For as long as they can remember, brothers Mike and Matt Nieto have always wanted to win a championship for Ateneo. Since their grade school days, they’ve longed to represent their school and win a UAAP title. They saw Larry Fonacier, Enrico Villanueva, and LA Tenorio win it in 2002. Then they witnessed Kiefer Ravena, Ryan Buenafe, and Greg Slaughter win a couple more a few years later. All they ever wanted was to win in front of their school.
“Yun ang pangarap namin and we told our parents, kami ni Matt, na one day, our dreams will come true and we will win a championship against La Salle,” Mike shared after their dream became reality following an 88-86 victory over the Green Archers on Sunday.
Before Ateneo’s Game 3 triumph, the proud university had won eight titles since departing from the NCAA. And in those eight championships, Mike and Matt saw six of them up close. But the first two titles? They weren’t there for those. That glory belonged to their father Jet, who was a part of that magical back-to-back championship run in 1987-88.
As fate would have it, the twins were able to take home the hardware back to Katipunan exactly 30 years after Jet won back in 1987. The senior Nieto was in his third year when they won the championship, and coincidentally, brothers Mike and Matt are currently in their junior year playing for Ateneo. The Nieto family now has three UAAP championships among them – two for Jet and one for the twins, 30 years apart.
Prior to Game 3, Jet did something he’s never done before. He didn’t do it when his sons were playing in grade school. He didn’t do it when they were in high school during their quest for a Juniors title. He didn’t even do it last year when Ateneo was already gunning for the championship against La Salle.
“Actually to be honest, si Daddy kanina, kasi umalis siya agad nung bahay tapos di na niya kami nakita. So nagsulat na lang siya ng letter sa amin ni Matt,” recalled Mike. “Nagulat nga kami ni Matt kasi parang di naman si Daddy yung nagsusulat ng ganun.”
In that heartfelt letter, Jet merely wanted his sons to enjoy the moment. The message was simple, but nonetheless significant. The proud father wanted Mike and Matt to experience what he experienced. He wanted the dreams of their sons to become a reality. He wanted them to seize the moment presented before them.
“That really inspired me to play,” Matt said, talking about his dad’s letter.
He added, “He just told me he believed in me. Parang, ‘Mr. Clutch, Mr. Big Shot, I know you’ll do it.’ I know you’ll make the right decision. Make me proud, son.”
The opportunity to play in championship games doesn’t come by often. Chances come and go as every season brings new challenges. It’s not every day you get to play in a winner-take-all deciding Game 3 for all the marbles. The twins realized this and capitalized on the chance laid before them.
“Losing Game 2, it was really…. Sakit talaga eh,” reflected Mike. “We had a chance to win it, but sabi nga nila, ang swerte namin naabutan namin ang Ateneo-La Salle Game 3. So we just enjoyed every opportunity na naramdaman namin kanina and good thing we won the championship.”
“Me with my twin brother, it’s extra special, because we’ve been through a lot,” shared Matt. “All the doubts, all the haters, and we’re glad that as a team, we all proved them wrong and we just stuck to one another.”
The twins first tasted success in their high school days, winning the UAAP Juniors title in their senior year. Mike was named the league MVP that season while Matt was honored to be part of the Mythical Five. As blue chip recruits three years ago, they have undergone a lot of criticism and scrutiny. Questions surfaced: Can they translate their game into the seniors division? Where will they find their playing time in a loaded Ateneo roster? Will they have a successful college year?
But even during that pivotal transitional period from juniors to seniors, Jet has always been there. Before entering college, he already started to train his kids to master different positions. He wanted Mike to develop his dribbling and outside shooting after owning a style built on post moves and overpowering size. He knew that against bigger and taller opponents, Mike wouldn’t be as dominant as in the juniors. Similarly, Matt had to improve his skills at the point and even learn a few things in the paint to fight through tougher and stronger guards.
Three years in, they have become integral pieces in the Blue Eagles’ championship journey.
“Kung di niyo lang alam, outside of basketball, he really worked hard para mag-adjust sa college basketball. From being center, now being an off guard or a small forward, it really takes guts and heart, and sobrang tiyaga ng kapatid ko,” Matt said about his older brother Mike. “Masasabi ko na he’s a one-of-a-kind of a person because he’s very dedicated to his goal. Being the leader of the team, nakuha niya ang role niya sa team.”
The older Nieto twin embraced his role as the vocal leader of Ateneo. “I didn’t score any points kanina during Game 3, but you know I think that’s the best game I’ve played this season. Last season kasi I just led the team together with Vince (Tolentino) eh,” Mike shared, even mentioning that he took the Game 2 loss personally. He wanted to bounce back and deliver for his team in the deciding third game.
Everything that the twins went through came to fruition on Sunday. With their father watching on the sidelines, all the hard work and sacrifice they had to endure paled in comparison to winning a title for their school.
“Well, what can I say? Mission accomplished. All the goals, all the dreams, we made it. It’s all worth it,” Matt said.
Probably nobody imagined that Mike and Matt would win exactly 30 years after their dad also won a title. Then again, maybe nobody thought about it except the three of them. They believed in themselves and made it all possible.
It started out as a dream for the Nieto family. And now, they have turned that dream into reality.