FORGET about the stat sheets, standings and pre-season forecasts because the battle between fiercest rivals in Philippine sports will only be decided by who’s got the bigger heart.

Today, Saturday, students, alumni, patrons and aficionados are expected to fill the Araneta Coliseum to the rafters as Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University test each other’s mettle before a sell-out crowd.

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Game time is set at 4 p.m. as the two teams set aside their current standings in the 73rd University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball tournament for the right to draw first blood.

The Blue Eagles will try to extend its winning streak to seven since 2008 while the Green Archers promised to give their blood rival a run for their money.

Both are holding an identical 2-1 card with Ateneo notching a pair of victories against University of Santo Tomas and Adamson University while La Salle scored blowout wins at the expense of University of the Philippines and University of the East.

MANILA. Thousands of fans flock to the Araneta Coliseum as arch rivals Ateneo and La Salle clash for the first time in 73rd UAAP season. (Sunnex/Virgil Lopez)
Three-peat seeking coach Norman Black has repeatedly said that playing La Salle would be a different ballgame, with emotions running high not just from the players but also from the cheering and jeering crowd.

“It’s really going to be tough. Any game with them is always special not only for the two rival schools but from those who are closely following the league. We will just play Ateneo basketball as usual, and we will try our best to win,” he said.

Debuting for La Salle as head coach, Dindo Pumaren said the intensity of a rivalry is comparable to a highly-prized championship match.

“It’s like you’re playing the last game of the season or perhaps your career. Players really exhaust all good efforts to win. Aside from that, you have a crowd that pressures everyone to win. And on that note, we know that we are facing a very difficult team in Ateneo. We just have to prepare ourselves well,” he said.

Just like in Season 72, tickets for the Ateneo-La Salle clash will be sold separately from the 12 n.n. square off between UE and National University to allow more fans to watch.

Fried chicken

The rivalry between the country’s top learning institutions boasts of a deep history and legend had it that everything started when La Salle defeated Ateneo in a pre-World War II championship match.

La Sallians reportedly threw fried chicken at the Padre Faura gate in Ateneo’s original home in Intramuros to show who’s the new basketball king at the time.

Over at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the rivalry went on a hiatus because both teams have different adversaries, San Beda for Ateneo and Colegio de San Juan de Letran for La Salle.

Ateneo left the league in 1978 following a violence-marred title game against San Beda while the unruly La Salle-Letran game prompted the school to leave the NCAA in 1980.

La Salle became the youngest member in the UAAP in 1986 following stiff opposition from board members from Ateneo and UST, who feared of a spill-over of violence once the Taft-based school enters the scene.

Both the Blue Eagles and the Green Archers went on to earn their respective stripes with Ateneo winning its first back-to-back crown in 1987-1988 while La Salle copped back-to-back titles in 1989-1990.

La Salle also bagged four straight titles from 1998-2001 to then coach Franz Pumaren.

The rivalry reached another climax in the 2000s after Ateneo clawed back from its lost decade in the 1990s to arrange a title-showdown with La Salle in 2001, 2002 and 2008.

So far it was a 2-1 score for Ateneo after it made a cinderella run in 2002 to beat La Salle in a highly-charged Game 3 of the Finals and walkout-marred Game 2 in September 2008.

Ateneo’s rainy bonfire celebration on that same year was also marked by controversy after wooden planks bearing the name of La Salle players were burned.

The act prompted Ateneo president Fr. Bienvenido Nebres to issue a written apology to La Salle and was accepted immediately.

To date, the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry has smashed attendance records in Philippine sports history, with the 23,315 people who showed up in the last semifinals game between the two squads at the Araneta Coliseum in September 30, 2007 remains unchallenged.

The TY Tang-led La Salle eventually won that match and swept a highly-favored UE in the finals.

NY Times feature

Meanwhile, its immense popularity has also landed the sports pages of prestigious New York Times, which made a feature on it two years ago.

“The question of which institution provides a superior education is a toss-up; the tie breakers take place on the basketball court,” writes Bartholomew on his article “A nation’s passion lives in a rivalry of Green vs Blue”.

He added that the unique rivalry gathers “senators, foreign diplomats, cabinet ministers, a smattering of Forbes’s 40 richest Filipinos, movie stars and enough professional basketball players to play five-on-five”.

Among those sighted in the past Ateneo-La Salle games are former Senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, telecommunications mogul and Ateneo patron Manny V. Pangilinan, mall magnate Henry Sy, ABS-CBN Corp. chairman Gabby Lopez and its president Charo Santos-Concio, singer Gary Valenciano, Ogie Alcasid, broadcaster Mike Enriquez, etc.

The sea of green and blue also amazed Washington Wizards playmaker Gilbert Arenas, who described the game having a 50-50 crowd split.

“One side of their gym was blue and one side of their gym was green and everybody was just yelling,” he said.

Arenas made a brief visit in July 2008 and witnessed the game live alongside then US Ambassador Kristie Kenney and pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao.

In one game between Ateneo and La Salle two years ago, then Senator Richard Gordon even led the crowd seating at the precious patron seats in chanting its signature battlecry, “Go Ateneo, One Big Fight!” with the rest following in unison.

The defeated presidential candidate, who studied at Ateneo from elementary to college, is a former member of the school’s cheerleading squadron.

Calling the shots for La Salle on Saturday are team captain Simon Atkins, Maui Villanueva and Joshua Webb while Ateneo banks on the leadership of Erik Salamat, Nico Salva, Ryan Buenafe and vastly-improved Justin Chua.

“If you’re part of the rivalry, you just don’t like each other,” said Black.

So who will reign supreme on Saturday? It’s anybody’s game as always. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)