by Tito S. Talao
Manila, Philippines – Seven years separate the first two PBA Grand Slams – Baby Dalupan’s Crispa Redmanizers (1976) and Tommy Manotoc’s Crispa (1983), six between the second and the third – Norman Black’s San Miguel Beer (1989), and another seven years prior to the fourth – Tim Cone’s Alaska Milk (1996).
That’s three Triple Crown winners in a span of 20 seasons or an average of one three-conference champion per approximately six and a half years. Why then did it take 18 long years before the PBA witnessed the coronation of a fifth Grand Slam champion?
Several factors come to play.
First the tangibles: From 2004 to 2009, during the tenure of Commissioner Noli Eala and later Commissioner Sonny Barrios, the PBA held just two legs per season – the Philippine Cup and the Fiesta Conference – to free up more time in the calendar to accommodate the participation of pro players in the national team.
That put on hold the pursuit of the Grand Slam by all PBA teams, with Alaska winning the first two conferences in 1998 before subjugating its bid to join Crispa as a two-time Slam champion by loaning Cone and three key players (Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa and Kenneth Duremdes) to the national team for the Bangkok Asian Games.
The RP Centennial team, thanks to Alaska’s supreme sacrifice, salvaged the bronze medal, beating Kazakhstan in a playoff.
Alaska wasn’t alone with back-to-back titles.
One other ballclub – San Miguel Beer – won two straight conferences in two separate seasons, but not after failing to figure in the championship in the kickoff Philippine Cup leg in 1999 and 2000.
The two-conference years then took effect.
Interestingly, not one PBA team won consecutively in those six years. Barangay Ginebra won four conferences in four different seasons, while San Miguel and Purefoods won two each.
The return of the three-conference format in 2010, coinciding with the appointment of Angelico ‘Chito’ Salud, eldest son of former PBA commissioner Rudy Salud, to the top of the league hierarchy, triggered a renewed passion for the quest of pro basketball’s Golden Fleece.
Immediately, Talk ‘N Text set sail, capturing the first two conferences of the 2010 season before agonizingly falling to Petron Blaze in Game 7 of the Governors’ Cup Finals.
No other ballclub came as tantalizingly close to completing the Grand Slam after that, with five different teams claiming five of the last six conferences in a testament to the parity the PBA has now achieved.
San Mig Super Coffee then came along.
The intangibles now come into the picture.
Cone’s arrival from Alaska in 2011 – a decision greeted with fanfare at San Mig (then B-Meg Llamados) but slammed at the Aces camp with the same intensity that Cleveland reserved for LeBron James when he left – laid the groundwork for the franchise’s ascension to the pantheon of elite champions.
Other than Black, no other active PBA coach had the pedigree, experience and savvy that Cone possessed. Armed with the triangle offense, a devotion for hard-nosed defense and 13 championships with Alaska, Cone was exactly what the doctor ordered to continue a winning tradition under former mentor Ryan Gregorio, who earlier had moved over to the Meralco Bolts.
And Cone delivered almost immediately, handing Talk ‘N Text – and Black – yet another excruciating Game 7 defeat in the 2011-2012 Commissioner’s Cup, a setback that for the second straight year torpedoed the Grand Slam bid of the Tropang Texters.
The drafting or acquisition through trades of young players Mark Barroca, Alex Mallari, Allein Maliksi, Ian Sangalang and Justin Melton to complement the star-studded core of James Yap, Marc Pingris, Joe Devance and PJ Simon was another major element that brought fire and brimstone to an already potent brew, adding extra dimension to its overall makeup.
Finally came the selection of the perfect imports, not the ones capable of dumping 50 points per game but those willing to share the ball, do the hard work under the boards, and have the faith to give it up to their local teammates with the game on the line.
By all accounts, James Mays (Commissioner’s Cup) and Marqus Blakely (Governors’ Cup) passed the eligibility test with flying colors. Mays powered the Mixers, who captured the 2013-2014 Philippine Cup, to a 3-1 victory over Talk ‘N Text in the second conference finals, while Blakely was instrumental in putting down Rain or Shine and AZ Reid in the winner-take-all Game 5 two days ago in the third conference championship.
Blakely, who led the Mixers to the championship in this same conference last season, was right in the middle of the pandemonium when the multi-colored victory balloons started raining down from the Smart Araneta Coliseum catwalk after Reid’s game-trying 3-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
“What a great feeling!” said Cone, only the PBA’s two-time Grand Slam coach. “Just unbelievable. I’m overwhelmed. The guys just found a way. It’s amazing to watch them.”
Cone had sprinted nearly the full length of the court to embrace Rain or Shine coach Yeng Guiao as the Elasto Painters were walking off the playing court.
“I saw him turn back when the team was celebrating, and there was no way I wasn’t going to show my respect for him for what he has done in this incredible series,” Cone said.
Drenched after Blakely had doused him with water, Cone took an instant to flash back to what San Mig collectively had accomplished this season.
“Just watching the journey we had and being able to watch these guys and just observe them, it was truly an honor,” Cone said. “I don’t know if it was the hardest Grand Slam to win out of the five, but it’s got to be one of the hardest. The schedule, the consecutive games every day. We had two days off in June and somehow we figured out to make it to this last day and now, we have a chance for a break. I’m consumed with it every day, and now, I’m gonna go crazy without anything to do. It will be a nice crazy though.
“I have to sit at home in a quiet room with the lights off and close my eyes, let this thing sink in. This didn’t seem possible, even for me. Eighteen years ago was such a special moment and I told the guys, you only get to do that once in your life and me and (assistant coach) Johnny (Abarrientos), we’ve been able to do it twice. That’s just two blessings,” he added.
“I told the players, this is gonna be the best time of your life right now. This is the one you’ll always remember in your career, winning that Grand Slam. It’s a special moment for all of us.”
And that perhaps is the biggest reason why it took so long to make something as special to happen again.