One cycle had just ended for Tab Baldwin’s Ateneo Blue Eagles last Wednesday.
With the graduation of Thirdy Ravena, the Nieto twins, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong, a chapter in Ateneo basketball just closed. And Baldwin could not help but be grateful to have gone to war with them.
“Four years ago, it was really these guys that I was looking at, saying these guys have to carry this team.”
When Baldwin took over the Ateneo program back in 2016, the Blue Eagles had just seen the end of the Kiefer Ravena era.
Ateneo had always been ready for rebuilds but during that time, the pieces the school foresaw as the building blocks for their next era were not Baldwin’s anymore.
A few months after Baldwin took over, CJ Perez, Arvin Tolentino, Jerie Pingoy, Hubert Cani, Kemark Carino, Clint Doliguez, and John Apacible could not make the academic quota of Ateneo.
Safe to say, the American-Kiwi tactician had his work cut out for him.
“If you remember in the beginning, there was a whole bunch of other guys there. There were these guys in the beginning and of course we had that exodus. I was left with these guys,” Baldwin recalled.
“What they are now, I didn’t see it. I’ll be honest — I didn’t see it.”
Season 79 saw plenty of ups and downs in Ateneo’s campaign. Though the Blue Eagles finished with silver — definitely an over-achievement — there was still much for both the team and Baldwin to work on.
“I knew they were good, young men. I didn’t doubt that they could be champions, but it wasn’t evident even though some of these guys had championship pedigrees from high school. Things like that. It wasn’t evident,” he continued.
Then came a magical three-year run.
In Season 80, the Blue Eagles beefed up in strength, epitomized by Chibueze Ikeh and Vince Tolentino. A year later, they had spunk that could be condensed in the persona of Anton Asistio.
All the while, Ravena, the Nietos, Go, and Wong flourished, growing into leaders.
And it all built up to Season 82.
“They’re special, special. That word doesn’t cut it. They’re incredible guys. I just remember them. They probably don’t remember. I remember them four years ago. I remember looking at them and thinking these guys are going to lead this team into the future because in these four years we’ve only lost like four players,” Baldwin shared.
“It was really these guys that I was looking at, saying these guys have to carry this team.”
Season 82 was a masterpiece, as the Blue Eagles turned the hardcourt into their canvas.
The five, alongside the rest of the Blue Eagles, created beautiful music together.
Despite getting win after win, blowout after blowout, they remained unsatisfied. Besides a three-peat, they wanted to make history.
Though many credit Baldwin’s genius for this result, the renowned tactician begs to differ. For him, he learned more from the five rather than them learning from him.
“There’s not a person in the Philippines now that follows basketball that they can say they’re looking at five champions. And I’m telling you that it’s not just on the court. It’s not just in the UAAP. I truly mean it when I say, when I came here four years ago as a coach, as a human being, there were a lot more holes in me than there are today. And I can’t say anything better because these five guys filled a lot of those holes,” Baldwin said.
“And so for that, I thank them. I honor them. I love them. There will always be a place at my dinner table for them under any circumstances. These guys are my friends for life. And I thank the Lord for that. I thank Ateneo for that too.”