As the buzzer finally expired at the end of Game 3 in the UAAP Finals series between the National University Bulldogs and the Far Eastern University, NU head coach Eric Altamirano celebrated with his players as the confetti fell all around them.
For the Bulldogs, this was the fruition of 60 years of labor. After winning the UAAP title way back in 1954, NU suffered one of the longest droughts in Philippine sports history. It all ended with the help of Altamirano.
The meek NU coach is not new to breaking title droughts. He was part of an effort similar to this before back in 1986 with the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons. Back then, the Maroons ended a 48-year title drought with Altamirano winning the Finals Most Valuable Player award.
“Mas mahaba yung drought na ito. Forty-eight years kami sa UP noon. Ito 60. Look at NU. It’s really a small school. It’s an achievement for the school,” Altamirano said. “We’re a David against Goliaths. Kahit maliit yung school parang giants rin kami ngayon because of the support of the school.”
“It’s a breakthrough and I hope that this is just the start for NU, that the culture and the winning tradition will be there, that there will be continuity.”
It was the same wish Altamirano had for UP back in 1986, however, the Maroons have not won a UAAP title in basketball since then.
With players such as Ronnie Magsanoc, Benjie Paras, and Joey Guanio and headed by coach Joe Lipa, Altamirano led the Maroons the UAAP title with a 98-89 victory to clinch the crown against the University of the East Red Warriors.
“Ronnie fouled out of that game and I was the only guard left,” the NU coach recalled. “I scored a lot of points but the funny thing was I had to go straight to a PABL game after.”
The coach also marveled at the turnaround that NU completed.
“Dati pag NU yung kalaban, break namin yun. Time yun ng mga bench players namin to play and we count it as a win already,” Altamirano said.
Although his playing career did not pan out well, Altamirano won two titles as a head coach in the PBA with Purefoods in the 1997 All-Filipino Cup and with the Mobiline Phone Pals in the 1998 Centennial Cup.
However, in terms of this historical value in Philippine basketball, those titles in the pros would pale in comparison to what Altamirano accomplished in the UAAP.
“I’m just honored to be part of two histories, of winning a championship as a player and as a coach,” he said. “Di naman lahat ng tao makaka-experience noon. I’m humbled and honored."