A SHINING moment in University of the Philippines' sports history is its first (and last) UAAP men's basketball championship back in 1986.
It's been 35 years since the Maroons' feat. And while it's yet to be replicated in the UAAP, the Maroons have, of late, impressed with highly encouraging performances: a championship bout against Ateneo in 2018, as well as a semifinals finish in Season 81, before the pandemic hit and paused their rampage.
Headed by coach Joe Lipa, the 1986 squad was bannered by blue-chip rookie Benjie Paras, plus Eric Altamirano, Joey Mendoza, Ronnie Magsanoc, Joey Guanio, Rey Madrid, Ramil Cruz, Erwin Gutierrez, Duanne Salvaterra, and U-Primo Rodriguez, among many others.
That batch put a stop to Jerry Cordiñera-led University of the East's glorious two-year run. While a lot of those names (especially Benjie Paras, whose sons Kobe and Andre are also carving their own hoops careers) continue to resonate in Philippine basketball, some have quietly moved on to other lives.
Among those is with U-Primo Rodriguez, a proud bench-warmer of his time — and who continued to serve the State U as an educator, even after his time in the Maroons was done.
Rodriguez, already on his mid-50's, is on his 33rd year as a faculty member and economics professor in UP Los Baños. He also sees himself retiring there.
This interest in the academe, though, evolved during his time in the varsity.
'Utak, Puso' for U-Primo Rodriguez
His name may not lit up the scoreboards, but he was an important role-player on his own: bolstering his teammate's academic records as their 'go-to tutor' — something Eric Altamirano himself has attested to.
"Si Primo Rodriguez, siya ‘yung pinaka-smart sa amin," bared coach E in an archived article by Tinig ng Plaridel.
Altamirano was named the UAAP's most valuable player during the 1986 campaign, but was humble enough to ask assistance from Rodriguez, two years his junior.
"Meron kaming exam sa Economics and I had to ask Coach Joe Lipa kung pwedeng, 'Coach, pa-excuse po muna si Primo tsaka ako ah, mag-aaral lang kami, tuturuan lang ako,'" Altamirano recalled. "Talagang, 'Tututuran lang ako, may exam ako sa Economics, I need to pass that.' So in-excuse kami ni Coach Joe, punta kami sa bahay ni Primo, tapos meron siyang study group, siya nagturo. Imagine four books ‘yung in-explain sa akin ni Primo, and totoo naman, pumasa ako du‘n sa Econ exam because of him."
This, too, is still a vivid memory for Rodriguez.
In an interview with SPIN Life, he said, "Alam ko hapon yon bago mag-practice, nakiusap nga siya kay coach na 'wag muna kami magpractice kasi may exams siya. There are times I had to read the books three or four times para maituro ko."
That time, however, a career in the academe was the furthest thing in his mind. Like every other college player, the end goal was to play in the PBA.
"I was just helping my team out kasi I enjoy what I do, but teaching wasn't in my mind then, gusto ko maging pro, tulad ng iba," said Rodriguez.
He went on: "But I was never the star player, every year, ako 'yung feeling ko na matatanggal sa team. I played guard in the seniors, pero nung high school, centro talaga laro ko, kaya nahihirapan ako. May games pa nga kung saan tumatama 'yung bola sa paa ko."
For those impromptu tutorial lessons, Altamirano returned the favor to him on a few occasions, taking extra time to help Rodriguez improve his skillset.
An ex-deal of lessons
"After practice, may times na sinolo niya ako, pina-practice namin dribbling ko para tumaas confidence level ko. Eric returned the favor at the very crucial time," he said.
So, when they got a shot in the finals that year, Rodriguez was a proud sub off the bench.
"'Yung knockout game sa UE, pinasok ako non kahit papaano, I was already a junior at hindi na tumatalbog sa paa ko 'yung bola. Ang laking bagay," he shared.
The year after the championship, he was promoted to part of the starting five. But that's also when he realized he wanted to pursue another path.
With two playing years left, Rodriguez let go of his PBA dreams, opted out of the team, and went on with teaching in UPLB.
"1987, hindi na ko bangko, but I noticed I wasn't working as hard as I did in '85 and '86. So I followed my gut, went to try my shot in teaching economics," he said.
He fell in love with the profession, and even pursued a master's degree in Economics.
"When I entered LB, I was the youngest faculty member. Ngayon, I'm one of the tanders [old ones] already, and I'm still here," he said. "Maybe dun sa team nagsimula itong interest, but every time I remember it, it's much more than just that."
Rodriguez bared that, like many alumni, he continues to wait for UP's time to shine again, their 1986 journey is always a good memory to look back to.
"What I remember most about it the rough path towards championship, 'yung kung paano kami tinalo ng team na 'to, 'yung praktis na bugbog at walang ibang tao sa gym kundi kami lang," he said.
And to this day, the moral victory still resonates with his spirit.
"If I were to describe it in one word, it's 'hard.' But like what coach Joe used to tell us, 'There is no substitute for hard work.' Somehow, up until now, nakabaon 'yon sa'kin at sa lahat ng bagay na ginagawa ko," he said.