From skipping games to crying in the stands: How I learned to love the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry

The woman with bright green hair must’ve been in her forties. I craned my neck as she walked past me to enter the Mall of Asia Arena. That wasn’t temporary dye, the spray-on variety that cakes on to your hair and comes out in the wash. That was entirely her hair, bleached and stripped dry, then saturated in a fluorescent hue that seemed even more shocking under the sun. Why would someone do that? Her shirt answered: Animo La Salle.

That intensity of school spirit wouldn’t have made sense to me five years ago. I studied in Ateneo from 2008 to 2012, part of the most spoiled batch of Ateneans in terms of UAAP men’s basketball championships. These were the five-peat years, when bonfires felt more like tradition than celebrations of miracles. We’d mill around, listen to Norman Black speeches, just basking in our school’s dominance. In pre-Instagram, pre-hashtag times, we did our bragging in person: Ang galing talaga ng school natin, ‘no? Next year ulit!

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Those were the best years, but I took them for granted. I didn’t understand why older alumni went HAM at games, why titos were so angry all the time. Calm down guys, we’ll still be champions. I didn’t even own an Ateneo jacket and watch games live because of course we’re going to win. “You were the worst,” my La Salle friends tell me.

(READ: A look back at the Enrico Villanueva Joseph Yeo rivalry)

The year after we graduated, Ateneo didn’t even make the Final Four, while La Salle took home the crown. Some of my friends were heartbroken, some said it was karma for the hubris of making “Anim-0” jokes. I was still naive—maybe we’ll get it next year. But we haven’t been champions since 2012.

And like a shitty lover who repents only after their SO leaves them, just like the “don’t it always seem to go like you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” song, suddenly I cared.

Rivalry games take on more significance when you aren’t winning championships. Sure, the Green Archers took home the trophy last year, but the Blue Eagles gave them their only loss of the season. Depending on which side you’re on, you either argue that one loss does not matter, or that it is enough to ruin your rivals’ perfect run.

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Sunday’s game was a reversal, with the Blue Eagles staking their 6-0 record against the super-stacked Green Archers. It promised to be the best match between the two teams in years.

(READ: Blue Eagles have closed the gap on the the Green Archers)

Before the game, Thirdy Ravena hung around the court while some Green Archers warmed up inside. They called him over, and he shot back with a joke: “Ayoko, takot pa ako sa inyo!”

All jokes evaporated when the game began in earnest. Ateneo took an early double-digit lead with their outside shooting. La Salle ended the third quarter with an explosive Ben Mbala dunk and a trey by Jollo Go, cutting Ateneo’s lead to just one. By the fourth quarter, it didn’t matter what color you were wearing. Everyone was on edge.

Perhaps the only neutral party was a French sportswriter named Corentin Rodriguez. He had just flown in to write about the Pinoy basketball scene and observe the pros, but his cab driver from the airport immediately sold him on the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry. “There are no college rivalries where I come from,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

When Mbala’s free throws gave La Salle a one-point lead with seconds to go, I turned to a segment producer covering the game. We went to college together, and though press are technically supposed to stay neutral, we groaned and pulled at our hair beside other Ateneans. “Ayoko na,” we moped.

But then Matt Nieto got his hands on the ball, got fouled, and then sank both free throws to give Ateneo the lead. Ateneo’s juniors star SJ Belangel was jumping up and down, Nieto’s father had his head in his hands, praying. Up in the higher seats, an Atenean director outnumbered by his La Salle friends took a video: “It’s getting pretty fucking quiet here!”

Me? When the buzzer rang, the producer and I screamed, grabbing his bewildered TV hosts (from UP and UST) by the shoulders and shaking them.

Rodriguez was right beside us, GoPro in hand, visibly shocked by the drama. Before the game, he had asked me why people loved college rivalries so much in the Philippines. If he had asked in that moment, I would have pointed my finger around the entire arena—both Atenean and La Sallian sides, people of all ages lining the seats.

We love college ball not because it offers the highest level of play, but because of the culture built around it. We like it because of the drama; there’s drama because we like it. It’s a circular process, and the longer the rivalry goes on, the more fun it becomes.

It took years for me to understand this. From a student who took wins for granted, to an alumni crying in the stands. But I’m finally here, and there’s no going back. Who knows, one of these days I might even get blue hair.

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