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Why Robina Gokongwei-Pe never gave up on the UP Maroons

By IRIS GONZALES, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 05, 2022 5:00 am

For Robina Gokongwei-Pe, a University of the Philippines alumna and daughter of the late retail tycoon John Gokongwei, 13 is quite a lucky number. 

On Friday the 13th, in her 13th year as a sports patron of the UP Men’s Basketball Team (UPMBT), the UP Fighting Maroons made history by bagging the much-coveted championship at the University Athletic Association of the Philippines’ Season 84, beating the reigning Ateneo Blue Eagles and ending a 36-year title drought in an epic showdown that culminated in an epic ending.

Robina Gokongwei-Pe with Francis Diaz, Dean of the UP College of Human Kinetics, at the UP bonfire held May 14, 2022.

History, indeed, was made before 13,000 roaring fans at the Mall of Asia Arena, just four days after more than 50 million registered voters cast their votes to choose the country’s 17th president.

It was a week of anxiety and bated breath, with basketball as intense as the political climate. 

But for Robina, nothing else mattered — at least on that afternoon of May 13, in the sweltering summer of ‘22.

Robina with people from her office who escaped with her to watch Game 3 of the Finals, May 13, 2022 (Friday the 13th)

It’s the moment she dreamt of and imagined and reimagined over and over. She was always hopeful, yet the dream was as elusive as a dream could be. Until that moment finally came. 

Weeks after the championship game, Robina is still euphoric. Did she scream? Did she cry? Was it better than sex?

Robina’s co-Ninang Maret Bautista at the UP Campus right after UP won Game 3 of the Finals on May 13, 2022.

Find out in our interview.

PHILIPPINE STAR: You’ve been supporting UPMBT for 13 years and here, finally, is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. How did you react at that moment on Friday the 13th? Did you cry, laugh, scream? 

ROBINA GOKONGWEI-PE: We have been supporting the UP men’s basketball team since 2010, when they ended the season at 0-14. When they finally won the championship this Season 84, I just kept screaming. I don’t remember crying because I was screaming too hard, and I was shaking like a banana thrown into a blender.

Rah-rah dinner with the team in early April at the UP grounds before the start of Season 84.

Somebody close to you said you were extremely happy, ecstatic and glowing. The term that person used was “better than sex.” Do you confirm this? 

The nuns at my high school, Immaculate Conception Academy, might take back my diploma if I answer this.

What made you decide to support the UP Fighting Maroons all these years? Did you ever feel like giving up at some point during the 13 years?

I think I should first explain why I decided to support the UP men’s basketball team. 

(From left): MBT Ninang Maret Bautista, Yvette Fernandez of Summit Media, major sponsor Lilian Castro of Palawan Express and Roselle Monteverde (sister of Coach Goldwin)

I was invited to be a member of the UP Centennial Commission, headed by the late Senator Ed Angara, in 2007. 

UP was turning 100 in 2008. I was always seated beside Benjie Sandoval, the Commission’s executive director, during meetings, as we were the two youngest members of the Commission.

Because UP was turning 100, I asked Benjie what could I do to help UP, where I entered as a freshman in 1978 (but left in my senior year because of a kidnapping incident).

Coach Goldwin Monteverde with the UP School of Economics Ninongs and Ninangs

He said, “How about helping the men’s basketball team?” Benjie figured I may be interested because our group used to have a team in the PBA before — Presto and then Great Taste. 

It sounded very interesting as I also used to cover sports for the Philippine Collegian, the university paper. Benjie gave me tickets for three games. I went to watch and UP lost all three. Worse, only 20 people were watching the game because we kept on losing.

Aside from deciding to help my alma mater (or almost alma mater), I also met new friends and got to talk to former schoolmates more often. It has been sheer enjoyment working with the officials behind the Nowhere to Go But Up Foundation led by founder Renan Dalisay and team manager Agaton Uvero.

Standing (from left): With Nowhere to Go But Up Foundation founder Renan Dalisay, major sponsor Vincent Go, team manager Agaton Uvero, program director Bo Perasol and coach Goldwin Monteverde

Who else did you meet along the way?

People who have been very passionate about helping UP sports. In the course of this journey, I met more friends, co-sponsors — JJ Atencio of Juanarius Holdings and Stats, and Lilian Selda Castro of Palawan Express. It was a riot tagging along with Vincent Go, my cousin who also went to UP and is head of our URC Agri-Industrial Division, to join in the fun of also co-sponsoring the team.

Thanks also to Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla, the team’s loudest cheerleader, who never doubted UP would clinch the championship this year.

Photo at Crowne Plaza courtesy of Nowhere to Go

Supporting the team also gave me and my UP School of Economics schoolmates a reason to regularly meet with each other: Jun and Maret Bautista, Bing Bing and Arcus Fernando, Jack and Abby Teotico, Jing Remo and Joel Cadiz.

Some of us first met over 40 years ago and we call ourselves “Ninongs and Ninangs.”

Thank you also to friends Betty Siy-Yap and Bill Pamintuan, both executives of Meralco, for supporting the team. Betty and I were together from kindergarten all the way to UP, while Bill used to do legal work for my dad, aside from being my dad’s “kargador” during trips.

Panalo! With former UP players Paul “Atin ‘To” Desiderio and Mark Juruena, and Nowhere to Go officials, after Game 3.

All those years when the team was losing, what made you go on?

I think we all have to give back to our alma mater whether they win or lose competitions. Our alma mater shaped us to what we are now, so we have to give back. I think it also matters a lot who manages and coaches the team. 

The people behind the Nowhere Foundation are very professional. Program director and former coach Bo Perasol and coach Goldwin Monteverde are very likeable fellows. They don’t only think about winning, but are like dads to the players.

After doing 0-14 in 2010, 1-12 in 2011 and 2-12 in 2012, the team went back to 0-14 in 2013. 

UP “Fightingest Maroon” JD Cagulangan with UP alumni Kler Batino and Iris Gonzales

Given these statistics, did you feel you were wasting your money?

Many people said we were wasting our money on men’s basketball and that we should sponsor teams who are performing better. 

I said we started with one varsity team, we can’t keep jumping from one sport to another. It’s sort of like a business. You just have to try harder instead of jumping from one business to another. I can’t say that about one’s love life, though.

Do you enjoy being with the players as their Queen Mother or Ninang? Do you have any favorites?

I certainly do enjoy being with the players, and I noticed that they are always hungry. Although I am not sure they enjoy being with me, as I could be their grandmother.

UP won its first men’s basketball championship in 36 years under the administration of UP president Danilo Concepcion and UP Diliman chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, a former UP Varsity team member himself (in Track).

My favorites? The benchwarmers. Hahaha. Because I was a benchwarmer myself. I was in the UP Varsity Swimming team wondering whether I would ever become Dyesebel, but I got stuck like a canned sardine on the bench.

So I am always very happy when a benchwarmer gets to play even for 30 seconds. But I must say, our players are getting not only more and more talented, but more and more good-looking.

What’s your plan moving forward in terms of support? Do you see it continuing like a lifetime commitment?

If we were supporting the team when they were doing 0-14 seasons, what more now? The winning feeling can be very addictive. 

It’s a lifetime commitment. Maret and I will be there until we’re walking with our canes, hopefully with male nurses. 

You run a retail giant, Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc., as president and CEO and you are a director in almost all Gokongwei-owned listed companies including the holding company JG Summit Holdings and Cebu Air. Was there ever a time you had to give up important meetings because you had to watch the basketball game?

I would always move the meeting earlier or later. It’s a good thing no board meetings fell during the finals.

What are some of your best memories about being UP Maroons’ sports patron?

Former players and coaches will still text me from time to time, reminding me that we were there when no one else wanted to be.

Why do you still love UP considering that you were kidnapped on campus when you were young?

Disclaimer: I was not kidnapped on the UP campus. Otherwise people would have seen us being held. My cousin and I were on our way to UP early one morning when men in traffic police uniforms stopped us on a side road near EDSA. We stopped, thinking we had committed a traffic violation, not realizing it was a kidnapping incident. 

The story that we were kidnapped on campus may have started because of the 2000 movie Ping Lacson: Super Cop starring Rudy Fernandez as Ping Lacson and the beautiful Angel Locsin as me. 

In the movie we were jogging in UP, me in my midriff tank top (something which I have never worn in my life) when suddenly a car stops, men get out, push us into the car and then I start screaming. 

That added drama to the script, but in the end, it was, indeed, Senator Ping Lacson who did save us.

So I love UP because that is where I saw the real side of Philippine society, different from what I saw growing up in Forbes Park.

I saw how smart the students from public schools were. They only needed to be given more opportunities. No matter how many books we had in our home library, they were way faster than me in picking up lessons.

And the biggest irony is that I was one of the few who had a driver sending me and picking me up to and from school and yet I was not kidnapped riding in a DM Transit bus but in our family car.

Personally, what does “UPFight” mean for you? How do you apply this in your life, family or business?

Never give up! Unless you’ve tried your best and it’s still a hopeless case, aka not meant to be. Like trying to be in Team A in swimming. Hahaha.