The legendary Washington lawyer, Jesuit-trained Edward Bennett Williams coined, and lived by, the mantra “contest living”—embracing the competition and fighting relentlessly to win.
He was famous for taking on unpopular cases, sometimes lost causes, and turning every situation into an advantage. He was also a famous sportsman, owning, at some point, the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Redskins. Applying his “contest living” mantra, he fought hard, successfully, to elevate his teams to elite status.
As has been mentioned many times, the call to sports excellence is as significant, sometimes even more exalted, than excellence in other fields of endeavor.
For, indeed, in the controlled environment of a sports arena, one learns the value of selflessness, hard work, determination, passion, control, sacrifice, and the highs and lows of victory and defeat—“contest living” at its finest.
It therefore makes for great boardroom, cocktail and barroom banter when school allegiances are put to test during the three months in a year when we have our “intramurals.”
Ateneans have had a lot to cheer about in the epoch we may now refer to as our ascension as the G.O.A.T. (borrowing Muhammad Ali’s famous monicker).
But we are insatiable insofar as success is concerned. We have become gluttons for winning. And so we embark again on an effort to end up on top.
Year 1 was our claim to prominence. Our beloved coach finally had all the pieces, and he succeeded famously. Losing only one game the entire year, we unveiled our fearsome threesome (Buenafe, Salva and Chua), unleashed our erstwhile underperforming slotman (Al-Hussaini), and gave our team captain and inspirational leader, Chris Tiu, a fitting farewell.
Year 2, we wanted to show it was no fluke. And did we show them how. Losing only two out of 18 games that year, we defeated the surprisingly tough UE Red Warriors in three games in the finals. This was the coming of age of sentimental favorite, the hard-working Nonoy Baclao, who epitomized the quiet hard work that is crucial in all successful enterprises.
We were supposed to take a year off in Year 3. Gone were our big men on whom we relied for most of our offense. We were not preseason favorites. Our third-year leader, Ryan Buenafe, was in a season-long funk. It was, from all indications, the year the FEU Tamaraws were set to be crowned as the best team they actually already were, at least on paper. But the basketball gods had something else planned. The Blue Eagles lost four games that year, were not first placers entering the semifinals, and were underdogs entering the finals. But Ryan Buenafe happened. In the finals he showed to all and sundry that bad shooting and maybe even poor physical condition could be, as it eventually was, overcome by the heart of a champion. Three peat.
Year 4, we introduced a giant to the UAAP. We also introduced a Phenom. The much-awaited Kiefer of the Flame had arrived. Again, only one game lost on the way to the championship. Some call this a “boring” coronation, as the Blue Eagles were so dominant. The “Unbearable Lightness of Boring,” as Ateneo alumnus A.R. Samson had called it. Fourward, Ateneo.
They said it ended at four, simply because no one had gotten to five in the modern era. So it was said that the drive for 5 was doomed to fail, if only because of the law of averages. The Tigers tried in the ’90s, but failed. So did the Green Archers, but they too fell short. It was our beloved coach’s final run. The end of eligibility for most of our famous recruiting class of 2008. And, just to add more excitement, social and societal issues got in the way of what was an erstwhile smooth (and mutually beneficial) relationship between school and sports patron. We lost (or almost) our most valuable patron, Manny Pangilinan. It felt that “5” was just not meant to be. But it was. And what felt like the unreachable less than a decade before had become reality. The unreachable star. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The elusive unicorn. A high five.
So what’s next? For the faithful, it’s just arithmetic. We just keep on counting.
As I write this piece, however, the Blue Eagles are coming off a temporary setback in the hands of the National University Bulldogs on opening weekend. There is a different feel to the team, which debuted under a different coach and system and with new personnel. Pundits say ours is a team lacking in talent—something we haven’t had to deal with in almost a decade. Some detractors are already licking their chops. Social media is abuzz with snide remarks from a supporter of the archrivals, even remarking that the team was not able to put up 10 points in the first three quarters (a fact actually belied by statistics).
But the faithful are undeterred. We continue with our “contest living.” We do not shirk from adversity, we embrace it. We do not dwell on the loss of our champion coach. Instead, we focus on the introduction of a new one—a trailblazer and winner in his own right.
We do not think that we are lacking because of the loss of our superstars, we just count ourselves lucky that we have a rare combination of two “phenoms”—Ryan Buenafe and the Kiefer of the Flame—playing for one team.
We focus on the opportunities for our young players, all eager to shine, our new recruits who want to prove that they belong, and the fact that in Ateneo, it will be, as it has always been, that the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts.
An Ateneo Internet support site has begun to call this the “Anim-O Ateneo” year. We will show the Anim-O that has been our trademark.
We are confident we will still be in the mix for Six!
(The author is a law professor in the Ateneo Law School. He may be contacted at [email protected])