Aug 132014

I was there when when UP last won the UAAP championship in 1986 and I even joined the pandemonium on the court at the ULTRA to celebrate my alma mater’s first basketball championship in more than 25 years.

How I wish I could have also joined last week’s bonfire on the Diliman campus to celebrate the Maroons’ first win in two years.

In a way, that would have been more fun I think. It was more UP.

That is, more symbolic of the grit that many associate with my alma mater. The bonfire was the’s way of declaring: “Sure, we’ve been losing game after game after game. But watch how we fight back. In fact, watch how we enjoy and celebrate the process of fighting back.”

Most UP alums have long lived with the fact that the country’s most respected university also has a lousy record when it comes to basketball. But that’s never really bothered us too much.

For we’ve long been used to focusing more attention, and at times even celebrating, events or people others would probably associate with losers, defeat or even tragedy.

We’re big on martyrs, or young people who showed brilliant promise but, in the eyes of many, “lost” because they were cut down before reaching their prime or opted not to cash in on that potential.

Take the story one alumnus. Wenceslao Vinzons was a promising student leader who was the youngest delegate to the 1934 Constitutional Convention. The path was clear for him to build a prominent and prosperous career. But that didn’t happen.

World War II started, and Vinzons responded the way most Filipinos and any Iskolar ng Bayan would: You drop everything, put personal dreams on hold and serve. Which at that time meant joining the fight. He formed guerrilla units to resist the Japanese forces, but was later captured and executed.

He’s pretty much a forgotten figure in the country, but not on the UP campus where the narrative of young people speaking out and fighting back has long been cherished.

Across from the Sunken Garden in Diliman where the bonfire was held is Vinzons Hall where two of the university’s major student institutions, the UP Student Council and the Philippine Collegian, are based.

In fact, a famous quote from one of the most revered UP student council leaders exemplifies the UP spirit.

“The struggle for freedom is the next best thing to actually being free,” the late Lean Alejandro once said.

That was, of course, in reference to fight against the Marcos years when, in the eyes of many, Dliman was the campus of losers, of rebels and outcasts engaged in a futile struggle against a more powerful adversary.

Back then, UP “lost” more than just basketball games, though students kept on fighting, coming up with creative ways to hit back at the tyrant.

What would be considered a “victorious” rally in the early years of martial law would be considered a pathetically comic exercise by today’s activists. It meant gathering on the third floor of Palma Hall, unfurling an anti-Marcos banner and shouting slogans while marching down to the second floor where the protesters then had to quickly disperse to avoid arrest.

In fact, UP student council leaders and editors of the Philippine Collegian were routinely arrested and detained.

One editor, Dito Sarmiento, another young man with a promising future, died after his brutal prison stint. Again, he was not forgotten.

UP students honored him with a Collegian front page displaying an image of the Oblation, the school’s symbol. The naked man’s fists are raised breaking free of chains. Emblazoned on the page was the slogan that came to identify the UP activist spirit of those years: “Kung di tayo kikilos sino ang kikilos. Kung di ngayon, kalian pa.” T-shirts with that front image can still be seen on campus today.

UP even embraces those who have been cast away and rejected by other institutions.

A few weeks ago, I wrote of how the activist hero, Edgar Jopson, got a cold welcome at the his alma mater, the Ateneo, which reluctantly allowed his family hold a memorial on the Loyola Campus. Well, the exact opposite happened in Diliman where UP.gave him a warm welcome, hosting a moving service attended by friends, family, former classmates and fellow activists.

You’ll find UP alums who are proud of being from UP — but you might also sense a bit of reluctance about feeling too proud and being too carried away about celebrating the university’s vaunted status as the nation’s top school.

After all, an institution that likes to paint itself the University of the People, whose graduating students are known to hold signs and banner extolling everyone to “Serve the People,” is also an elite institution that has produced leaders known for ripping people off, especially the poor.

Yes, many of the country’s presidents and political figures came from UP, but that’s not something alums can be entirely proud of considering that that list includes the likes of Ferdinand Marcos and Juan Ponce Enrile.

A 27-game losing streak at a school like Ateneo or La Salle would have sent school officials and alumni scrambling to find a way to fix the team, to launch a search for new star players or a new star coach. Money is no problem for these exclusive enclaves.

But for UP, it’s never been about collecting trophies and bragging about championships. Oh, there are rich UP alums who could probably be tapped to bankroll a “winning” team, but that’s not a priority.

Sure, reports that UP athletes don’t receive enough funds for such a basic need as food have sparked outrage. But so have stories of the financial woes of UP and its students, highlighted recently by the tragic story UP Manila student Kristel Tejada, who killed herself because she was forced to go on leave because her family failed to pay her tuition.

The Diliman bonfire was meant to honor the Fighting Maroons, and to tell them, “We know it’s been rough, but we’re here with you.”

Player Mikee Reyes, who led the team with 28 points in the win over Adamson, was quoted in the INQUIRER as saying, “To the whole UP community, thank you. Even if it’s a small win, we have to start somewhere.”

In fact that small win was a big reminder that while other schools may be intensely focused on, and even obsessed with championships and basketball glory, for UP, there’s simply no burning desire to go there.

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