Family affair: Nieto brothers' banter with dad translates to championships

Back when they were still in grade school, twin brothers Mike and Matt Nieto dreamed that they would someday be champions playing for Ateneo.

The second generation Blue Eagles come from a storied legacy built by their father, Jett, who won back-to-back titles for Ateneo in 1987 and 1988.

"Daddy would bring us to the Blue Eagle gym because the (championship) banners were there," Mike recalled in Filipino. "His banner from the Juniors (division) was there and he was really proud of the banners from the Seniors."

Before becoming the Ateneo stars that they are today, the brothers were merely kids trying to make a name for themselves. At the time, they hadn't won a championship at the UAAP Juniors level, one that their father strongly pointed out, and were eager to prove that they were also meant to win titles for Ateneo in the future.

"Back when we haven't won the UAAP Juniors, Daddy said he already had one. That's when it all started," Mike said.

It was playful banter, shared by a father and his two kids. Their dad was a champion in high school and also came out victorious twice in college. Naturally, the brothers wanted the same, if not more than what their father achieved.

Recently, the dream of the Nieto twins materialized as the Blue Eagles won their second straight title. The resumes of Mike and Matt now include three Ateneo championships, one in the Juniors level, and two in the Seniors -- just like their father. As the Blue Eagles were celebrating on the floor inside the Araneta Coliseum, the elder Nieto was all smiles. The Nietos are once again champions.

"It's a very fulfilling experience for me together with my twin brother," said Matt after winning another title. "This is what we've been dreaming about since we were in grade school. Actually, our goal was just to win a championship, but now, winning back-to-back, it's a way different experience for us."

"Matt and I just really dreamed about this when we were in grade school," echoed Mike.

This season was a bumpy road for the Nietos. Aside from the weight and the grind from being defending champions, the twins also had their own struggles with injuries.

"Everything happened to me. I had dengue, I had a fracture (pinky). Everything came my way but hey, when it comes to winning time, I forgot about all those," Matt said, who still had his pinky heavily taped during the game. "It's winning time. You never say no to winning a championship especially if it's the second championship."

"Just like what coach Sandy (Arespacochaga) said even before the season started, they said it's harder to defend a crown than eventually winning one. So that's what we stuck in our minds and this team went through so much compared to the team last year," Mike said, mentioning that a number of Blue Eagles underwent various injuries. "But at the end of the day, the depth of the team came out."

After winning two straight championships, the Blue Eagles are still kings of UAAP basketball. They'll be favored to win another one with the Nietos at the forefront of another title defense.

"The goal of coach Tab (Baldwin) for us isn't to win as many championships as we can," said Mike. "He told us that he wants to see us get drafted in the PBA. And if you have a coach that wants you to be great, you can't ask for more. Coach Tab wants everyone on our team to be great, to be the best version of ourselves. This team is very special, our coach is very special, I'm just lucky to be under coach Tab and to have teammates like this."

Next year will be the fifth and final year of Mike and Matt. From what started as a dream when they were in grade school, will all come into a conclusion next season. As the veterans of the team, they don't want to lose on their graduating year.

"We have one more year. We don't want to end our career on a losing note," expressed Matt. "So it's extra pressure, extra motivation to perform better next year because other teams will prepare for us."

Plus, the twins have added motivation in trying to surpass what their father achieved.

"This one's very special for me, you know, winning back to back championships, and tying our father's legacy in Ateneo. Hopefully next year we'll beat him," said Mike.

"I could tell dad's nervous already," Matt chimed in with a smile.