From fat kid to overtime hero: Isaac Go’s rise mirrors Ateneo’s resolve
MANILA, Philippines – When Tab Baldwin first joined the Ateneo Blue Eagles, there was an important question he needed to answer.
Big men, where were they?
Who was going to be Ateneo’s reliable guys up front when the UAAP season was set to start months later?
“When I joined the organization, I looked around, I said, ‘What do we have for big men?’ And everybody pointed at GBoy [Babilonia] and [Chi] Ikeh and nobody said anything about Isaac [Go],” Baldwin recalled.
“I said, ‘What about the big fat kid over there?’ They said, ‘Well, he can do some things, but he really doesn’t have much experience and didn’t play much last year.’”
It was hard not to blame those Baldwin was speaking to. After all, Go played sparingly during his first season as a Blue Eagle, and didn’t show enough potential to make many believe he can one day become a certified solid UAAP player.
He was tall – 6'7 – although a lot of collegiate players with height but not enough skill had flamed out throughout UAAP history.
Yet there was something different with Go, the former Xavier product. And Baldwin, then the head coach of the Philippine national team, saw it instantly.
“As soon as I saw him play, I said, ‘This kid has something.’ I told Isaac, ‘You’re not going to eat rice anymore,’ and he said, ‘But, my mom would get upset with me if I don’t eat rice.’ I said, ‘I’m already upset with you that you’re telling me that.’"
“We started to work on his body and we started to work on his mind, because the skill set and the intelligence and the confidence were already there.”
Go, who has dropped 20 pounds since his conversation with Baldwin, can only laugh back at the memory. It was a gruelling process, learning to eat healthy, especially with the assortment of fried food and complex carbohydrates in campus, he shared.
“I remember the first few weeks of Coach Tab’s training, it was really intense, but the problem was, he was surprised I wasn’t losing any weight,” Go told Rappler.
So he then cut our carbs – rice, bread, you name it – and ate more of meat. Beef jerky was his best friend. He spent countless hours on the court and taking in all instructions his coaching staff told him.
Months later, Go was standing outside the Blue Eagles’ locker room at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum, blood dropping from his nose but his head raised high, a performance worth remembering just delivered in front of thousands as he sent the defending champions packing.
Go finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds as Ateneo avoided a collapse and defeated the FEU Tamaraws to win their Final Four series and booked a date with rival La Salle in the UAAP Finals. He was knocked down in overtime, blood falling fast from his nostrils but unbroken, which made Baldwin tell his rising star of a center to get back in the game.
That he did, and he ended up making the only field goal for the Blue Eagles in the extra session, providing the difference between a third straight year of heartbreak and a trip to the championship round, where little to none expected them to be.
Truth be told, the Blue Eagles aren’t supposed to be here – not after losing the graduating Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal, not after losing key rotation players to academics issues, not after losing star rookie Tyler Tio to citizenship issues.
Ateneo’s roster was composed mostly of guys in their first and second years, experience be damned, but the same with excuses. Now on Saturday, December 3, they will be one of the two teams competing for the UAAP title. All season long, these Blue Eagles have faced and overcome adversity, and now, they meet the biggest Goliath of the UAAP in Ben Mbala and the Green Archers.
“I think first would be the trust we have in Coach Tab and with the coaching staff. We trust where they’re leading us, and how they’re going to lead us to the right way,” Go said, when asked how Ateneo has navigated through all the distractions and tribulations.
“We stuck together as a team. We know we lost players to academics, but the guys that stayed together said, ‘Let’s not allow that to happen. Let’s stay together as a team.’ The adversity just made us stronger.”
Go is a great image of what fighting past those obstacles can be. He’s provided tremendous defense and has constantly put up double-doubles since getting more playing time at the beginning of the second round, from which Ateneo has won 7 out of 8 games, including a blowout win over La Salle who suddently looked mortal following a run of invincibility.
“He has shown everything that I like in a basketball player. He’s shown intelligence, he’s shown heart, he’s shown intensity, now he has shown some pretty good toughness, and this is what great players are made of,” Baldwin said about the big man.
Go getting knocked down and standing right back up to carve out a win is a representation of what this season has been like for Baldwin’s boys. And now that they’re two wins away from shocking the UAAP and doing what at one point seemed impossible, why not go for the kill – even if it is against the big, scary Green Archers?
“I think we should be happy with what we’ve accomplished this season, but the championship’s there. Why settle for less if you’re that close and you have a chance to win the championship?” asked Go.
“I think it’s the finals. All records are wiped clean. 3 games, you have 3 games to prove that you belong in the finals.”
“Are we ready for La Salle? We’ll find out,” said Baldwin. “And La Salle has to be ready for us.”
On paper, logic says DLSU, the more talented and veteran team, should run away with the championship. Both those who have watched both teams recently shouldn’t be so confident. La Salle presently doesn’t look like the dominant squad from early in the season, while these Blue Eagles continue to find ways to win.
Even Baldwin admits Ateneo is the underdog, although once the ball is up in the air, his Blue Eagles won’t be intimidated as such.
This series – the first Blue Eagles-Green Archers clash in 8 years – promises to have everything that makes sports great: drama, intensity, stakes, passion, skill, nerves, excitement, and everything else. But most of all, there will be blood, sweat, and tears.
“We’re going to bloody them just like I’m sure they want to bloody us,” said Baldwin.
It’s the greatest rivalry in Philippine sports.
It’s Archers versus Eagles.
It’s a war. – Rappler.com