Grand Slam Champions were already considered a thing of the past. Crispa, San Miguel Beer, and Alaska were all great teams that built their dynasties in the PBA’s younger years. Dynasties like these are not supposed to happen anymore. Not in the current landscape of the PBA where super teams face other super teams. Not in the current situation where haves can get any player they desire from the have-nots.
Grand Slam Champions have turned from lore to myth. Each story about an old dynasty is always coupled with the caveat that it might never be done again.
On July 9, 2014, the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers broke through the history books and etched their names beside the very best teams the PBA ever saw. With a 92-89 victory over the gallant Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, the Mixers defended their PBA Governors’ Cup title, won their fourth straight championship, and completed a rare PBA Grand Slam.
The Mixers were underdogs in their Finals series against Petron and Talk 'N Text. They were slight favorites against Rain or Shine even if the Painters finished ahead of them in the eliminations. In total, the Mixers finished fifth, sixth, and fourth in the eliminations this season so this was not exactly a dominant run but the Mixers had a perfect 9-0 in do-or-die games. They knew how to win the games that mattered most.
After every championship, the target on their back grew more and more. Their methods were studied deeper. The other teams reloaded their lineups to have a better chance against them. Yet, after four conferences, the nine other teams still could not solve the puzzle that is San Mig Super Coffee.
For the longest time, Purefoods was in the middle of it all. Sure, the Hotdogs had their share of fans and PBA championships but they never had a signature. Ginebra will always be the most popular, San Miguel Beer has the most number of titles, and the Alaska Milkmen could always go back to that magical 1996 PBA Grand Slam reign.
Purefoods had some fans, some championships, no one defining moment. The San Mig Super Coffee Mixers wanted to change all of that with one game.
Ronnie Matias was not exactly sure what he was doing there. A few months ago Matias felt like he was punched in the gut after he found out that Rain or Shine head coach Yeng Guiao was trading him away. Rain or Shine was home and the Painters were family for the rugged forward.
He wandered aimlessly from that point on until Tim Cone plucked him out of the situation. So there he was shooting practice jump shots before Game 5, wearing San Mig blue and white. Two years ago, Matias was in the opposite situation. Now he wanted to come out again on the winning side of the equation. He was with the Painters when they claimed their first title against these Mixers. Now he wants nothing else but to see San Mig complete their Grand Slam against his former team.
“Ang dami nang nagbago dito sa team na ito,” Matias said during shoot-around. “Dati kasi bangga-banggain mo lang ng konti, napipikon o bumibigay na sila.”
In the past years, the Mixers seemed like they were afraid of the Painters. Even the members of Rain or Shine knew they had a mental advantage over them. But at some point the Mixers decided enough was enough and if they wanted to be a great team, they need to take on their demons head on.
“Ngayon mas matigas na sila. Mas matapang na” added Matias. You have to pardon Matias for mixing up his pronouns. He was comparing the old San Mig team to this new one. He may not admit it but he still feels like a stranger sometimes.
Lester Alvarez is by no means a stranger to the Mixers. He has been with this team for most of his career but there’s an awkward feeling going into the final game of the season.
After this, Cone and the rest of San Mig’s management will decide to protect 12 of their players. The rest will be made available to the two expansion teams. Alvarez, who’s not even in the active lineup, would most likely not make the cut.
“Actually, di ko alam yung mararamdaman ko,” admitted Alvarez. “Syempre if given the choice, gusto kong maglaro for San Mig kasi parang pamilya ko na ito. Pero if may kukuha sa akin at makakalaro ako dun, okay lang rin. Basketball player ako e. Syempre gusto kong makalaro.”
Matias, Alvarez, and the rest of San Mig’s bench and practice players could do nothing else but watch as their main rotation played Game 5.
They’re a part of the team but at multiple points of the game, they turned into fans as they watched in awe as James Yap, Marc Pingris, Mark Barroca, PJ Simon, Joe Devance, and Marqus Blakely willed them to another victory.
The game was not pretty. No game against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters ever is.
Four times the Mixers had the chance to seal the game and four times they missed free throws.
Luckily for them, the three-point shooting of the Painters betrayed them when they needed it most. In the end, it was not the shooting that would win the Grand Slam for the Mixers. It was their defense for the last 4.4 seconds.
Barroca made up for his two misses by tapping out the ball. With 2.6 seconds left in the game. Pingris stayed with Paul Lee as the sweet-shooting Painter popped out on the baseline. Barroca made it hard for Arizona Reid to catch the inbound pass and Blakely flew in for help defense as the Best Import of the Conference launched a potentially overtime-forcing three.
Reid's attempt was short. Credit it to the Mixers defense or to the Rain or Shine import's injured ankle. It doesn't really matter. The ball kissed the front of the rim and the Mixers exploded in celebration.
New-recruit Yousif Taha was still jumping up and down about ten minutes after the rest of his teammates finished jumping up and down.
“Man, I’ve always had the energy and I always want to work hard but this will make me work so much harder in the off season,” he said.
“Enjoy it,” Alex Mallari, another player that Cone plucked out of mediocrity, told the rookie journeyman. “This is so addicting. This is my fix right here,” Mallari continued while jokingly mimicking a drug junkie shooting up through injection.
Assistant coach Richard Del Rosario was on the verge of tears. It’s not a stretch to say he didn’t have the best PBA career as a player but his contributions as an assistant coach have ben invaluable.
“Kahit sa pangarap di ko naisip ito,” Del Rosario. “In the PBA for player and coaches, one championship is easily forgotten but this Grand Slam is forever.”
As per tradition, Del Rosario walked around the court collecting his fellow assistant coaches for a photograph. In the place of Jeffrey Cariaso and Olsen Racela was his good friend Jayson Webb.
“This is for coach Jeff and coach Olsen even for Val [Acuna] and Yancy [De Ocampo],” Del Rosario said. “This would not have been possible without their contributions. Sinabihan ko nga si coach Olsen na dapat nandito siya sa floor to celebrate with us.”
The San Mig locker room was filthy a few minutes after the Mixers’ celebration. The floor was sticky and the air smelled of champagne and beer. Banana peels, tape, foam, and ice packs littered the floor. Yap was on one side talking to a sports writer, Simon was on the other side having an interview on camera.
Most of the Mixers were having a grand time talking about Jun Rillo, their ball boy who was assessed a technical foul for mocking a referee’s out of bounds call.
“Was that the first time a ball boy was T’d up?” asked Devance. “After I missed my free throws, I was afraid he’ll be fired if the game goes to overtime,” Barroca replied as the room burst into laughter.
It was a riot. Some players were mimicking how Rillo leapt in to measure how far Pingris’ foot was from the baseline. All that time, Rillo was seated quietly, his mood was more relieved than happy.
Amidst the chaos, Tim Cone, the head coach and the father, found a quiet moment for a talk with his son Kevin.
“He was actually born in the year of the Alaska Grand Slam in 96,” Cone shared. “This whole experience was neat because everyday we came to practice together and he’s going off to college abroad in a couple of months so it’s just a special time to have him here in all of our meetings and practices. It was a really special time for me.”
At that point, Barroca walked into the small dressing area, teasing Kevin as the shy youngster found it hard to deal with the attention he gets during interviews.
“I’m really happy developed a relationship with Mark and Allein [Maliksi] and some of the other guys so it will be easy to blend in again when he comes back,” Cone said after Barroca walked away. “I wish this experience could be longer though but he’s got another life to live but he’ll be back,” Cone added while tapping Kevin’s shoulder.
As all fathers, Cone wants the best for his son. Having him as a part of the San Mig family was an experience that gave Kevin a running start should he decide to be a coach and take over Cone’s equivalent of a family business someday.
“My wife said he’s too smart to be a coach, that his grades are too good to be a coach. I’m like ‘Thank you very much!’” Cone shared, sarcasm loaded in his last line.
“I’m still in awe. It’s hard to imagine how he could have possibly done it twice. It’s so much to do and so much to think about,” Kevin said about his father’s effort. “I don’t know how to react to it yet.”
Championships are celebrated because these are achievements. Although championships, specially four straight ones, are remembered, the relationships forged in the quest are the ones for keeps.
For Matias it’s a chance to join a new family. For Alvarez, it’s for one last celebration before possibly moving on and growing as a player. For Taha, it’s an inspiration to work harder. For Mallari, it’s one more taste of the euphoria.
For Del Rosario, it’s a shout-out to those who travelled the road with them. For Pingris, Yap, and Simon, it’s another level deeper in their friendship that has stood the test of time, fame, and money.
For Tim Cone and Kevin Cone, it’s the perfect bonding moment. For Tim Cone, it was a chance to introduce his son to his other family. For Kevin, it was a chance to see the myth of his father come to life. For the father and son, the PBA Grand Slam was a reminder of just how important they are to each other.
“How do you react when people tell you that your dad is the best coach in PBA history?” I asked Kevin.
“I don’t say anything. I just agree.”