ESTONG Ballesteros won two championships with University of Santo Tomas at the expense of De La Salle during the peak of his basketball career in the nineties.
Currently one of the assistant coaches of Pido Jarencio at the Growling Tigers camp, Ballesteros now hopes to help the new batch of Tigers make their own mark in the school’s proud basketball history when they face the Green Archers in the Season 76 UAAP finale.
The best-of-three series rekindle the two schools' compelling rivalry in the nineties when the Tigers came up winners in three of their four meetings including a stretch from 1994 to 1996 when the Green Archers came up short over and over again.
Ballesteros couldn’t help but notice similarities between the current batch of Tigers and his former team, which was the most successful during that era.
“Parang 1990s lang sila,” Ballesteros said in a chat with Spin.ph after UST clinched a seat in the finals over the weekend. “Tingin ko kasi pataas na ‘yung team. Iba ‘yung healthy at kumpleto ka, ‘yung mga mukha ng player, bangis ng tigre talaga.”
Minutes after the Tigers booked a seat in the finals against La Salle by toppling National University in the Final Four, Ballesteros looked back on a rivalry that was at its fiercest in the nineties.
“Siyempre powerhouse din kami noon, pati La Salle,” said Ballesteros, who came close to winning the 1996 MVP crown which went to La Salle’s Mark Clemence Telan.
The former UST stalwart said that their finals matches between La Salle were more physical compared to the present times.
“Siyempre, iba ‘yung laro noon tsaka dati. Puro kami set play noon kaya basahan kami ng basahan. Tsaka mas pisikal noon. Ngayon kasi, konting arte lang, foul na,” said Ballesteros.
But in all the time he spent with the Tigers, what Ballesteros fondly remembers were the UST fans.
“Doon ko nakita na ‘yung dilaw, pinakamarami sa Araneta (Coliseum). Pinakamarami talaga UST,” said Ballesteros.
“Motorcade kami papunta ng Araneta at pabalik ng UST. ‘Yun ang hindi ko makakalimutan. Nung nag-champion kami, nakahanda na ‘yung baka (a whole roasted cow),” he fondly recalled.
The rivalry inevitably spilled over into the gallery with controversial banners unfurled by fans in the stands, including La Salle's infamous 'Tuition Niyo, Baon Namin' streamer and the 'Hi Jason, from Carmela' poster posted by UST fans and directed at La Salle player Jason Webb during the height of the Vizconde Massacre case.
Overall, however, Ballesteros said supporters from both sides had respect for each other.
“Hindi naman kasi ganun. Nagkaroon lang ‘yan nung Vizconde noon. Pero okay naman kami ng La Salle. Sa court lang pero outside, okay naman. Hindi naman ‘yun katulad ng Ateneo-La Salle. Kami parang nasa gitna lang, marunong lang kami makilaro sa kanila,” said Ballesteros.
Ballesteros believes the present-day Tigers are capable of regaining the crown at the expense of a La Salle team that steamrolled in the second round with nine straight victories.
“Experience-wise, lamang ang UST. Siyempre as a coach, lamang din si coach Pido (Jarencio). Magkakatalo lang sa diskarte. Ang coach, okay lang ‘yan, pero ‘yung maglalaro, sila pa rin ang magde-decide.
“Kung sino ang may puso, ‘yun ang mananalo,” said Ballesteros.