Sunday, July 10, 2011

UAAP Season 74: Ryan Buenafe

A few hours from now the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles will take to the court and begin their four-peat bid in UAAP Season 74. Judging from the UAAP primers in yesterday's broadsheets, it seems almost everyone and their mothers have practically crowned the Blue Eagles champions of this year's Men's basketball tournament.

I am not one of them.

The rationale for the majority opinion is easy to see. On paper, Ateneo has a strong lineup that features multi-titled veterans, a bumper crop of big-name rookies, and one of the winningest coaches in Philippine basketball. Unfortunately, games and championships aren't won on paper. And perhaps more importantly, absent from this year's roster is a player who was a huge reason why the Blue Eagles are three-time defending champs, Ryan Buenafe.

UAAP Season 72: Ateneo Blue Eagles vs. De La Salle Green Archers, Aug. 9, 09
Have the Blue Eagles seen the back of Ryan Buenafe? I sure hope not.
[Photo credit: Inboundpass.]

The last time we saw him on TV, Buenafe was wiping Araneta Coliseum's hardwood floor with the FEU Tamaraws in the Season 73 Finals en route to winning series MVP honors, pulling the rug from under the 2010 Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, and receiving a kiss from teammate Bacon Austria.

In Game 1 of the Finals Buenafe scored the contest's first two points for a lead that the Blue Eagles would never relinquish. He would not score any more as the 72–49 rout was already on. Then in the series-clinching Game 2, Buenafe tallied 23 points (on 8 of 12 field goals, 1 of 3 three-pointers, and 6 of 10 free throws), 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover in 24 minutes of burn. In the 4th canto he scored 10 of Ateneo's 13 points, almost single-handedly matching FEU's 12 markers in the same period.

Who would've thought that to date, that brilliant outing would be the last time the Ateneo faithful would see him on the court for the Blue and White in a game that counted?

When Buenafe didn't join the team in last December's Philippine Collegiate Champions League and in the 3-D Gold Super Kung Sheung Cup in Hong Kong that the Blue Eagles were sent to as a reward for winning the PCCL, the Ateneo community didn't worry. Buenafe had earned his rest, and no one begrudged him the time off so he could concentrate on his studies.

But in early March, The Philippine Star reported that Buenafe was set to play for RnW Pacific Pipes in the Philippine Basketball Association's Developmental League. The same report also called him an "ex-Ateneo Eagle," a tidbit that threw Blue Eagle followers into a tizzy.

The bewildering, rumor-filled, roller-coaster "Summer of Buenafe" was on.

Sportswriter Rick Olivares, one of Buenafe's second semester instructors in Ateneo, immediately contradicted the Philippine Star story. Blue Eagles team manager Paolo Trillo also refuted the report, telling the newspaper that team officials had denied Buenafe permission to suit up in the D-League, but also revealing that Buenafe wasn't practicing with the team in order for the latter to concentrate on his studies. This contradicted Olivares' information.

By the time April rolled in, murmurs and then some that Buenafe has had a falling out with a teammate, and that a case arising from that tiff had already been filed, were already running rampant. The rumors grew in the telling, not helped by the perception that the media was unable to get to the bottom of the matter.

Sportscaster Christian Soler tweeted that according to Ateneo team officials, Buenafe was on indefinite leave from the Blue Eagles for personal reasons. Olivares, meanwhile, confirmed that it wasn't sure whether Buenafe would suit up in the summer and that someone had indeed filed a case, although he did not reveal what type of case it was. Then a week later, ABS-CBNnews.com reported that it was because of an injury that Buenafe will miss the Blue Eagles' exhibition game in Dubai, United Arab Emirates against arch-rival La Salle Green Archers.

When Ateneo submitted its lineup for the Filoil Flying V Hanes Pre-season Premier Cup, Blue Eagle fans were understandably excited to see Buenafe's name on the list. But of those 20 names, only Bacon Austria, Gwyne Capacio, Justin Chua, JP Erram, Frank Golla, Tonino Gonzaga, Kirk Long, Emman Monfort, Von Pessumal, Kiefer Ravena, Mark Tallo, Juami Tiongson, Nico Salva, Paul Siarot, Greg Slaughter and Oping Sumalinog actually suited up in the Filoil tourney and in the Fr. Martin Summer Cup that the Blue Eagles also joined. In addition to sitting out the summer leagues, Season 73 stalwarts Buenafe, Chris de Chavez, Art dela Cruz Jr. and Jeric Estrada were left behind when the team flew to the US to train at the Joe Abunassar Camp.

In mid-May, Olivares disclosed that the team playing in the Filoil tournament was the lineup for UAAP Season 74. A couple of weeks later, Manila Standard Today reported that Buenafe was not expected to play this year because he was reportedly out of shape and may need to lose weight.

By early June the word was that Buenafe was out "for personal reasons." But after Tallo quit soon after the team's return from the US, many still expected that the vacant roster spot would go to Buenafe. Those hopes were later dashed after Trillo told GMA News Online that Ryan hasn't been practicing with the team and was being given time to attend to personal matters. Trillo also added that it was going to be hard for Buenafe to attend classes and play for the Blue Eagles while attending to his case, although he did not mention what the case was all about.

When the Blue Eagles submitted their roster to the UAAP for screening in late June, Buenafe's name wasn't on it. It finally drove home the point that Ryan wasn't suiting up, at least for this year. The lineup was eventually approved so now here we are: hours away from the start of the "Mary Four You" campaign and already ruing the absence of a young man who happens to be one heck of a basketball player.

To be continued…

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