The score read 60-58, in favor of the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, as SJ Belangel stepped into the free throw line with the possibility of icing the championship for Ateneo. He was having a bad game – by his standards at least – scoring just 14 points at that point along with eight rebounds. But those stats didn’t matter at that point. All he had to do was to hit these two shots to fulfill the promise he’s been preaching for the longest time now.
The first shot is normally the hardest, and it showed with how SJ’s attempt went. He threw up a shot, and it initially bounced off the rim. “SHET!” one Atenean alumnus mouthed. After a split second, the ball calmly found its way and sank inside the hoop. 61-58. The Atenean alumnus breathed a sigh of relief. So did SJ, who remained composed as he prepared for the next free throw.
The second shot would have essentially sealed the championship for Ateneo. The Ilonggo native threw it up, and unlike his first attempt which gave Ateneo fans a scare, this one easily went in the basket. 62-58. The Ateneo crowd went into a frenzy. SJ could not help but smile while looking at the crowd and his teammates.
Those two shots were more than just championship clinching free throws. That moment also essentially sealed the deal for SJ’s commitment to the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
It’s difficult to get a good eye of what the exact culture of the Ateneo Blue Eagles from the outside looking in. We all know of how disciplined of a program Ateneo is, but players always continue to preach of how special the environment is inside Ateneo. SJ’s been subject to this environment for the past four years, but it was in the Season 80 Finals where he was able to see an even clearer picture of what this exact culture is.
“Iba talaga yung feeling kapag Atenista,” shared SJ. “Dun ko narealize na ganito pala yung feeling nila Kuya Mike, Kuya Matt, Kuya Jolo, Kuya Mamu.” Mike and Matt Nieto, Jolo Mendoza and Gian Mamuyac were members of the last Ateneo Blue Eaglets team to win the UAAP Juniors Championship. The Ateneo Juniors program has had a special crowd compared to what it has in the Seniors Division. The Seniors Division is housed inside big stadiums like the Araneta Coliseum and the Mall of Asia Arena, with fans from all over the country flocking games. The High School games are played in the San Juan Arena, where mostly classmates, parents, alumni and current Seniors players are found watching games.
These are people who mean the most to these players, including SJ. It doesn’t feel like these players are playing in front of a national audience. It feels like a regular pick-up game where your loved ones are there, cheering you on as you battle tooth and nail for that pack of ice tubig you want to consume after laying it all out under the sun. The feeling of having the closest people to you, the ones who truly make you feel loved, is something irreplaceable.
But playing in front of the people closest to you can also bring a lot of pressure for a player to do well. There’s a tendency to either fold from the pressure, or to do too much just so you can impress your loved ones. SJ, as composed as he is, also felt this pressure. Aside from his relatives, his kuyas, Matt, Mike, Jolo, and Mamu were also in attendance watching him play in the Finals.
“Una natakot ako, baka kung ano masabi nila eh!” said SJ with a laugh. But instead of viewing this as something bad, he used this as a fuel of finally fulfilling his promise to Ateneo. “Promise ako ng promise pero hindi naman natutupad. Nasa utak ko lang na kailangan yung promise na yun hindi na masisira.”
This was a promise he didn’t just make to his kuyas, but also to the Ateneo community as well. The pressure is then pushed to a different level. Ateneo fans are notorious for being boisterous, sometimes a little too loud even. These fans who continue to shout “ONE BIG FIGHT!” and “AH-TEH-NEH-YO!” again and again can either make or break a player, depending on how a player handles the attention. For the case of someone like SJ, the passion of the community amazed him.
“Grabe, may mga ganitong alumni na super supportive sa organization na ito, kahit Juniors lang,” mentioned SJ. “Wala pa yung students bago magsimula yung Game 1. Tapos nakita mo, lahat puro parents, alumni. Tapos, sabi ko, ‘Wow grabe ha. Wala pa nga mga students namin, yun pa lang suportado na sila. Paano pa kaya if nandiyan na yung mga classmates namin, teachers?’”
His experience in the Finals didn’t just bring pressure to win a championship. It also exposed SJ to the kind of support system he would be exposed to if he’d go to Ateneo to play college basketball. That’s why after the Finals, SJ couldn’t help but tell his parents, “Okay, pa, ma, gusto ko mag Ateneo.”
From a basketball perspective, it’s easy to paint SJ as easily drawn by the theatrics of the Ateneo crowd. It didn’t make much sense for SJ to go to Ateneo because of the depth the Blue Eagles have in the backcourt. He won’t just compete with his kuya Matt Nieto for minutes. Guys like Gian, Jolo, Tyler Tio and Anton Asistio are also quality players deserving of playing time.
A talent like SJ would have made more sense to go to teams like NU, or even UST. He’d immediately be the main guy in such situations, with almost zero adjustment period needed. But SJ knew what he was getting into when he went into Ateneo. After all, adjusting is something no longer new to him.
“It came to the point na nandiyan ako palagi sa adjusting period,” mentioned SJ, who initially came from Bacolod before making it to Manila. During his first year in Ateneo, he was already exposed to playing with the likes of the Nietos and Mendoza. In Bacolod, he was THE guy. Scoring 50 points would have been a breeze for him, since he was programmed to be the main ball-handler at all times. But in Manila, where talent can be found from every corner, that would no longer be the case. Thankfully, SJ was more than willing to adapt and learn the ropes in Manila.
“Natuto ako paano maglaro dito (sa Manila), ano yung culture, ano yung kailangan ko iadapt, yung mga tips nila ni Kuya Matt at Kuya Mike,” shared Belangel. From the get go, SJ was already able to adapt himself well with the talent around him.
More than being a dynamic scorer, SJ also possessed of a high basketball IQ. For the longest time, his dad has preached for SJ to be an all-around player. With his high IQ, it made things easier for him to put his dad’s desire into reality. The two-time UAAP Mythical Team member used his scoring to draw opposing defenses onto him, in order to dish out easy passes to his teammates.
He had such a complete game in high school, so it was so difficult for defenses to read what he would do on the offensive end. He could play the two guard, capable of hitting shots from the outside or to cut to the rim for easy baskets. He’s always been good with the ball, bordering on unstoppable when going downhill, while possessing of a decent enough jumper off the dribble to keep defenses honest.
It’s no surprise then SJ finished in the top five for points and assists during his last two years with the Blue Eaglets. From being just seen as a scoring dynamo, he was now viewed as a complete package coming out of college. But for SJ, even though he’s already at a high level as it is, isn’t settling at all.
“Siyempre, yun yung level na kailangan ko habulin,” mentioned Belangel when talking about the point guards he’ll be fighting minutes for with the Blue Eagles. He wants to be able to not just match the level of excellence of his kuyas. As taught by his dad, he wants to reach for the stars and try to be the best player that he can be. “Di ibig sabihin na nagcommit ako, nandun na ako kagad. I need to work hard, pakita ko pa rin na I’m worth it na nasa team ako.”
Beyond just working hard, gaining knowledge and applying this is also necessary in this process SJ is about to go through. In gaining new information, rookies are normally hesitant to ask questions either because their shy or scared. The future Blue Eagle knows being shy won’t do him any good.
“Di lang ako mahihiya, yun yung pinakaimportante,” shared Belangel regarding what kind of attitude he has to show as he embarks on his new journey. Not being shy shouldn’t be equated to arrogance, that’s a quality far from what SJ truly is. It’s better to paint him as a sponge who takes in new information given to him in an instant, and willingly applies this to his game.
With this maturity and willingness to learn, it’s no surprise then to find out that beyond culture and the opportunity to further grow his basketball career, his future also played an important part in making his decision. “Yung basketball, hindi naman yan hanggang dulo eh. Ikakabuhay mo, pero what if sabi ni God, magstop na siya na hanggang dito ka lang. So ano na gagawin mo?” passionately remarked SJ. He wants to pursue a course related to business if given the chance in Ateneo.
More than just securing his future by learning new skills beyond the sport, he considers education as something that molds how a person acts in different situations. With an education, SJ believes you’re able to learn how to aim for something, and how you need to be able to work hard to reach this goal. Reaching for the stars has been a constant point regarding to SJ, and not just with basketball. He wants to aim high in all aspects, and he’s chosen to continue that journey with the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
SJ did not just center his college decision around basketball. He considered all aspects of his life as he underwent his process, and he eventually found the complete package with Ateneo.
He’s not only getting a quality education and basketball program by choosing the Blue Eagles. He’s also getting a solid support system with a fiery culture intact as well. A community that is willing to push him back up any time he falls in his dream to reach for the stars.
SJ said so himself, “Home is where the heart is.” It’s where one feels the most comfort and the most growth as well. As he sank those final two free throws, SJ did not just find himself as a champion. He found himself at home, in Ateneo.