MANILA, Philippines – Tab Baldwin is not usually one for emotional soliloquys, but the Ateneo de Manila University head coach could not help but wax poetic after the Blue Eagles completed a perfect campaign in the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament.
In his fourth season in charge, Baldwin steered Ateneo to a 16-0 sweep of the tournament, capped by back-to-back wins over University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the finals. It was a truly dominant campaign for the Blue Eagles, who won their games by an average margin of 16.5 points.
Baldwin, who has now led Ateneo to three consecutive UAAP crowns, acknowledged that a perfect season had been "something that we dreamed about," even if they were reluctant to talk about it at all.
"We never wanted to set that as a goal. But I know that the players particularly dream about it and it is a dream season to go through unblemished, to be able to say to each one of those 16 days, no team was better than us," he added.
The coach has made no secret of how hard they worked to reach perfection, even as they seemingly cruised through the elimination round and straight to the finals. Yet as tough as their campaign was, it was also "a lot of fun" for the entire team – including their disciplinarian coach.
"(I've had a) tremendous amount of fun with these guys," said Baldwin.
This is why the end of the season is bittersweet for Baldwin, as he is set to bid goodbye to five players who have been with the team ever since he took over in 2016. Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Adrian Wong, and Matt and Mike Nieto all played their final games for the Blue Eagles on Wednesday.
Baldwin paid tribute to his graduating players, all of whom played major roles for his team throughout the years.
"They're special. Special. That word doesn't cut it," he said. "They're incredible guys."
Baldwin was honest in his initial assessment of the Ateneo seniors. When he met them four years ago, the coach didn't see much in them, even though they had "championship pedigrees" from their high school years.
"What they are now, I didn't see it," said Baldwin. "I'll be honest. I didn't see it."
In the four years that have passed, the Ateneo seniors made sure to change their coach's mind. Go – whom Baldwin once tabbed as a "big, fat kid" – became one of the best local big men in college hoops, and a legend in Ateneo for his clutch shots in Season 80. Wong established himself as a superb two-way guard. Mike and Matt Nieto were hailed for their leadership and their steady presence inside the court for the Blue Eagles.
And Ravena? He leaves the UAAP as the league's first-ever three-time Finals MVP.
"There's not a person in the Philippines now that follows basketball that they can say they’re looking at five champions," said Baldwin. "And I'm telling you that it’s not just on the court. It’s not just in the UAAP."
"I truly mean it when I say, when I came here four years ago as a coach, as a human being, there were a lot more holes in me than there are today. And I can’t say anything better because these five guys filled a lot of those holes," he added.
"So, for that, I thank them. I honor them. I love them. There will always be a place at my dinner table for them under any circumstances. These guys are my friends for life. And I thank the Lord for that. I thank Ateneo for that too."
Baldwin has no doubt that his graduating players will go on to experience more success – be it on the court or outside of it. He expects to see them in the PBA soon, and hopes that they all become first round draft picks.
"We want every player that comes out of our program to have a chance to pursue their professional basketball dreams. If that's what they want," he said.
"If they don't, then God bless them, and you know, we'll support them at whatever endeavor they choose. But I think all of these guys would be a huge asset to any PBA team," he added.
As for Baldwin? He is already thinking of the future, and considering who will fill in the shoes of the five men who endeared themselves to him in their time together.
"I don't know how we'll replace them, really," he admitted. "But we will."
"We will, and we'll just keep moving."
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.