A Nation’s Passion Lives in a Rivalry of Green vs. Blue

By RAPHAEL BARTHOLOMEW
QUEZON CITY — Senators, foreign diplomats, cabinet ministers, a smattering of Forbes’s 40 richest Filipinos, movie stars and enough professional basketball players to play five-on-five. They are the elite of Philippine society, and they all gather at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City to watch the men’s basketball rivalry between the universities Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle.

In the basketball-crazed Philippines, where former players have become senators and nearly every public square has its own court, it is hard to imagine a crowd like this assembling for any other event. Kristie A. Kenney, the United States ambassador, attended the season’s first meeting between Ateneo and La Salle in late July.

Ateneo and La Salle are the most prestigious private universities in the country. The question of which institution provides a superior education is a toss-up; the tie breakers take place on the basketball court.

Although Ateneo and La Salle have similar upper-class student bodies, their respective basketball teams are very different.

The Ateneo players have a squeaky-clean image. The team’s prize freshman, Kirk Long, came from Faith Academy, a high school in suburban Manila for the children of foreign missionaries. Guard Eric Salamat’s surname means thank you in Tagalog.

La Salle’s players have a menacing swagger, with tattoos, headbands, shaved heads and chin-strap beards. In 2005, La Salle revealed that two of its players had used phony high school equivalency results in their applications, and the team was suspended for the 2006 season.

The teams also play different styles, with somewhat different results. The De La Salle Green Archers won four straight national championships from 1998 to 2001 thanks to its vaunted trapping defense.

“The dreaded press; you know your guards will turn over the ball against it,” said Joel Banal, who coached Ateneo in 2002 and 2003. “I used to have nightmares about it.”

Ateneo plays textbook basketball, with man-to-man defense and an inside-out offense that relies on post-up moves and perimeter shooting. The Blue Eagles won the 2002 championship, their only title in the last 17 years.

If Ateneo wins Sunday’s game against the University of St. Thomas, it will face La Salle for the fourth time this season, in the national semifinals. Ateneo has won two of their three meetings this season, games decided by a total of 6 points.

In each of these nail-biters, the 15,000-seat arena was sold out, with supporters standing in aisles and stairwells. Almost everyone on La Salle’s side of the coliseum wore green. On the other side, Ateneo’s fans wore blue. Marching bands blared fight songs as spectators on both sides chanted.

The frenzied crowds are often led by some of the most prominent alumni. Senator Richard Gordon, a former Ateneo cheerleader, is renowned for sideline antics like jumping on the scorer’s table to rile up the crowd. La Salle counts the former finance secretary José Pardo and the shipping mogul Enrique Razon Jr. among its supporters.

The rivalry allows Manila’s elites to relive their carefree college days, said Ricky Palou, Ateneo’s athletic director. “It’s the passion they have for their alma mater,” he said. “They become immature. They act like kids.”

The fans’ excessive behavior is matched by the largesse that the alumni lavish on their teams. A group from Ateneo installed the hardwood floor used for the 2000 N.B.A. All-Star Game at the university gym. Not to be outdone, Razon donated about $1 million, which went toward refurbishing La Salle’s sports center and financing athletic scholarships.

The heightened atmosphere of the rivalry puts coaches and players under enormous pressure. When Joe Lipa coached Ateneo in the late 1990s, the former president Corazon Aquino, whose daughter Kris is a 1992 graduate, would call Lipa to check on the team’s progress, said Ricky Dandan, Lipa’s former assistant.

“You can lose to all the other teams, but not to La Salle,” Banal said.

When his team defeated La Salle for the championship in 2002, it was “my most fulfilling accomplishment,” Banal said, adding: “After that championship it’s like the whole Filipino nation knew me. Like if you go to a restaurant, you eat, you’re paying your bill, somebody from Ateneo got it already.”

But the shame of losing also haunts players and coaches. In the final game of the 2002 national championship series, the La Salle star Mike Cortez missed 11 of 13 shots. Afterward, La Salle students and alumni accused Cortez of throwing the game. Although Cortez is now an all-star guard in the Philippine professional league, many fans still regard him as a game fixer.

The rivalry has loosened the bond of friendship between the teams’ coaches. Ateneo Coach Norman Black and Pumaren won several professional titles together in the late 1980s with the San Miguel Beermen.

“If you’re part of the rivalry, you just don’t like each other,” Black said. “Franz played for me and he was my assistant coach, but that has little bearing on what’s happening right now. He’s the coach of La Salle; I’m the coach of Ateneo. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Raphael Bartholomew, who did research at Ateneo de Manila University and was an adjunct lecturer there, is writing a book about Philippine basketball.

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