OVER the last two days, Eric Altamirano has been showered with praise after helping National University put an end to a title drought in UAAP men's basketball that spanned six decades.
Almost instinctively, the man of the hour deflects the credit.
“Honestly, itong championship na ito, it’s not about me. It’s about the players,” Altamirano said, days after NU won Game Three of the Season 77 championship series against Far Eastern University.
No matter what he says, however, there is no doubt that none of these would have been possible without Altamirano, a low-key coach who brought the team to the Promised Land in a season where it was expected to flounder after the departure of two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks.
No less than NU owner Hans Sy has led the praise for the 48-year-old former PBA guard who led the Bulldogs to new heights with a team-first, defense-oriented concept.
As it is, Altamirano is no longer new to ending long title droughts.
During his playing years, he was also instrumental in breaking a 48-year UAAP dry spell for University of the Philippines when he helped the Maroons beat University of the East in the 1986 finals.
On a personal note, Altamirano ended a 16-year wait for another championship since leading Mobiline to the 1998 PBA Centennial Cup title. He also won in the 1997 PBA All-Filipino Conference when he handled Purefoods.
But Altamirano said personal glory is the least of his concerns at this stage of his coaching career.
“I’m not really thinking about that. I’m at the age right now na hindi ko na iniisip ang sarili ko. Ang iniisip ko na lang ‘yung kung ano ba ‘yung para sa NU,” said Altamirano, who also runs a basketball academy for younger players.
Altamirano came on board for NU in 2011, three years after the Sys bought the Sampaloc-based school and were still at a stage when they were still trying to establish a basketball program.
“On our first year, our battle cry was respect,” Altamirano vividly remembered. “We wanted to earn the respect of the league. We tried and change the culture of the team and make them believe that we can win.
“On our third year, ang battle cry namin is we can win. And then ngayong fourth year, it’s just an icing on the cake.”
But it wasn't easy.
His lowest point at NU was last year, when rumors that he was on the way out surfaced after the top-seeded and twice-to-beat Bulldogs were bounced out of the Final Four by University of Santo Tomas.
Such failures, Altamirano said, can break a team. But in NU's case, it turned into a battle cry.
“Nakita ko ‘yung hirap ng team na ito especially last year. I felt bad for them. Everybody was crying. I could still remember that scene in the dugout na they were all dejected," he said.
"Dalawa lang naman ang mangyayari, it makes or breaks the team. Fortunately for us, it made us tougher and parang naging hungry sila.
“Lahat ng experience na ‘yun, all of them looked back at that scene and they said to themselves na hindi na nila papayagan na mangyari ‘yun. Again, those adversities really made the team tougher and stronger."