I was in my freshman year of college when the University of the Philippines Men’s Basketball Team made it to the UAAP semifinals for the first time in 21 years. I remember the screams and cheers from the students, professors, and staff as we watched the game from a projector screen in AS. It was after my last class of the day, and I had joined the large mass of people just sitting in the lobby, all cramped together and holding their breaths collectively.
I remember being alone, not in that moment, but at every point before that since I started college. It was my first semester and I was blockless. A lot of my new friends were borderline acquaintances and were people I only saw during a certain class for a few times a week. It was an extremely lonely time, and combined with the feeling of inadequacy you usually face as a freshman made the experience all the more difficult. But in that moment, I felt connected to the community around me. I was a part of something, something meaningful.
I don’t really care much for sports usually. Hell, if you asked me to explain the technical aspects of basketball, I wouldn’t be able to. They dribble the ball, they shoot, they score, and I cheer. However, this win came at a time where I questioned myself in UP, questioned whether or not I deserved to be there, and questioned taking up space. After seeing the UPMBT fight so hard to carve out a place for themselves in the UAAP, I felt like I could do the same.
That same season, they made it to the finals for the first time in 32 years. I saw how much that win meant to everyone; professors were giving out perfect scores, canceling class, and the general atmosphere on campus was on a high. It felt like there was electricity in the air, anticipation building up to that finals game versus Ateneo.
We didn’t win then. But at that point, what the UPMBT had gone through and achieved that season was enough to make it feel like we did.
Come Season 82 and I was in my second year. I was happier, had made friends whom I trusted and loved to have fun with, and was feeling a little more secure with myself. I remember sneaking watching games during class, hoping our professors wouldn’t call us to recite or ask us questions. Every fourth person would have a phone in their hand watching the game, angled so the others behind them could watch along. People would flinch simultaneously (and as quietly as possible) whenever we’d score a point or lose the ball. It was fun and exhilarating, and we made it pretty far that season, too.
Then the pandemic came and defined my entire third year in college, and UAAP was halted. We all had other things to worry about.
More than just a “finally!” moment, the Fighting Maroons becoming champions for me was the culmination of my years in college. I felt like I had waited long enough, but many in the UP community waited for much longer.
Starting off my senior year, I initially was too preoccupied with my thesis to actually think about anything else. I hadn’t seen my friends in person for so long, and had settled with Zoom meetings and Discord calls. It was bittersweet; I was relieved to be approaching my last few semesters in college but sad that I was robbed of the things that would have made it great.
When Season 84 came around and the UAAP resumed their activities, I started to feel like a UP student again. Those conducting their senior theses could do so on campus, although with limited movement. I would experiment the whole day, run into some of my friends, then go home to attend online class. It was familiar but different at the same time, and I had to get used to how things had changed.
It took some time getting familiar with the team, too. There were some recognizable faces, like co-captains Noah Webb and Ricci Rivero, as well as James Spencer, who I saw from previous seasons. It felt strange, though; when I was younger, they all seemed like the untouchable “kuyas” who I would sometimes bump into on campus. But I checked the current team and was shocked to see a lot of them were actually my age or younger. To me, it was a reminder that I, too, had grown.
I had gone to a couple of games in the seasons before the pandemic, so when the UAAP opened their doors to in-person audiences, I knew I had to go. There is just something about watching them play with your own eyes that makes you feel so involved.
When I went to a game for the first time in a long time, I felt unexplainably free. Cheering and yelling felt like releasing whatever had been building up inside of me during the pandemic. In each game, you could see the number of people from different schools coming to support their team was growing again. It felt like we were finally having a taste of our old lives back.
I decided to go to Game 3 of the finals. That morning, I finished up my thesis experiments on campus and donned my maroon shirt. When JD Cagulangan shot that three-pointer during the last, minuscule seconds in overtime, the crowd went absolutely nuts. I heard the roars and saw people jump up around me, and you could feel history being made. People were high-fiving and fist-bumping strangers, hugging people they didn’t know out of sheer happiness.
More than just a “finally!” moment, the Fighting Maroons becoming champions for me was the culmination of my years in college. I felt like I had waited long enough, but many in the UP community waited for much longer. The waiting didn’t just start four years ago, when Paul Desiderio led the charge into the finals. This was 36 years in the making. Similarly, my journey didn’t start when I was a freshman four years ago. This was 21 years in the making. All this time I was struggling to see my place in this university, only to realize that I had been slowly building myself up to be the person I am now. I worked hard to get here, and despite everything, I should be proud.
The UPMBT’s run while I was a student mirrored what I went through: a “nowhere to go but up” mentality that led to a spark of hope, finding my footing then getting lost to circumstance, and finally tasting gold after all these years. My time in UP couldn’t have wrapped up in a more perfect way.