THERE’S no question the 16 players in the roster as well as the coaching staff of the National University men’s basketball team have done most of the work to get to where they are right now in the UAAP.
But everyone knows that the success of the Bulldogs on the court this season would not have been possible without the support off the court by team management, led by SM Prime Holdings chief and top team patron Hans Sy.
From the time the Sy family became majority owner of the Sampaloc-based school in late 2008, the Bulldogs started the transformation from perennial whipping boys into title contenders, thanks to the financial muscle.
The men in blue and gold returned to the Final Four after a decade-long absence in 2012, made a second straight semifinal stint last year before reaching the Finals this season, ending an even longer drought of four decades.
Now NU is cheerleading champ for the second year in a row, has won its first women's basketball title, and is two wins away from its first men's basketball title since 1954.
That seemed like ages away from those dark days when NU went without a victory for seasons - and a single win by the Bulldogs would merit big headlines on the sports pages, complete with a touch of irony and mockery.
'Bulldogs finally bite,' the headlines would scream.
The transformation during the Sy time actually started internally with improvements to the school’s facilities and the student-athlete’s meals, allowances and quarters, apart from the usual full scholarships.
Bulldogs assistant and Bullpups head coach Jeff Napa can attest to how different the NU basketball program has become, having experienced both worlds — as a player in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as a coach now since 2005.
“Malaking pagbabago lalong-lalo na sa facilities,” he said in a chat with Spin.ph on Tuesday, a day before the Bulldogs battle for survival against Far Eastern University in Game Two. “Nagkaroon kami ng facilities ngayon, compared dati na may facilities pero hindi ganun kaganda.”
Napa recalled that during his time, the Bulldogs had to make do with a practice court inside the campus that was only three-fourths the regular size of a basketball court.
Now, the players train in a state-of-the art court sitting on the eighth floor of the main campus building. They can even call the 20,000-seater Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay as a veritable home court, since it is also owned by the Sys.
They also enjoy the privilege of training abroad in US, China, and Korea before a season starts and have crowded league powers Ateneo and La Salle in the recruitment war.
“Ngayon all-out support yung management hindi lang naman sa basketball program, pero lahat ng sports programs ng NU,” Napa said.
The Bulldogs likewise live in a better shelter.
“If I recall (correctly), yung dorm namin (noon) simple lang, bahay lang talaga,” Napa said. “Ngayon, condo-style na komportable talaga yung players.”
And of course, they also enjoy bigger allowances.
Dei Sta. Maria, a former NU standout in the early- to mid-eighties, said they received a daily food/transportation allowance of P15 during his time and got an additional P50 during game days.
“May kaunting allowance kami dati, pero kung ikukumpara mo yung ngayong allowance, malayong-malayo,” said Napa, who suited up for NU from 1998 to 2002.
Asked to expound, the former Bulldogs star forward politely declined to provide numbers.
“Bawal na yan,” he said with a laugh. “Talagang ma-fe-feel ng player (yung benefits) at maglalaro talaga sila ng mabuti dahil binibigay sa kanila lahat.”
Current Bulldogs star point guard Gelo Alolino hinted that what they are receiving could be enough as a means of living.
“Pwede na (yung allowance) pero kailangan mo pa rin i-budget eh,” the commerce, major in banking and finance student said. “College pa lang naman eh. Hindi pa pro.”
What the 20-year-old Alolino can say is that they are fortunate to have the backing of Sy, son of mall magnate and the Philippines’ richest man, Henry Sy Sr.
“Hindi ko na naabutan yung dati, pero nung nalaman namin yung (situation) dati, sobrang thankful kami,” the fourth-year playmaker said. “Grabe yung support sa amin ng management.”
“Sobrang swerte kami ngayon. Ito na yung naabutan namin ngayon.”
“Talagang wala na silang iisipin kundi maglaro na lang,” said Napa, 34. “Wala namang regret na dati ako naglaro. Masaya ako para sa mga players kahit hindi ko naabutan yung nararanasan nila ngayon.”
But it's more than just finances that has brought the team to greater heights.
Sy and school management made sound moves over the years, beginning with the decision to stick with coach Eric Altamirano after last season when the Bulldogs' semifinal exit as top seed had calls mounting for the former UP star's sacking.
Team management also refused to panic after two-time league MVP Bobby Ray Parks left the school prior to the season, resisting the urge to rebuild and keeping faith in the holdovers led by Alfred Aroga, Alolino and the vastly improved Troy Rosario.
Those players are close to ending a long, long title drought.