8 August 2005 | Rick Olivares
(To the tune of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”)
It was 30 years ago today, when Dalupan taught the boys to play.
They’ve been going in and out of style.
But they were guaranteed to make Ateneans smile.
So let me re-introduce to you...
the championship team of yesteryear...
the Blue Eagles of 1975.
The Season of their Discontent
The year was 1975.
The United States evacuated the last of its citizens from embattled Saigon. A dropout from Harvard founded a company called Microsoft. VHS and betmax video were introduced. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run was released. Paul Simon was “Still Crazy After All These Years.” And... one Tiger Woods was born.
On the home front, the Philippine Basketball Association opened its maiden season much to the delight of local cage fans everywhere. Over at the NCAA, Ateneo De Manila was picking up the pieces of a season gone awry.
There were high hopes for a pennant during the 1974 season (the title eventually went to De La Salle, which won the last of their five NCAA titles). The team, in spite of fielding some eight rookies, won five straight to keep pace with the JRC Heavy Bombers and the Green Archers before disaster struck. Conrad Banal (brother of later Blue Eagles Coach Joel Banal) who was finally back in the line-up after a near disastrous injury and Toy Dalupan (Coach Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan’s son) were suddenly lost to academics. Upset at the loss of two key men and the lack of academic support for his players, Coach Dalupan resigned in the middle of the season. Cipriano Unson, S.J., took over the coaching reins but team morale had already gone south. A season that seemed promising ended when the team limped into the homestretch with three devastating losses. The silence from Loyola Heights was deafening after that.
The school administration immediately sought to repair the damage and mended fences Dalupan, who eventually returned to the fold. “With Fr. Unson’s assurance that steps are being taken to look after the player’s academic needs, I have decided to return,” said the Maestro, a former Ateneo cager himself (1947-49), who was about to enter an era of unparalleled coaching success in the PBA.
With things falling into place, there was an air of excitement surrounding the summer before the 1975 NCAA Season. Dalupan was not only back but this time around, he had Adrian “Bong” Go (who would later coach Great Taste in the pros) to assist him. Go, who was a product of ex-Boston Celtic great Ed McCauley’s coaching school, made a name for himself by steering the Ateneo De Davao Knights to a fourth place finish in the National Seniors Tournament the year before.
The Blue Eagles on the other hand, were a potent mix of seniors (co-captains Gerry Versoza and Max Estrada), a smattering of talented sophomores (Fritz Gaston, Joy Carpio, Chito Narvasa, Pons Valdez, Maling Estrella) who now had a year of collegiate ball experience under their belts, and four exciting rookies (Steve Watson, Padim Israel, Louie Rabat, and Johnny Perlas).
Watson, despite being only a high school senior, was invited by school officials to try out for the seniors team. “Steve was special,” recounted his high school coach and former Blue Eagle Dodie Agcaoili (’58 & ’61 NCAA Champs). “He led the Blue Eaglets to back-to-back titles against a tough field that saw us battle the Loyzaga brothers in San Beda and Ricky Relosa in Mapua. Steve was not only a great rebounder but was a scoring machine. Against FEU in the National Intercollegiate Tournament, he scored a record 64 points! And he was only in high school. Not even Caloy Loyzaga scored that much!”
“Hell, I was nervous, man,” recalled the former King Eagle. “I used to watch these guys (the Ateneo seniors) play and they were my idols. And suddenly, I was on a team with them.” But Watson was such a prodigious player that the transition to the collegiate game didn’t take too much trouble. Not since Caloy Loyzaga led the Red Lions to the NCAA title as a high school senior has a player been so heralded upon his entry into the collegiate ranks.
Recah Trinidad glowed about Steve, the son of an Australian father in Sports Weekly Magazine, “Watson is only a high school student but his game already carries an inkling of hard-earned poise and power.” Watson described to be slightly taller, faster, and deadlier than his senior counterparts would go on to lead Ateneo and the league in scoring for the next three seasons.
Padim Israel on the other hand, was a legend in the playgrounds of the Ateneo. “Nababalitaan namin yung Padim Israel, hari ng IAC,” recalled Gerry Versoza who himself was a walk-in from St. Louis University in Baguio. “Matunog na matunog yung pangalan niya, so Coach Baby invited him. Kung napapanood mo si Tayshaun Prince of the (NBA’s Detroit) Pistons now, ganun si Padim noon.” With a wingspan of a pterodactyl, Padim was a defensive specialist who was known for his nifty stretch lay-ups and bank shots.
Louie Rabat, who had moved up from the high school champs, was eager to reclaim his father, Frankie’s title of “the Rajah of Rebound.” He would add much needed muscle underneath the boards backing up Estrella and Carpio.
The team was not only fresh and reinvigorated but was finally, healthy. But with one notable exception. During the 1974 season, Fritz Gaston was hobbled by a knee injury that limited his effectiveness. Sensing that this team’s time had come, he came back too soon. Playing in pain, the knee injury never properly healed and would haunt him all the way to the pros.
Gaston and the multi-talented Joy Carpio were high school teammates on a UST Glowing Goldies squad coached by Francis Wilson. Unlike their seniors counterparts, the UST high school team always figured in the UAAP finals but would always end up in 2nd place against the more powerful UE teams. During the tryout for the UST collegiate team, the two were treated like outcasts by their seniors counterparts prompting them to look elsewhere.
“I wasn’t even thinking of going to Ateneo,” remembers Carpio with a laugh. “But Fritz said one day, ‘Dun tayo sa Ateneo, maganda yung jacket nila.’ Syempre, malaking attraction to play for Baby Dalupan, so lumipat kami sa Ateneo kahit wala kaming kakilala. At least, welcome kami dun.”
Versoza, who was the anointed King Eagle of that year, found kindred spirits in Gaston and Carpio. “I was from St. Louis University in Baguio and I didn’t know anyone in Ateneo. I passed the ACET and was thinking of a quiet life as a student. While I played high school ball in Baguio, I never thought I’d play for the Blue Eagles. While looking at some PE classes at Loyola Center (Blue Eagle Gym today for all you Gen Y’ers), I saw a notice about the basketball tryouts. I was just glad I made the team.”
Another player who would play a huge role that year was another senior -- Chito Mistades, the jumping jack from San Sebastian Recoletos High School who incredibly started out as a volleyball player. Mistades was a contender for the 1974 MVP Award and had a knack for making timely shots in bunches. Louie Ortiz-Luis wrote of Mistades in the Guidon that year: “(Chito) has an uncanny sense for being at the right place at the right time. But his biggest asset was the spring in his legs.”
A Portent of Things to Come
With the pieces to the championship puzzle in place, the Blue Eagles embarked on an impressive summer campaign in the National Seniors Basketball Tournament (the NCAA season was followed by the National Seniors and the season-ending MICAA) where they finished with a 5-3 record and beat pro-teams San Miguel, U-Tex, and Filman Bank. Rounding out the rest of the team were Ricky Lacson, Chito Narvasa, Pons Valdez, Monette Araneta (who came from LSGH), and Joey Pengson.
Because of their impressive showing, the Blue and White squad was invited to participate in the Philippine Invitational Basketball Championship. They finished 3-3 and beat an Yco-Tanduay team that featured former Blue Eagle Boysie Henares and then resoundingly trounced the FEU Tamaraws twice.
“We were teenagers up against mostly grown men,” recounted Carpio. “The high level of competition, especially against a guest-team from South Korea, really toughened us up.”
“We didn’t win any of those tournaments but we didn’t mind,” said Versoza who knew that the team’s balance and depth played in their favor. “The ultimate goal was the NCAA championship.”
Hot and Cold: Early Season Woes
On July 6, 1975, the Blue Eagles opened the 51st edition of the NCAA by taking the floor in the old Rizal Memorial Coliseum against a familiar and dangerous foe, the Letran Knights.
Letran’s hallmark has always been its rugged defense and the Freddie Webb-mentored squad knew that the only way they could keep pace with the Hail Mary Squad was to bludgeon the Blue Eagles during their incursions in the lane. Despite being foul–plagued, the Knights remained within striking distance and were down 48-44 during the half.
The ugly ball continued during the early second half where the teams continued to rack up fouls like it was going out of style. “Man, that was one ugly game,” winced Watson as if he could still feel those chops and hacks he received all those years ago. A total of 73 fouls were called during that game, a dubious record if there was ever one, but Ateneo made Letran pay for its roughhousing tactics by converting on 72% of its freebies as opposed to their opponents’ 58% conversion from the stripe. With less than 10 minutes in the game and Letran threatening at 69-68, Watson, Versoza and Mistades blew the Muralla-based squad of Abe Monzon, Alex Marquez (who would later transfer to La Salle), and Vicente Beso away with a crippling 26-point end-game explosion that saw Ateneo notch its first win, 95-84.
Despite the 1-0, Dalupan was unhappy about the way his wards played against the Knights’ brand of basketbrawl so he threw them into three brutal practices that had the well-conditioned Blue Eagles panting for breath. “Coach wanted us to stay with our offense no matter what,” explained Versoza.
With fire in their eyes, the Blue and White team took to the floor and nuked the San Sebastian Stags 86-68 with a hellacious and suffocating man-to-man defense.
A powerhouse line-up and an early 2-0 record had many Ateneans thinking of a sweep en route to a first round pennant. With old nemesis, the Jose Rizal Heavy Bombers on deck, many an Atenean expected a battle royale. Instead, both conspired for bad theater as both teams shot blanks with Ateneo making only .386 of its field goal attempts as opposed to JRC’s .310. But the Bombers proved steadier at the free throw line in the end game to prevail 71-66.
“Kung akala namin galit si Dalupan after the Letran game,” recalled Mistades, “eh, parang pumutok yung Mayon volcano pagkatapos.”
Despite being touted as prohibitive favorites to snatch the crown atop La Salle’s head, this was relatively a sophomore and rookie-laden team and it showed at times. “One of my greatest fears early that year was that because of the talent that we had, some might forget the team game and prefer to go one-on-one,” revealed skipper Versoza whose crucial miss during Ateneo’s end-game rally against JRC deflated the blue and white gallery. “We all knew that we had a great team from the first man to the last one off the bench.”
Finding the Range
With an Indian run against Mapua, San Beda, and La Salle on the horizon, the Blue Eagles had to find their game or relive the nightmare of a season on the brink. And find their game they did as they shellacked the Cardinals 106-94 and outlasted the Chuck Barreiro and Tony Gagan-led Red Lions 79-70 to set up a memorable game against arch-rival La Salle.
With 1:10 left in the game and the Green Archers up by four, center Maling Estrella nailed a clutch jumper to cut the deficit to two. With Archer point guard Peter Ley setting up a play at the 15-foot line, Blue Eagle skipper Versoza swiped the ball and sprinted down for an uncontested lay-up. Game tied. And the Fabiliohs reached a deafening crescendo. “When Gerry stole the ball, I knew that there was no way we were going to lose this game,” said Watson.
With 21 seconds left to salvage a victory, the Archers misfired on their final offensive. Louie Rabat hauled down the rebound and immediately dished to Versoza who drove through a porous La Salle defense to nail a one-handed jump shot from 15 feet out. With a raucous Ateneo gallery drowning out the La Salle cheers, the rattled Archers lost control of the inbounds that fell into the hands of -- who else -- Versoza, who converted two freebies to ice the game.
The victory over La Salle gave Ateneo a 5-1 record and set-up a first-round championship game against their only tormentors JRC. If the Shaw Boulevard-based squad was hoping for repeat performance against the Loyolans, they were in for a rude surprise for on August 10, 1975; the Blue Eagles bucked the pressure of an error-filled game to win the first round flag 76-73. Watson, held to a measly six points last time around, scored 18 points to pace the team with the marginal points off a jumper and a pair of free throws after a foul by the Heavy Bombers’ Cris Calilan (who would ironically later go on to skipper the Blue Eagles to their first UAAP title in 1987). “It was a team effort,” declared a visibly happy Dalupan despite the close score. “We dictated the pace and never lost our composure despite JRC’s last-ditch rally. Now all we have to do is win the second round.”
The second half of the season saw a more relaxed Blue Eagle team take to the court. They were already assured of a finals berth by the NCAA ruling that the first round champion will meet the second round pennant winners for the NCAA title. With a foot inside the door, the Blue Eagles breathed a little easier and went on to make short work of the rest of the competition. “Everything started to click from there,” marveled Watson at the well-oiled machine that the Blue Eagles had become. “We just flat out killed everyone.”
“Kahit sino bunutin mo sa bench na ‘yan, eh gagawa yan,” admired the Maestro about the depth and talent of the team.
“We never had a fixed starting five,” further expounded Carpio. “Coach would use different players depending on kung sino yung kalaban. So dapat ready ka to go at all times.”
“That gave every player the confidence they needed,” added Gaston. “And hindi kami ma-scout na mabuti ng kalaban because on any given day, hindi mo alam kung sino yung gagawa. We ran only a few set plays but there were so many options that anyone of the five players on the floor could score. We ran that play pretty much all the time. They never quite caught up to it. Ganun kagaling si Coach Dalupan.”
Blue Eagle the King
With a near-spotless 12-1 record, all Ateneo needed to do was win its final assignment against the Letran Knights who were determined at all costs to prevent an Ateneo sweep of the 2nd round. A sweep meant an outright championship for Ateneo since the Blue Eagles already claimed the first round flag. But the Blue Eagles were not to be denied. They walloped the Knights amidst a sea of blue in steamy Rizal Memorial Coliseum. As they final seconds ticked off the clock, some of the players hoisted up Dalupan for the traditional victory ride. “Ang sarap ng panalo na yun,” smiled Dalupan. When the final buzzer sounded, the players embraced and whooped it up with the ecstatic crowd that burst into song with Raul Manglapus’ “Blue Eagle the King.”
“All I could think about was, ‘Yeah, we did it! We did it!” recalled Watson during the bonfire that was held outside the Loyola Center. “We’re the champions! To play for Ateneo is a dream. And to win a championship for the school ---pare, that’s something you’ll remember and be remembered forever.”
The Blue Eagles’ triumph in 1975 was Ateneo’s 14th NCAA cage title. That Blue Eagle team will go down as one of the all-time best in the school’s illustrious basketball history. They were part of that magical year’s double-double: basketball and volleyball champions in the collegiate and high school level. They repeated the feat the following year despite losing several key players (Versoza, Estrada, and Mistades). Dalupan was on the sidelines for the back-to-back title but would soon turnover the reins to Bong Go (a rule was passed in 1977 that forbade coaches to pull double duty in the pros and collegiate ranks). Steve Watson, Joy Carpio, and Fritz Gaston took center stage the following year and were likewise drafted to beef up the national team. Five players on that team went go on to play in the PBA: Watson, Carpio, Gaston, Padim Israel, and Bambi Kabigting. Carpio would play a good chunk of his basketball career for the Maestro following him in Crispa and Great Taste where he would win more championships. Watson would finish his studies at Fairfield University, a Jesuit University in Connecticut, before going back to play pro ball in the Philippines. But before all that, the Blue Eagles would go on to face the San Beda Red Lions for the 1976 and 77 titles. The Red Lions were led by Watson’s Ateneo Grade School teammate, Chito Loyzaga who denied Ateneo’s bid for a three-peat when they lost an infamous closed door game at the Araneta Coliseum after Pons Valdez’ last shot was disallowed. It would be another 11 years before a cage title would be brought home to Loyola Heights.