Utak at puso. This is the University of the Philippines’ current battle cry, and it came from the Pep Squad’s 2015 routine. Utak at puso sometimes seem to be the only things going on for the state university, whose sports funds are measly, compared to other private schools in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines.
But sometimes that's enough. In 1940, when UP won its first championship, and in 1986, when the state university won its first championship with the current roster of teams, utak at puso were also what brought the UP Men’s Basketball Team to their historic victories.
The UP Fighting Maroons' Long Road to 1986
Contrary to popular belief, the UP Fighting Maroons did not win its first championship in 1986. They first won the championships in 1940, sharing the title with Far Eastern University and University of Santo Tomas. Back then, only a few schools competed. University of the East entered in 1952, Adamson University had a two-year trial run in 1952, finally being admitted in 1970. Ateneo de Manila University joined in 1978, and De La Salle University in 1986.
Not a lot of details are known about the 1940 championship, as some of the records may have been lost during the war. The entrance of the current roster of competing teams is also one of the reasons why most sports aficionados consider UP’s first “legit” win to be in 1986.
UP’s road to victory, however, started five years before their first legendary title: It began in 1981, the year Head Coach Joe Lipa joined the team.
In an interview with Tinig ng Plaridel (TNP), the official publication of UP Diliman’s College of Mass Communication, Coach Joe recalled his first year to be “a really bad season.” Out of the nine games they played that year, they only won three.
Coach Joe recalled his first year to be “a really bad season.” Out of the nine games they played that year, they only won three.
But the team just got better and better. They were good enough to make the championship round in 1982 and 1983, thanks to Coach Joe’s strict, disciplined approach.
The team took their loss in 1983 particularly hard. Up against the University of the East, the Maroons were up by ten points in the last two minutes. They were poised to win. Then UP President Edgardo Angara even had prepared a pakain, complete with lechon, prepared in Vinzons Hall, the student center. In those last two minutes, however, UE was able to shoot the ball time and time again. After the buzzer was sounded, UE won by just one point.
Guard Eric Altamirano recalled that while they still attended the pakain, no one was in the mood to eat.
“Lahat walang kumain nu’n. Walang nakakain sa sobrang sama ng loob,” he told TNP.
Fight as hard as they might, it seemed as if there was still something missing from the team. And that is a center player. That center would enter the prestigious university three years later. His name was Benjie Paras.
Team Effort from Recruitment Onwards
While other collegiate teams were being recruited actively by professionals, UP in the ‘80s had a very informal recruitment process. That process simply meant that players would encourage people they know from their high schools to take the UPCAT and then join the team.
Paras, a student of San Beda and already a rising star, was being pirated by almost all schools. It took a team effort of Bedan alumni like Altamirano to convince Paras to join the Maroons. “O, Benj, sama-sama tayo dito ha,” he remembers telling his underclassman.
Altamirano says, “So ,in essence, kami talaga yung nag-recruit sa bawat isa. Kasi I don’t think the school could do that for us eh, dahil, wala naman—except for academics, ‘di ba?—wala namang maibibigay sa amin yung school na, kasi wala namang funds ang school noon.”
This lack of funds, a constant and consistent problem of the school’s sports teams, never discouraged the players from training hard. Players were motivated to be at their athletic best while still maintaining a decent academic standing. To this end, they would ask for extra credit assignments from their professors. They took special exams when they missed classes. The team even helped one another study during practice breaks. Sometimes, when they approached their professors for extra work, their teachers would joke, “Ah, may basketball team ba ang UP?”
Primo Rodriguez was said to be the smartest member on the team. He would teach the other players Economics and even created study groups.
Primo Rodriguez was said to be the smartest member on the team. He would teach the other players Economics, and even created study groups. During one particular semester, Rodriguez was able to condense and explain four books' worth of study material and teach it to his teammates. Altamirano remembered that he was able to pass his Economics subject thanks to Rodriguez.
Aside from balancing their time between books and balls, several members of the team had other things going for them. Coach Joe thought it was best to encourage his players to also play for commercial teams and join the national team.
Coach Joe, in his interview with TNP, recalled that there was a newly organized Open Philippine Amateur Basketball League then, organized by Ambassador Danding Cojuangco. The UP team competed in the commercial division, ensuring that they would be training against tougher opponents to prepare them for the 1986 collegiate season.
Ronnie Magsanoc, who would be the 4th-year Guard for the 1986 team, recalled waking up at 5 a.m. to go to the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, where he would practice from 6 until 8 in the morning. He would then commute to UP to attend his classes. Right after, he would practice with his teammates in the commercial team. Immediately after, he would go back to UP to have another round of practice with his schoolmates.
“Natutulog nga ako sa banyo ng UP, eh. Halimbawa ‘yung practice 6 p.m., I come in 5:30 p.m., matutulog muna ko ng 30 minutes. Tapos after ng practice sa UP, uuwi na ko kasi kinabukasan kailangan ko gumising nang maaga,” he said.
Team practices usually run from six in the evening until half past eight, so freshman forward Joey Guanio shared this jam-packed schedule. “After 8:30, wala pa nga kaming mga cooler-cooler, kapag sinabi ni Coach Joe na one-minute break, takbuhan na kami sa banyo, kaniya-kaniyang inom ‘yan sa gripo. ‘Yun lang, ‘yun ang tubig namin. So after nu’n, wala kaming food. ‘Yung ngayon, ‘yung mga players ngayon, after ng practice may pagkain pa sila, ‘di ba? Pero noon kaniya-kaniyang uwi,” Guanio said.
Newcomer Paras experienced how Coach Joe would push them to their limits. “He is a good coach. He will be mean to you, kaya lang ‘yung pagiging mean niya is for you to improve. Ako naman, alam niya ‘yung potential ko, kaya he made effort to maximize the talent that I got, na mailabas ko. Patatapangin ka niya. Kasi let’s face it, basketball is a physical sport. Hindi pwede ‘yung mabait ka rin dun. So kailangan, you need to be tough,” Paras said.
Magsanoc said it came to a point that he really wanted to cry out of tiredness, but he knew that he had to hang on. “Anak-mahirap ako, ‘yun lang ang kaya ko. It was also basketball that saved me and funded my studies dahil nga naglalaro ako,” he said. “Siguro kung ‘di ako nahirapan ng ganun, ‘di ko ma-a-appreciate kung ano ang meron ako. So thankful ako. I would never change anything na pinaghirapan namin.”
From “Atin na ‘to,” to “Atin ‘to”
The team’s efforts seemed to have paid off at the start of the ’86 UAAP Season. Coach Joe said that the team's supporters were confident that UP would perform very well that year because for the first time, their line-up was complete.
They were not wrong. The team made it again to the finals. This time, they were to face off with a familiar opponent: the University of the East Red Warriors, the same team that sent them home with heavy hearts just years before.
UE was poised to take the crown in a “three-peat” victory that year. The team, together with the whole community, was not going to let this happen. The UP community was again up in arms, reminiscent of their march to EDSA just months before.
The team made it again to the finals. This time, they were to face off with a familiar opponent: the UE Red Warriors, the same team that sent them home with heavy hearts just years before.
In the first and second round of the eliminations, UP actually lost both times to UE. This made them doubt if they could even make it to the finals. The blame would fall on Coach Joe and several members of the team, who missed some games because they were doing double duty for the National Basketball Team, which was scheduled to compete in Korea. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, however. Coach Joe came back from Korea with new plays that would take the UE team by surprise.
The team also practiced twice every day before the game, from 7 to 9 o' clock in the morning, and then again at 6 o' clock to 8:30 in the evening. They studied zone defense to neutralize UE’s star player, Jerry Codiñera. They had to be better, faster, quicker.
The rigorous training worked. The Maroons won the first game, 86-75. But the next game would decide the champion—and it was not going to be easy. The first half of the final game was intense, Altamirano recalled. He remembered Coach Joe feeling that the referees were biased against them. “He was really on his feet, he was shouting to the referees, he was complaining a lot,” Altamirano said.
Then, during halftime, Coach Joe’s demeanor changed. He looked more confident. It seems that he had some tricks up his sleeve. “Atin na ‘to,” he said, recalled Altamirano; this phrase is similar to current team captain’s Paul Desiderio’s catchphrase. Wherever their confidence was coming from, it was infectious.
Paras went on to score 19 points. Altamirano scored 27 points. Magsanoc scored 16 points, despite fouling out with four minutes to go. Richard "Duane" Salvatierra scored 13 points, Guanio contributed 12 points, and Joey Mendoza added eight more points. The final score was 98-89. In the final few seconds, Coach Joe was already up in the air, jumping for joy at their imminent win. Paras even climbed on the official’s table. The fans were equally ecstatic.
Paras and his other fellow Beda alumni were used to winning championships all the time. Magsanoc said he was shocked to see people crying.“Nagulat ako sa reaksyon ng mga tao. Kasi sa San Beda, you're supposed to win. So 'pag nanalo, you move on. Nagulat ako, ay, umiiyak sila," he said.
This victory in 1986, the year of the EDSA Revolution, had a special resonance for a school that lost many of its members during the Marcos years. It was a rare moment of genuine unity for a school like UP, often described as the microcosm of a highly diverse and disparate nation.
Unfortunately, that sweet taste of victory was a flash in the pan. UP would not reach the final round of the UAAP again for 32 years. Is it a coincidence, some ask, that today we are in similar socio-political circumstances as when UP last won over three decades ago? In these dark times, the story of the underdogs from 1986—and 2018—give us hope.
During halftime, Coach Joe’s demeanor changed. He looked more confident. It seems that he had some tricks up his sleeve. “Atin na ‘to,” he said.
THROWBACK: The 1986 UP Championship team
UP sweeps Adamson, books first UAAP finals trip since 1986
CHAMPIONS AT LONG LAST: Reliving UP’s successful 1986 UAAP revolt
THE 1986 UP FIGHTING MAROONS: An Oral History