The year was 1986.
The Philippines was just a few months removed from the EDSA People Power Revolution that hogged the headlines all over the world. The whole country was just starting to embrace the new democracy. There was whiff of fresh air, a change of government that brought hope to a civil war-torn nation.
Somewhere in Diliman, the agent of change came in a 6-foot-5 package – a gangling kid out of the successful San Beda high school basketball program. He brought hope to a basketball title-starved UP community.
His name was Venancio Paras. More popularly known as Benjie, who who grew up to become a 6-foot-6 “Tower of Power” and later on made history in the PBA as the only Rookie-MVP, he was the biggest coup in college basketball that year.
“We’re a donut team at that time. Our tallest was 6’1 battling 6’4s and 6’5s,” then UP coach Joe Lipa recounted to FOX Sports.
“The first time I saw Benjie (Paras), I said to myself that he could be a phenomenal. He was well coordinated, he has high leaping ability and he’s a good passer for a big man,” added Lipa, who now serves as Mahindra Enforcer team consultant in the PBA.
The year Tom Cruise’s Top Gun became the biggest box office hit, UP finally had its own ‘Top Gun’ to match up with the best big man in the UAAP at that time, Jerry Codinera of perennial powerhouse UE Red Warriors.
“Walang pressure (when I entered UP). Nasanay na ako since high school we’re always playing sa finals,” Paras told FOX Sports.
It was no-brainer for Paras to join UP since he was heavily courted by his former San Beda Red Cubs teammates Ronnie Magsanoc, Eric Altamirano, Joey Mendoza and Duane Salvaterra, who formed UP’s version of the “Fab Five”.
“So naging maganda ang samahan namin. Lagi kami magkakakasama kumain and even after practice at classes, magkakasama kami ng mga teammates ko,” Paras recalled.
“Pero malakas na yung team na ‘yun bago ako pumasok,” Paras added.
Their bond in San Beda was a deciding factor for him aside from getting a UP diploma and to be coached by Lipa, who at that time was one the best coaches in the land.
“May pinagpilian pa akong dalawang school at that time pero ang sinabi sa akin ni coach (Joe), ako bahala sa studies ko, dapat madiskarte ako then siya naman bahala sa basketball career ko,” said Paras recalling his meeting with Lipa, who also became his national team coach.
Lipa came on board in 1981 and guided UP twice in the UAAP Finals but lost to FEU and UE in 1982 and 1983, respectively. The Fighting Maroons faded into oblivion in the next two years and were not in the championship discussion until Paras’ arrival in 1986.
Prior to their championship run that season, Lipa prepared the team by joining the now defunct Philippine Amateur Basketball League (PABL) where they battled the likes of Jojo Lastimosa and Samboy Lim, who at that time were already bona fide amateur stars.
After a decent showing in the PABL, Lipa was convinced that he now has the tools, especially with Paras, to finally get over the hump in the UAAP.
“I think they’re going to be part of history. There was tremendous support from the UP fraternities, UP president and sports community,” said Lipa.
Blessing in disguise
It was not altogether a smooth sailing for UP. They lost twice to UE in the elimination round and a crucial loss to UST almost cost the Maroons a title shot.
UE was on the verge of sweeping its way to the championship but a loss to FEU opened up the backdoor for UP to sneak in and snatch the title.
In the middle of their UAAP campaign, Magsanoc and Altamirano, their no. 1 and no. 2 point guards, went with Lipa in Seoul, Korea for the 1986 Asian Games where they settled for bronze behind the host nation and eventual champion China.
UP had to make do without their top 2 playmakers and their head coach. Upon their return, Lipa was able to come up with a plan to finally topple Codinera, who was also with them in Korea, and his Red Warriors.
But before getting another shot at UE, UP had to go through FEU in a knockout game.
Lipa made special mention of the late Ramil Cruz, the former head of the PBA referees in the PBA.
“There was only eight seconds left in the game and we were behind by one. FEU was milking the clock. Akala ko nga talo na kami. Then all of a sudden, an FEU player made a crosscourt pass that was read by Ramil. He stole the ball and made a layup to win it for us,” Lipa recalled.
Cruz passed away in 2015 during the PBA All Star Week in Palawan due to a heart attack. To this day, he’s considered by the team as the unsung hero of that 1986 UAAP championship run.
“Those challenges toughened up the team. It prepared them to win the championship,” Lipa said.
Benjie vs Jerry
Long before UAAP men’s basketball became mainstream with live TV coverage and social media hype, the second meeting between UP and UE in the finals with Lipa at the helm was trumpeted by sportswriters as the battle between the league’s giants – the up-and-coming Benjie Paras against the league’s current best big man, Jerry Codinera.
“Mahirap ‘nun bantayan si Jerry. He can shoot beyond perimeter, yung position ko as center bigla siya lumalabas, so I need to recover to contest his shot. Magaling pang pumoste, mahirap talaga bantayan kasi malapad,” Paras said.
But the rookie big man did not give an inch, battling Codinera toe-to-toe and basket for basket in the league at that time. They both finished with 19 points in the season finale.
Stepping up big time
While Paras and Magsanoc were the acknowledged Mutt-and-Jeff tandem of the 1986 UP championship team which spilled over to the PBA, the title clincher was also remembered as the coming of age of Altamirano.
The back-up point guard made the biggest difference, firing 27 points as took the cudgels from Magsanoc, who fouled out with still four minutes to play as UP repeated over UE, 98-89.
Altamirano did not use his last year of playing eligibility the next season and instead focused on his studies to graduate at UP, a clear indication how hard it is to become a student-athlete in the state-run university. He went on to play in the PBA but he’s best remembered for his coaching exploits. He’s won championships both in the PBA and in the UAAP as a head coach most recently with the NU Bulldogs two seasons ago. Joey Guanio, another member of the 1986 UP championship team, was part of his coaching staff.
But what set up Altamirano’s heroics was Lipa’s brilliant tactical adjustments.
Upon their return from Korea, where he also coached Codinera, Lipa was able to come up with a game plan to neutralize UE’s strength.
UP played zone defense and that somehow took away Codinera’s inside game as the Fighting Maroons took Game 1, 86-75, catching the Red Warriors by surprise.
In the title clincher, despite UE and Codinera’s adjustments, UP already had their numbers and their confidence was at an all-time high.
Lipa credited the whole team for buying his system.
“I have to mention the other players too. They all contributed to that championship. Benjie, Ronnie and Eric played exceptional in the Finals. Ramil gave us that chance to play in the Finals but the others also chipped in. Joey Mendoza was there, Joey Guanio, Primo Rodriguez, Choi Mendoza, Duane Salvaterra, Chris Somera and Bobby Noriega,” Lipa said.
Paras did not realize the magnitude of their triumph until they were paraded around the campus and held a bonfire celebration.
“Galing ako high school, nananalo naman ako dun pero never ako naka-experience ng bonfire. That’s my first time,” Paras said. “I never realized that (we’re all part of history) until we won the championship.”
For Paras, it defined his amateur career that eventually paved the way for his success in the PBA.
While Lipa recalls that title run, his last with UP since he retired after the season, with fondness, he doesn’t take credit for it.
“I was just right time at the right place,” he said.
For Paras and some of his teammates, that championship run which became the headlines in the national dailies, opened up a lot of opportunities for them.
“I owe it to coach Joe, who really changed my game,” Paras said. “Pangalawa sa UP teammates ko at sa community. Manalo, matalo mas nagiging close kami.”
“Malaki (ang impact nun sa buhay ko), kumbaga, I hit two birds in one stone. I had a chance to finish my studies there. Kasi UP is one of the best schools in the country. At isa pa, it really helped me in my basketball career,” he added.
“It was the best gift I can give to myself and to my parents and maipagmamalaki ko sa mga anak ko,” he added. “After winning that championship, that’s when it hit me, I made the right choice (in choosing UP over other schools).”
Get their acts together
It has been 30 years since that memorable, historic run. UP has yet to hoist another championship trophy.
As the Fighting Maroons enter another season, hoping to reverse their recent misfortunes, Lipa can’t see the ‘Magic of 86’ happening soon.
“UP needs to put their acts together,” Lipa said.
Paras, the best big man UP has ever produced, agreed with his former coach’s advice especially with the recruitment landscape changing drastically over time.
“It’s a combination of (good) recruitment and good coaches. Pangatlo is pagkakaroon ng connection between the coach and the players,” Paras.
“Importante kasi ‘yung nangyaring recruitment na yan. Gumagastos na ibang teams. UP is a government school, so ‘yung UP diploma lang talaga ang pinakama-o-offer unless may mag-sponsor lang talaga,” he added.
But with Azkals national football team manager Dan Palami now on board with the UP basketball program, there is a renewed hope. Maybe not as big as when Paras arrived at the campus in 1986, but it’s enough to bring in sponsors and some financial muscle to flex and keep up with the competition in the ever evolving basketball landscape in the UAAP. – By Alder Almo
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo
All photos used in this story are courtesy of rpbasketballphotos.blogspot.com