#ThrowbackThursday: Looking back at UP’s 1986 UAAP championship

On October 25, 1986, the University of the Philippines Maroons won the UAAP men’s basketball title for only the second time in UAAP history. The Diliman-based school upended the defending UAAP champions, the University of the East Red Warriors, 98-89, in what many considered a major upset.

The Rivalry recalls the events behind that championship, a feat replicated last May 13, 2022 when today’s version of the Maroons defeated the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 72-69, in Game 3 of the UAAP Season 84 Finals. 

The atmosphere

There was a slight drizzle just outside the ULTRA (now Phil-Sports Arena) mid-afternoon on the last Saturday of October of 1986. This did not dampen the spirits of the predominantly UP crowd who trooped to the stadium and saw history unfold. More than 10,000 spectators, mostly alumni and students of both schools, came to watch the game as the ULTRA was almost filled to capacity. 

The game was also televised live on People’s Television Channel 4 with game time set at 3PM.

Tournament format

All eight teams were to face each other twice in a double round-robin format. The team that finished first automatically qualified for the finals, needing only one victory to win the championship. The team that finished second needed to beat the top-seeded team twice to win the title. In case of a tie for second place, the last finals seat would be decided by a playoff game.

A team that swept all their 14 games in the eliminations was automatically crowned champions without going through the finals anymore.

Pre-season forecast

UE won the previous season’s championship at the expense of the UST Glowing Goldies. Despite needing to win twice against the Goldies in the Finals, they were able to accomplish this feat, demolishing UST 105-78 in Game 1 and completing the sweep with a 96-80 conquest. Allan Caidic scored 33 points in Game 2 and won MVP honors, his third after achieving this in 1982 and 1984.

For Season 49 though, Caidic, along with Aaron Torres (who went on to play for Great Taste in the PBA), Brillante Cardenas and Robert Ella were not part of the team anymore. Taking their places were three-point gunner Vernie Villarias (wjo played for Pepsi in the PBA), 1985 UAAP Juniors MVP Modesto Hojilla, Roberto Recio and Lauro Eugenio. They also had a new coach in former Crispa and Great Taste enforcer Johnny Revilla, who replaced Jimmy Mariano after the latter gave the school back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985. Even without Caidic, no one doubted UE’s capability of winning a three-peat, especially with star center Jerry Codiñera around. The other UE players included Carlos Fermin, Boysie Zamar, Conrad Barile, Orlando Donato, Orlando Javier, Vilmer Bañares and Alfred Bartolome. 

Not to be left behind were the 1983 champions and perennial contenders, the FEU Tamaraws. They had three key players in their roster, the 6’7 Jack Tanuan (the PBA top draft pick of 1988), flamboyant forward Dodong Postanes (who later played for San Miguel Beer), and wily and grizzled point guard Ramonito Roa. Coached by FEU alumnus and former Toyota point guard Pablo Javier, the Tams was always a major title contender because of their solid basketball program that continuously produces one talent after another. And with Tanuan manning the post, the Tams were poised to regain the title they held three years prior.

UP, on the other hand, didn’t play as well in seasons 1984 and 1985, a far cry from the two first runner-up finishes in 1982 and 1983. They lost Mon Celis, Dodo Samson, Jojo Villa, Jojo Villanueva, Manuel Garcia and Ricky Dandan from their 1985 team. Holdovers were Eric Altamirano, Ronnie Magsanoc, Joey Mendoza, Rey Madrid, Chris Somera, Herbert Wenceslao, Bobby Noriega (+) and Ramil Cruz (+). They brought back veteran Duane Salvatera, who didn’t play in 1985, and welcomed Primo Rodriguez and Joey Guanio as rookies. 

But the most crucial piece that made pundits believe that UP had a chance was the acquisition of Benjie Paras from San Beda High. Touted as a generational talent and the best product that came out from high school in the past decade, Paras was a 6’4 mastodon who, while still raw that time, according to teammate Altamirano, manned the paint like it was his own and attempted to swat every shot in front of him. 

With several schools recruiting him, Paras opted to go to Diliman because of a promise of good education and the prodding of his former Red Cubs teammates, Magsanoc, Altamirano and Mendoza. The Maroons failed to win the crown in 1982 and 1983 because they were known, as UP Coach Joe Lipa mentioned in Episode 91 of the online sports show, “An Eternity of Basketball”, “a doughnut team – a squad that had no center.” With Paras going onboard, that missing piece has finally been secured and the Maroons became title contenders. “Ang lakas ng katawan ni Benjie, parang bato-bato yan,” added Lipa.

Former UP coach Joe Lipa with his former point guard Eric Altamirano in 2014. (Sid Ventura)

Pre-season preparation

Prior to the UAAP season, Lipa decided to field his UP team in the PABL wearing the Converse-Milkland brand as preparation. On the very first game, Lipa’s coaching assistant and former UP Maroon Jojo Villa remembered Converse-Milkland shocking a veteran-laden RFM Swift team. Villa recalled that this was the first time the public may have seen Benjie Paras live, and they were in awe. 

The highlight reel was “when Paras was triple-teamed underneath the basket, only to see the then 17-year old come out of nowhere from the trees and dunk the ball with authority, eliciting oohs and aahs from the crowd.” Villa, who later became an assistant coach with the San Miguel Beermen in the late 90’s, predicted rightfully after that game that the media would install the Maroons as one of the pre-tourney favorites. 

In another game, Altamirano, in Episode 84 of “An Eternity of Basketball”, discussed how they used their PABL stint to toughen themselves, even at the risk of getting clobbered by the opposition. But when they went up against Lhuillier Jewellers, one of the favored teams that had Jojo Lastimosa and Samboy Lim, “natatalo kami pero dikit lang. Nararamdaman namin, malakas tayo ha, nakaka-compete tayo against the top PABL teams. Napi-feel namin yun confidence, and naisip namin na this year nga siguro.”

Converse eventually landed fourth in the conference, an impressive performance of what may seem to be a portent of things to come.

Start of Season 49 

UP suffered a loss in the first round against the Warriors, losing to the team by a solitary point courtesy of a buzzer beating 15-footer by reserve center Vilmer Bañares. They ended the first round with a 6-1 card, closely following UE’s unblemished 7-0 card. 

In the second round, national team duties prompted Lipa, Magsanoc and Altamirano to leave the team for at least three weeks to play in the 1986 Asian Games held in Seoul. UP lost one of its games against UST with the three key personalities abroad. Another important game was against the Adamson Falcons, led by Louie Alas, Nandy Garcia (who played for Ginebra and Alaska in the PBA), Choy Estrada (later played for Swift in the PBA) and Jojo Castro. Without their head coach and two starters, the Maroons were in a quagmire. Lipa described the game versus the Falcons as crucial, as a loss would mean “wala na UP, tanggal na.”

But showing nerves of steel, UP went to Paras and their other remaining key players – Mendoza, Salvatera and Cruz to deliver the goods. With Mariano “Nonong” Araneta (currently President of the Philippine Football Federation) taking over the coaching reins with Villa ably assisting him, the Maroons claimed the all-important victory to set up a playoff with the Tamaraws after both teams ended up with similar 11-3 cards. FEU did its share by shocking UE and preventing them from sweeping the eliminations and automatically winning the championship. In the end, UE snared the first finals seat with a 13-1 card while the Maroons and the Tams duked it out for the second Finals seat.

Another important game in the second round was their tussle with the Tamaraws. Lipa recounts the final few seconds of that game, with FEU ahead by a point, 89-88, and with ball possession – “down by one point, with eight seconds to go, and FEU had the ball. We had a play where we will influence the inbound to go to one side and then try to steal the ball but when we fouled their players, they opted not to take the charities. I looked up in the sky and said, God, we did everything, ikaw na bahala. Pagbaba ng ulo ko, nakita ko si Ramil Cruz, nakaagaw. Sabi ko,  Ramil, wag ka madadapa.”

Altamirano added, “we kept fouling, and they kept waiving the free throws. It was after the third foul when we caught a break. Coach Joe, mahilig yan sa mga deny, deny, all passing lanes, and we’d become really good at it. Hetong si Ramil Cruz, he’s been doing it at practice, kunwari magde-deny siya at kunwari magre-relax siya, all of a sudden, faked his move at halfcourt, stole the ball, and he kept dribbling. Sa sobrang bilis nya, medyo nadadapa siya kasi hinahabol siya ng FEU guard, tapos biglang na-shoot niya yun layup. It was a good win, kasi parang it was a sign that something good will happen that year.”

UP went on to win that game, 90-89, through Cruz’s heroics. But many may have forgotten that another unsung hero of that ballgame was Joey Mendoza. Villa described Mendoza’s game like “a veteran stepping up bigtime. Joey went toe-to-toe versus Postanes. Pukpukan yun laro nila, pag maka-score si Joey, babawi si Postanes, and vice versa.”The win allowed UP to keep in step with the Tamaraws after that unexpected debacle against UST in the second round.

The playoff game vs. FEU

There was palpable tension at the ULTRA when the two teams faced each other one last time for the season. The Maroons were pegged as the slight favorites by virtue of their twin victories against FEU in the eliminations. But the Tamaraws, who also had Edwin Padilla, Olan Cruz and freshman Andy De Guzman (who played for Swift in the PBA), were brimming with confidence after staining UE’s immaculate record a few days back. 

Altamirano vividly recalled the 1983 finals setback against the Tamaraws as something that pained him and Magsanoc a lot. “The frustration, bumaon sa amin yun talo na yun, considering we were freshmen that time and that we were used to winning, having come from the San Beda Red Cubs. It was really heartbreaking for us, ang sakit, when we lost the championship. Kaya nun fourth year na kami ni Ronnie, and then facing FEU pa, parang it vindicated us. Of all the teams that we needed to beat to enter the Finals, FEU pa. Kaya significant yun, breakthrough game talaga for us to win the game.”

UP led all the way, with Paras overpowering Tanuan inside as UP’s gunners kept the FEU defense busy all game long. This allowed Paras to flourish inside and take advantage of the one-on-one defense of Tanuan. The Maroons eventually won the game, 88-81, to set up a finals rematch with the Warriors after their first encounter in 1982.

The finals

The UE Warriors came into the Finals series with a twice-to-beat advantage, needing only one win to snare the coveted trophy. Altamirano described how difficult the situation was. “UE was stacked, most of their players were playing in the PABL, then Jerry was an NCC player. They breezed through the eliminations, two rounds, all their opponents were losing, isa lang ata talo nila. Tapos kami, tinambakan nila nun second round, as in talagang tambak, so going to the Finals, nobody was expecting us to beat UE.”

In Episode 123 of “An Eternity of Basketball,” Paras said, Hirap talaga kami sa UE. Kung tao-tao, medyo hirap kami pero nakapag-adjust kami sa offense at yun defense namin, tinao-tao na namin sila para they won’t be able to connect from the outside.”

Given that there was a break of seven days prior to the Finals, Altamirano revealed that a comprehensive change in their game plan was discussed to beat UE. “Ganun kagaling si Coach Joe, so gumawa kami ng plan paano to stop Jerry Codiñera. Looking back, lahat ng ginawa naming preparations, maganda, kasi halos lahat ng adjustments namin, na-pickup ni Coach Joe sa Asian Games.We changed our offense, running a flex offense ng Japan. Then on defense, parang zone defense na may pagka-man, kaya it was hard to read. Jerry struggled with our defense.”

In the first game, UP defeated UE, 86-75, to forge a winner-take-all Game 2. Paras revealed to AEOB that he was under the weather prior to Game 1. “Nasa chapel ako, nagdadasal, kasi maysakit ako, may lagnat. Walang nakakaalam, di ko sinabi. Kung napansin niyo, may under shirt ako sa jersey ko. And then, nun nanalo kami, sinuot ko na din ulit yun for the second game.”

In Game 2, Magsanoc fouled out with still more than four minutes remaining in the ballgame. Altamirano remembered how concerned the team was with one of their key players out of the game. “We had a five-point cushion when Ronnie left. I made some crucial baskets, Benjie also made some crucial shots, all of a sudden, biglang lumaki yun lamang. Then, of course, the crowd went wild. Nahihirapan na maka-recover yun UE. Jerry struggled against Benjie sa ilalim, and while Game 2 looked easy, it seemed that everything was defined.” 

Altamirano added that at the end of the first half, “nakipag-away si Coach Joe sa mga referees, causing a big commotion. He was playing mind games with them. Pagdating ng dugout, ang first words na sinabi niya sa amin, ATIN NA TO! Yun yung nag-fireup sa amin, sa sobrang confident ni Coach Joe, true enough, we dominated Game 2.”

On the other hand, Paras revealed that while Codiñera got into early foul trouble in Game 2, he was more worried about his offense as he was still capable of scoring in bunches. “Ang problema yun offense pa rin niya eh. Nakaka-konekta pa rin siya sa labas.” Codiñera ended up with 19 points, the same score that Paras produced. 

Altamirano, on the other hand, went on to win finals MVP honors after stepping up huge with 27 points that took the starch out of the Warriors. Magsanoc added 16, Salvatera pumped in 13, Guanio had 12 while Mendoza tallied 8. UP trounced UE, 98-89, earning for themselves their first UAAP championship after 47 years. Paras even stood up on the technical committee table and joined the boisterous UP crowd in celebration of this championship.

It’s curious to note that the last two teams UP beat in Season 49 were also the same two teams that beat them in the finals in 1982 (UE) and 1983 (FEU). Payback was completed within a period of two weeks.

Members of the 1986 UAAP champion team Primo Rodriguez, Jig Mendoza, Ronnie Magsanoc, Joey Guanio and Benjie Paras. (Sid Ventura)

Post-game celebration

There was joyous celebration everywhere. The finals MVP, Altamirano, could not even attend the victory celebration as he had to immediately leave the ULTRA to play at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum for the YCO Painters against the Purefoods Hotdogs. in the PABL. Interestingly, Altamirano also ended up best player of that won game, sinking a crucial trey to tie the score and send the game to overtime.

The top two major broadsheets that time, the Philippine Star and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, featured UP’s championship in their frontpage headlines. Louie Beltran, then the editor-in-chief of the Inquirer and a UP alumnus, himself wrote the editorial, citing UP’s ability to “produce Presidents, Chief Justices, Chiefs of Staff, even Communist and Moro rebel leaders, but the school never produced a champion basketball team until the 1986 UP Fighting Maroons.”

More importantly, there was a rare moment of unity in the UP community, much similar to the EDSA Revolution that happened exactly eight months prior to the title game. A victory parade was held at the University complete with the traditional bonfire and fireworks display near the Oblation, as well as the recognition of each member of the championship team. Paras, Magsanoc and Altamirano received the loudest cheers from the crowd.

Program postscript

UP came back with the intent of getting a repeat championship. But unfortunate circumstances struck as three key members of the team – Paras, Magsanoc and Guanio – had to leave the team in the crucial stages of the second round to represent the country in the SEA Games in Jakarta. 

The Maroons lost two crucial games without these three players – including one against lowly National University, a team which hadn’t won a UAAP game for a couple of years already. That loss led to UP ending up third overall in the standings with a 9-5 card, one game behind second placer, UE, with a 10-4 slate, and eventual champions, Ateneo, which toted a 13-1 card, their only blemish against the Maroons in the first round (they also lost to the Goldies but the game was forfeited in favor of the Eagles).

In 1988, the Maroons were still in contention for a finals seat but lost to the La Salle Green Archers in a game UP needed to win to tie the Archers for second. Paras was saddled with early foul trouble and eventually fouled out of the game, leading to the heartbreaking loss. UP eventually missed the last bus to the Finals by one game, paving the way for an Ateneo-DLSU Finals, the first in UAAP history.


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