basket shy of making it to the championship round. Those four were just toddlers back then.
Think about that: this batch's captain Paul Desiderio and fellow Cebuano Jun Manzo were just about to be born then, while last Wednesday's heroes, the Gomez de Liano brothers Javi and Juan, still weren't born into this world.
Head coach Bo Perasol was three years removed from his playing days with UP then, trading his maroon-and-white jerseys for the semi-casual polo shirts as he's still in the formative years of his coaching career calling the shots for UP Integrated School in the high school level.
But that's not all on Perasol then. He wasn't a full-time coach at that time as he's also working as a banker for China Bank by day.
"We're practicing ng 5 a.m. then tapos we'll end at 6:30 a.m. kasi may klase yung mga bata. Tapos ako naman papasok pa ako sa Makati," the soft-spoken mentor recounted.
Perasol's close friend and fellow Maroon, Patrick Aquino, was far from being the decorated women's basketball coach he is today with the NU Lady Bulldogs. Back then, he was still keeping the flame alive on his playing career with Red Bull and eventually Blu Detergent.
Same was the case for current UP deputies Poch Juinio and Rodney Santos, who were about to begin their partnership in Alaska.
La Salle, on the other hand, has yet to begin its four-peat run in the UAAP as Franz Pumaren was still playing in the PBA, going from his long-time team San Miguel to Mobiline.
As for the other coaches in the UAAP today, Tab Baldwin just won his third NBL title with the Auckland Stars, while Olsen Racela just got traded to San Miguel after playing sparingly in his first three seasons with Purefoods.
Handling the Fighting Maroons program back in the day was coach Nic Jorge, with Eric Altamirano serving as his consultant after accepting the Purefoods head coaching job in the PBA. Now, Jorge is still with his BEST Center program while Altamirano has gone his separate way and is on top of the National Basketball Training Center (NBTC).
Paolo Mendoza, the star of that 1997 UP team that last reached the Final Four, now handles the Junior Maroons together with fellow Maroon Ogie Gumatay.
That's how long 21 years has been.
But that was then.
All the years of struggles and days at the cellar are now behind the Fighting Maroons as they look forward to brighter days ahead.
And for Perasol, it just makes all these seasons of waiting worth it.
"Tapos na yung dark days. Itong mga players namin, mga millennial na ito. Hindi na nila naranasan yung masasamang nakaraan and they want to build on new beginnings. Alam naman nila na everytime they play, they are playing not just for themselves but for the school as well," he said.
UP Naming Mahal, indeed.