A Brief History of the Ateneo-La Salle Rivalry
Sports is defined by its legendary rivalries: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; the Red Sox and the Yankees; Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; the Lakers and the Celtics; Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. In the Philippines, the most iconic definitive rivalries used to be in the professional leagues. We had Crispa and Toyota once, before it became Ginebra San Miguel and Alaska. Somewhere along the way—due to a triumph of marketing or a series of happy accidents, perhaps—the hottest ticket started to be found in the college leagues, where the generations-old rivalry between Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle University seeped over into the mainstream.
How did the rivalry start? There’s a lot of ink that’s been spilled on the topic. RJ Ledesma, himself a DLSU man and the author of Blue Babble, Gang Green, traces the enmity to decidedly non-sports roots, beginning with the disagreements by the Jesuits (who went on to found the Ateneo) and the Brothers of the Christian Schools (La Salle) in the 19th century, disagreements that that spilled over to the Philippines following the American colonial rule.
One can also consider 1939, like many Eagles and Archers do, as the time when the rivalry was born: when La Salle pulled a stunning upset against Ateneo as the two collided for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) crown.
The enmity began with the disagreements by the Jesuits (founders of the Ateneo) and the Brothers of the Christian Schools (La Salle) in the 19th century, disagreements that that spilled over to the Philippines following the American colonial rule.
The Green Archers wrested their first-ever title from the Blue Eagles by taking the league’s championship game by a mere four points (27-23). The loss was, of course, nothing but a crushing disappointment to the Blue Eagles, who expected the coveted tournament title that year. Prior to 1939, the Blue Eagles had won five NCAA titles and looked poised to win another one before the Green and White pulled the rug from under their feet.
The Manila Bulletin described the loss for the boys in blue as “a bitter pill for Ateneo, as the Blue Eagles had waded through the elimination and championship rounds without a defeat until the final contest.” La Salle fans threw fried chicken at the Ateneo gates at its old Padre Faura campus by way of rubbing salt in the wounds. It was the start of many more memorable moments between Ateneo and La Salle.
After the loss in 1939, Ateneo finally got back at its chief rival in 1958. La Salle wouldn’t wrest another NCAA title from Ateneo until 1974, when the Archers defeated the Eagles, 90-80, starring Lim Eng Beng, who thrilled basketball fans with his scoring exploits during that era. (In a fitting end to his collegiate career, Lim scored 37 points in the championship, a game watched by an overflowing crowd at the Araneta Coliseum.
“He is actually La Salle,” said La Salle coach Tito Eduque about Lim to the Manila Bulletin after the game. “Without him, La Salle would be nothing.”) It turned out to be the last La Salle-Ateneo finals match-up in the NCAA, because Ateneo would bolt out of the league four years later following their closed-door finals against San Beda.
It took several more years for La Salle to get their rematch with Ateneo. La Salle withdrew from the NCAA following a turbulent 1980 finals match with Letran, and it took six years for the Green Archers to reach the finals again after rejoining the UAAP. It would take a further two years before the Eagles and the Archers could duke it out on the court again. In their first finals match in 14 years, the Blue Eagles beat the Green Archers, 76-70, in front of a jam-packed crowd at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. According to newspaper accounts, Ateneo star Gilbert “Jun” Reyes played through a fever to score 19 points for the Blue Eagles, their second consecutive title victory under head coach Fritz Gaston.
There is something about a rivalry that brings out the best in everyone and the La Salle-Ateneo tussle is no exception. “It feels good when there’s a crowd watching, and when you win against Ateneo, you have two times the joy,” Archer Jeron Teng says in Filipino, trying to describe how he felt during one the finest moments of his collegiate career—scoring the winning shot against Ateneo in 2013. Teng was the face of the De La Salle Green Archers for some time, and to this day, he cannot quite put into words the adrenaline that surges when playing against Ateneo.
“I still can’t describe how it feels,” Teng says. “Ever since I [started] watching Ateneo-La Salle games in high school, I’ve always had goosebumps. The feeling remains indescribable. It’s very overwhelming to play the match. You will really feel the rivalry.”
While Teng has already led the Green Archers to a UAAP title in 2013, he wants to end his collegiate career with a bang. In 2016, his final year with the Green Archers, Teng and the Archers once again ended up triumphant.
“The Ateneo-La Salle rivalry is, I think, the biggest rivalry in Philippine sports,” Ravena said. "“I think it’s the closest to the Crispa-Toyota days. The rivalry is really intense; it goes beyond the players.”
Kiefer Ravena is one of the few players who has been on both sides of the multi-generational rivalry. In elementary school, Ravena played for La Salle Greenhills up until fifth grade, before being wooed by Ateneo as their first grade-school basketball scholar. He’s since earned that scholarship many times over, distinguishing himself through high school and then onwards through the college leagues. He’s been named UAAP’s Most Valuable Player twice in his college career and has become one of the biggest names in amateur basketball.
Ravena, who played his final year with the Ateneo Blue Eagles in 2015, was adamant that he will miss playing Ateneo-La Salle games as he turns to a new chapter in his basketball career. “The Ateneo-La Salle rivalry is, I think, the biggest rivalry in Philippine sports,” Ravena says. “I think it’s the closest to the Crispa-Toyota days. The rivalry is really intense; it goes beyond the players.”
While coaches always preach that one should treat each game as just a regular game, Ravena says that as players, they themselves can’t help but recognize the particular weight of a La Salle-Ateneo game. “Honestly, the [players’] mindset is different…We really do need to put in extra effort during the games,” he says, quickly adding, “But of course, we still need to enjoy the game, no matter what. That’s the most important thing.”
At the beginning of the noughties, both schools met for the UAAP seniors basketball crown in 2001 and 2002. During this time, the Green Archers had overcome the ghost of the 1990s against UST and formed a dynasty of their own on teams led by Don Allado, Dino Aldeguer, and Renren Ritualo.
For Ateneo, their recruitment from the high school ranks to form a competently competitive team began bearing fruit with Enrico Villanueva leading the forefront along with Wesley Gonzales and Larry Fonacier.
In a competitive finals series, the Green Archers took the title in 2001 to win their fourth straight UAAP crown with Game Three, 93-88, in the victory that was much sweeter for La Salle’s head coach
Franz Pumaren. “We were able to erase the ghost of La Salle’s 1988 loss where my brother [Dindo Pumaren] played,” he says. The two archrivals would meet again the following year, but this time,
it was the Blue Eagles who came away with the title, shutting down the Green Archers’ attempt to reach five straight UAAP crowns with a 77-70 Game Three victory.
Due to those two consecutive nailbiters where La Salle and Ateneo met for the UAAP championship, the rivalry experienced a renewal that separated schools, friends, co-workers, and families between the shades of green and blue. In the 1990s, the Green Archers were busy trying to return to the winner’s circle, only to fall short many times—four to be exact—against University of Santo Tomas.
On the other hand, the Blue Eagles were in the so-called “dark ages” following their success in the late 1980s.
But in those early years of the new millennium, the Ateneo-La Salle games became relevant once again. Another chapter was added to this long rivalry when the Blue Eagles won the
2008 title over their longtime archrivals. Norman Black, back in 1989, had coached the San Miguel Beer team that captured the Grand Slam—winning all the three conferences in the PBA that year—a rare, historic feat that has only happened twice before that. Yet the Blue Eagles’ run to the 2008 title against the Green Archers was one of those memorable championships he can never forget.
Ateneo had five straight UAAP titles from 2008 to 2013, stamping its team as one of the most dominant in the collegiate league.
“This is a tougher, longer struggle,” said Black. Ateneo had five straight UAAP titles from 2008 to 2013, stamping its team as one of the most dominant in the collegiate league. Led by Rabeh Al-Hussaini, the Blue Eagles lost just one game in the elimination round with the team also backstopped by Nonoy Baclao and Chris Tiu. Al-Hussaini won the Most Valuable Player that season, but had wanted more than just an individual award. “I want a ring,” Al-Hussaini was quoted as saying that year.
True enough, the Blue Eagles got that coveted ring, taking a sweeping 62-51 win, with Tiu winning the Finals MVP in his last game as a collegiate player. Perhaps Al-Hussaini said it best when it comes to winning over their archrivals: “Nag-champion ang Ateneo, against La Salle pa. Sobrang overwhelming talaga.”
Even in the earlier days of the rivalry, fights were common during Ateneo-La Salle matches. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or an alum, you bled either green or blue for your team. Recently, one of the most well-documented fights erupted between alumni players from both schools. PBA players Joseph Yeo (La Salle) punched Enrico Villanueva (Ateneo) in a 2005 alumni game, the video of which can still be viewed on YouTube. The rivalry has since taken a different, even friendlier tone. Fights are getting rare, camaraderie slowly quenching the thirst of victory. No longer do fans throw fried chicken at the other school’s premises or trade punches during games. In fact, the La Salle and Ateneo community were united when, in a 2009 game, all wore yellow in to honor the late president Corazon Aquino.
“We’d hear from players from previous teams who tell us that there would always be fistfights. It’s really a competition between two schools, but now, I get the feeling that it’s really just basketball…which is a good thing,” Teng says.
The fights may be gone but the rivalry’s spirit will remain. “Like they say, you can lose to anyone, just not La Salle,” Ravena says.
“Alumni [supporters] tell us, lose to everyone, just don’t lose to Ateneo,” Teng says.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.