I've been a basketball fan since I was a kid. But I never really supported a particular team. Then, in 1995, I was able to catch the finals of the PBA's Governor's cup. The big story then was how Sunkist fell short of a grand slam. Alaska and San Miguel were the teams that ended up the finals. That's when I started to be an Alaska fan. Alaska took that series in 7 games, by the way.
Suddenly, I loved the sport like never before. I tried to play the game and failed miserably. But I didn't mind. I had a team to support. The PBA used to be aired on (then) PTV 4. Our TV could never get a clear signal for that damn channel. Then they moved to IBC 13, which had a great signal in our house. I could finally watch a game without having to hold the rabbit antenna in an awkward position just to get a clear reception. And I remember rushing home early from school if Alaska had the 4:00 p.m. game.
I bought sports magazines to get the latest info on the PBA and the NBA. First, I purchased Sports Weekly (if I remember the name correctly) for a while. Anyway, it was a boring magazine that focused too little on basketball and too much on other sports. I didn't want to read about sports I had no interest in- chess, darts, golf, etc.
So I switched to Scoreboard. This magazine was much, much better. And as a matter of full disclosure, I'm not saying this because they published an article I sent them in one whole page. They covered the PBA and NBA heavily, and also sports I actually cared to read about like boxing and professional wrestling (both covered by Ed Tolentino). They also had a funny editor whose weekly column was just a succession of jokes.
The PBA had a great line-up of commentators and analysts then. My favorite duo was Ed Picson and Andy Jao. Dr. J was like a professor in explaining the intricacies of the game while Ed was the man on the street that you could actually hear on TV. Quinito Henson was okay for bits of trivia, but he had a big problem with "enthusiasm" during games. Many times has he woken up people in my house with his over the top screaming whenever a great play was made. And I actually watched the TV shows Vintage Sports put out. Yes, I watched Hot Stuff, which was hosted by Chino Trinidad and Anthony Suntay.
Going back to Alaska (no, I will not use the term Milkmen or Milk Masters), the team had an American coach, who happened to be more Filipino than the Fil-Ams that invaded the league this decade. He took Phil Jackson's (Tex Winter's, if you want to be precise) Triangle Offense, which gave the Chicago Bulls (as of that time) 3 NBA titles.
Let me get something out of my chest first. The system was beautiful to watch. But up to now, I have no idea what the hell it is. PBA commentators would talk about it and they would draw lines on a video to explain it. I'm not sure if they got it right or they were just talking out of their asses. They would end up with a triangle shape and call it the Triangle Offense. What the heck? Put any 3 guys in the court and play connect the dots with them and you'll always form a triangle. Anyway, I still can't grasp the point of the damn thing.
Going back, Tim Cone had a plan. No. Tim Cone is a genius, and he had a great plan. He had a great fashion sense as well, if I may add. While other coaches wore polo shirts during games, Cone was always wearing a dress shirt with a tie and had his signature rolled-up sleeves. That porma? I use it everyday to work up to now.
Mabalik tayo, he had all the parts he needed, provided for him by team manager Joaqui Trillo and the most visible team owner in the PBA, Wilfred Steven Uytengsu.
You have to start of with the big three, Johnny Abarrientos, Bong Hawkins, and Jojo Lastimosa.
Johnny A is the greatest Filipino point guard in history. That would be enough of a description but I'll say more. The guy could have averaged over 20 points a game but he played within the system. The Flying A could find the most creative ways to score against even the centers of the PBA. For a point guard, his rebounding average would put other big men to shame. His defense was excellent, he eventually retired with the most steals in league history. And the way he ran the Triangle Offense? Brilliant! As an aside, because Johnny was my favorite player, I decided to go to the school he did. Yep, that's how I chose which university to go to.
The year 1996 saw Bong Hawkins come off a season where he managed to knock out media darling Alvin Patrimonio from his once secure Mythical 5 slot. Hawkins (his monicker, the Hawk, felt kinda forced for me) was the team's scoring and rebounding leader.
Jojo Lastimosa was just plain cool. The smug look, nerves of steel, and air of absolute confidence (and legs the size of Meralco posts) just made him so awesome. The 4th Quarter Man always delivered the crucial field goals and free throws that pulled the team out of so many messes. This may be out of topic a bit but his amazing game against Kazakhstan in the bronze medal match in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok was the best performance of a PBA player in an international event.
Then there's Jeffrey Cariaso. The athletic young swingman was another offensive option for the team, and an effective stopper as well. Too bad he left Alaska after 1996. The team did get Kenneth Duremdes when he left, but that's another chapter.
Poch Juinio was the token center. Just like the Chicago Bulls, Alaska didn't need a dominant center, just someone who can work within the Triangle Offense. Juinio did just fine.
Jun Reyes had the great task of subbing for the best player in the league. Roel Gomez was the designated shooter, he had no other role but to chuck three-pointers. Merwin Castelo gave good minutes while the starters tried to get some rest. Chris "Jumbo" Bolado, the supposed lucky charm of teams he played for, had a similar job with Kevin Ramas, to provide a body underneath the boards. Then there's Dickie Bachmann and Giovanni Pineda, who both rarely got to take their warm-up jerseys off. Maybe twice in a conference the way I remember it, for about two minutes.
Sean Chambers is the only import that mattered that year. And we'll get to him later.
The Alaska players where like heroes to me. There, of course, were villains. And to me, that was Ginebra.
Boy, did I dislike Jawo and his boys. There was Noli Locsin and Bal David fueling the hopes of Barangay Ginebra. Pretty boy Vince Hizon had a breakout year in 1996. Jayvee Gayoso gave hope to all bakaws everywhere that they could play pro ball. There were the reliable hoodlums in jerseys that Jawo could call on to inflict pain. E.J. Feihl was a 7-foot center that was less athletic than a tree. And then there's Dudot. Bwahahaha!!!
There was one in the team that that really impressed me. Rookie Marlou Aquino was hyped up as the greatest center to come to the PBA during that time. With his Jabbar glasses and jolens shots, he took the league by storm.
The rivalry between Alaska and Ginebra was carried over by their loyal fans to the streets, offices, and schools. The masa demographic that Ginebra held firmly just couldn't accept the arrogant, mestizo, and snobbish appeal of Alaska. Yep, it was on, bitches.
Then there were the other teams. Shell had Benjie Paras but not Ronnie Magsanoc, who was out with injuries. But they had another scorer in Vic Pablo at that time. But it was the coaching of Chito Narvasa and his starched shirts that were the main weapons of the team.
Purefoods still had the 1-2 punch of big men Alvin Patrimonio and Jerry Codinera. The veteran showbiz tandem were backed up by Dindo Pumaren, Bong Ravena, Rey Evangelista, and their legions of fans.
Norman Black, on his last year in San Miguel, still had Allan Caidic, Ato Agustin, Paul Alvarez, and Franz Pumaren. This was a forgettable year for SMB, though.
Sta. Lucia was lead by the inconsistent Jun Limpot, who was supported by Dennis Espino. I'm mentioning Noynoy Falcasantos only because he had a nice name.
Sunkist was crap that year. Derek Pumaren's team went from the penthouse to the doghouse in a matter of weeks, even if they still had Vergel Meneses, Nelson Asaytono, Boybits Victoria, and (yeye) Bonel Balingit.
Mobiline had Yeng Guiao as a coach. He didn't seem anything like the Mafia boss he is today. His team was just there so the PBA could have 8 teams. They ended up dead last in all conferences.
The 1996 season looked good for Alaska from the very beginning as they were riding on the momentum of 5 straight finals appearances, with two Governor's Cup championships to show for it. No, theirs was not a story of underdogs. Theirs was just the story of a team who knew how to win and did so.
Nowadays, a PBA season is composed of 2 conferences, the All-Filipino and the Reinforced, although they're referred to often together with the name of their sponsor. And a season now starts in the last quarter of the year and spills over to the following year. Back then, a season had 3 conferences, the All-Filipino, the Commissioner's, and the Governor's, all happening in the span of 1 calendar year. The All-Filipino is self-explanatory. The Commissioner's had imports but had a height ceiling for them of 6'6. The Governor's had the limit of 6'4. If you win them all in one season, you get a grand slam. That was the crowning achievement for a franchise, and only Crispa and San Miguel had bragging rights to it.
Alaska cruised passed the eliminations of the All-Filipino on their way to the semis. The All-Filipino was the first offering of the league in a season. The team never won an All-Filipino title before, which lead to criticisms that they could only win because of imports (read: Sean Chambers).
The team struggled in the semis and had to face Ginebra in a knockout match for the last finals seat. The rowdy Barangay Ginebra faithfuls were going crazy all over the country. The hardluck boys of Jawo had been a doormat team for years but they were now title contenders. Well, Alaska handily beat them to advance to the finals.
Waiting for them was Purefoods, and its dreaded All-Filipino line-up. The Captain and his troops owned this conference, appearing in 7 consecutive All-Filipino finals before the unthinkable happened, the 1995 finals had no Purefoods in it. They were now out to erase that embarrassment.
Everyone knows Alaska won a grand slam in 1996. So let me cut to the chase, Alaska won 4-1. The series seemed lopsided if you look at it like that. But those were 5 quality games, which pitted Cone against his former student, Chot Reyes (no, he didn't act all fashionista then yet). I remember the news that Coach Chot had his boys watch the movie "Braveheart" to inspire the. Whatever works, coach. Game 5 was a real nail-biter, which was decided by a foul on a cutting Jeff Cariaso at the baseline. His two free throws sealed the deal and Alaska had its first All-Filipino title. My friends who are Purefoods fans still claim that was a bad call, to them I say, *does a raspberry*.
The Commissioner's Cup again saw the team easily going through the eliminations, with import Derek Hamilton going gangbusters. Alaska was the clear favorite to go to the finals. And Ginebra fans felt they could go there with Alaska. The Barangay had Henry James as an import, he went on to have a few memorable games with the Atlanta Hawks after the conference.
Then, disaster struck for Alaska, Hamilton tested positive for banned substances. The always smiley-faced Trillo said it was unfortunate that Hamilton "mislead" the team. They now had to bring in their main weapon for the third conference earlier than expected.
Sean Chambers was the league's "Mr. 100%." And when Alaska knocked on his door for help, he came flying to Manila. Chambers was always good for putting up a 20-10 (points and rebounds) every night. He was quite small for an import, even for the Governor's Cup. So he was now in a situation where every import match-up was a mismatch. But don't assume he could be pushed around easily. He was small but he was bulky, kind of like a taller Willie Miller.
Alaska managed to limp to the finals and awaited the winner of the knockout match between Ginebra and a surprising Shell, reinforced by Kenny Redfield. That game ended with the shot that was heard around the archipelago. Redfield heaved a shot from around mid-court to steal a win for Shell and advance to the finals.
The finals was set. Alaska and Shell battled in what would be one of the best finals series ever. It went on to a deciding 7th game. Almost everyone had their money on Alaska. The Paras-Magsanoc partnership was gone as Ronnie was injured at that time. They had to make do with Rommel Santos at point. Shell was full of role players like him and Edward Naron. Santos? Naron? Who? Like I said, role players.
But on the very first game, Shell came out with an upset win. A fluke win, I told myself then. Cone's boys won the next game. Then on game 3, something strange happened. Shell won. Cone wasn't having any of this and stated that Narvasa's team won their last game. This ignited a word was between the two that the press ate up. Cone ran his mouth by saying that his team was like sharks, when they smell blood, they go for the kill (or something to that effect). Alaska took games 4 and 5. Narvasa shot back that his team was like dolphins, they drive away the sharks. And in game 6, Shell's Richie Ticzon came up with a Hail Mary of a shot in the closing seconds to force a game 7. Now that was a fluke shot. Alaska outlasted Shell in a war of attrition and picked up a game 7 victory and a second championship for the season.
Alaska found itself in the same position that Sunkist was in last year, one conference championship away from a grand slam. The Governor's Cup, the holiday conference as I saw it because it went on through the long Philippine Christmas season, was Alaska's domain. They won the last two stagings and they were heavy favorites again that year. Alaska lost the first game of the conference to Sunkist, who had the scoring monster Tony Harris as its import, and people thought this might be an omen that history will repeat itself after just one year. Barangay Ginebra, who struggled through several import changes in the conference, kept of praying to the basketball gods that they be finally allowed into the big dance. They must have been willing to donate all the coins they threw at players, together with mineral water bottles, to charity just so they can gather good karma.
Again, Alaska went all the way to the finals, with Chamber finally getting the Best Import award that eluded him all those years. And the people got what they wanted, Alaska vs Ginebra in the finals. The series was dominated by Alaska. They almost swept Ginebra in the finals, but Jawo got to sneak in a win after bringing a new import in Derek Rucker to surprise Alaska. The future senator then mouthed off, "Alam ko, para mag-champion, kailangan mo nang 4 games." Duuh! One game after, Cone immediately put his athletic swingmen on Rucker and stopped him on his tracks. And then history was made, Alaska joined Crispa and San Miguel in the list of grand slam winners. The last as it turned out.
The Alaska players and coaching staff went on to vacation in Australia with their families, as the magazines reported. Johnny, Jolas, and Bong made it to the Mythical 5, together with Aquino and Patrimonio. Cariaso earned a slot in the Mythical Team. Juinio got a surprising Most Improved Player award. The Flying A became the smallest MVP winner in league history. Cone, of course, was voted Coach of the Year. And I went on to have a merry Christmas, after enjoying the best year of being a PBA fan.
I still watch the PBA now, and I still support Alaska. But L.A. Tenorio isn't Johnny A, Willie Miller isn't Jolas, and Sonny Thoss isn't Hawkins. The 1996 Alaska team was just too great in my eyes that anything else seems to pale in comparison. But nevertheless, I'll always be an Alaska fan for life. And Coach Tim Cone, it seems, will always be there to weave his magic triangle, which I no longer bother to understand.