Hoops, we did it again

Settle down, people, but the battle of Katipunan between Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines happens every year and not necessarily on the basketball court. In fact, if you ask a certain defined group, the yearly rivalry between UP and Ateneo—the one that counts—is slightly more elevated than a mere sporting challenge. “Slightly,” however, is a relative term, more of an understatement really, because while Ateneo may lord it over UP in basketball, the reverse is true in the bar exams.  Ateneo may have won 10 titles over-all at the UAAP, the amateur collegiate athletics league, to UP’s measly two, but in the bar exams, since 1913, says Wikipedia, UP has produced 49 first-placers to Ateneo’s 22.

To put things in perspective, this year’s bar exams, the results of which are to be released next year, are the 118th. In contrast, the UAAP has just concluded season 81. UP’s last victory lap in hoops was 32 years ago in 1986; Ateneo, on the other hand, is back-to-back champion this year.  Basketball aside, in terms of legal education, UP and Ateneo are the only games in town.  Sometimes, the odd dark horse will enter the derby, but these are rarities. San Beda, whose enrolment I am willing to bet may have received a boost from the election of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has produced eight. Some schools are outliers—I will not name them on the ground that they may feel condescended to—producing first-placers once or twice so they do not really have the track record for sustained excellence that UP and Ateneo have, but their presence in the list is much appreciated and here’s hoping that they will produce more topnotchers in bar exams to come.

Which is a more important metric, basketball or bar? The answer should not depend on who you ask. The question, to be blunt, should not even be asked. The whole point of college or university is to get an education; anything else is ancillary. Parents do not shell out money so that their kids can play pick-up games on their dime; employers need a knowledgeable work force, not amateur athletes; the country needs educated citizens, not jocks who incidentally have college diplomas. Extracurriculars are fine, they do round out a person and they expand a student’s social circle, but when the governing bodies of amateur collegiate sports require that college athletes meet acceptable levels of scholastic standing, they are getting their priorities right.

While we were studying law, college hoops receded into the background, almost but not quite disappearing into the whitewashed walls of the Ateneo professional schools.  We entertained an awareness of it, particularly whenever the school went up against La Salle, our traditional rival. (Actually, I should not even say “our”; my grandfather was an Old Blue but that’s about it.  I am not really invested in eagles and such—I spent my elementary, secondary and tertiary years in all-girls schools, that is, until law, but I can understand being caught up in school pride and all that.)  In the end, whether the school and its supporters went home jubilant or deflated was immaterial in our tiny little fish tank; what counted was surviving daily recitation.

Last week, though, the fever unexpectedly caught up with me. The occasion was tremendous:  the 81st UAAP season saw the return of UP, Ateneo’s traditional rival in the bar, to the finals after a three-decade absence, to face Ateneo, the defending champion, in a best-of-three competition.  If it weren’t for work, I would have watched on TV and since my partners were from schools that competed in another league, I was the only with skin in the game.  Strictly between us, I was pulling for UP. The poor thing wanted the winner’s trophy so much that its officials, students, professors and alumni abandoned their customary apathy to college sports to troop to the venue in support of its team. From what I’ve been given to understand by my UP friends, basketball occupies the periphery of the UP experience:  it is not the priority when juxtaposed to intellectual exceptionalism. UP is UP because of its academic standards: the College Aptitude Test is the benchmark of all college entrance exams—pass the UPCAT and you identify as one of the top one percent of the country’s high school graduates. Let other schools have their titles—we are UP. Or so I’ve been told.

But when the school makes it to a basketball final, the intellectual snootiness is ditched in favor of the loudest, most rabid support you will ever see in college sports. Not even Ateneo-La Salle comes close, I think—those are entitled kids playing at playing basketball—but when UP battles its neighbor on Katipunan, the class lines are drawn.  Suddenly, the game develops another dimension: it’s aristocracy versus meritocracy, and even though UP is the decided underdog, it will scrap, claw and bite its way to the top of the podium.  Did UP seriously entertain thoughts that it could win, even after losing Game 1?  I can’t speak for the university, but I think it did.

UP’s dream run to the UAAP 81 and eventual loss was the story of the year for college basketball, more than, I daresay, my alma mater’s win. We’ll see, though, if UP’s winning record at the bar continues when the results come out next year. G



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