Those who scored a grand slam: San Mig Coffee, and the PBA


A team’s grand slam feat also gave the PBA its own “grand slam”



ARANETA COLISEUM, QUEZON CITY—Four missed freethrows in the dying seconds by San Mig Coffee, then five pulsating three-point shots by Rain Or Shine that missed.  Those misses and the seconds that slowly ticked —not to mention three slow-mo reviews— stood in the way of sealing a Filipino hoops feat in the Facebook era.

But a coliseum crowd of 23,234, somewhat split between the two finals contenders of the season-ending PBA Governor’s Cup, never got totally dismayed —including the Elasto Painters’ fans who hoped that their team beat the Coffee Mixers. Endgame thrilling moments in a deciding game to end a season, with a grand slam aspiration by San Mig on the line, and with that many flooding a Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) championship game, led to a perfect ending by the Coffee Mixers, the league, and the fans.

As Rain Or Shine import Arizona Reid missed the desperation three-point heave with 2.2 ticks left, a player’s dream (San Mig’s) of ending a basketball season gloriously finally came down, as colorful as the balloons on the Araneta Coliseum’s rafters.

Tim Cone's second grand slam feat in the PBA is a team's --and an ice cooler's--happiness (photo by Nuki Sabio for the PBA).

Tim Cone’s second grand slam feat in the PBA is a team’s –and an ice cooler’s– happiness (photo by Nuki Sabio for the PBA).

It was not only the San Mig Coffee Mixers that yanked a season grand slam title run. The league itself has its own “grand slam” achievement to boast of, perhaps definitely turning around a dark age when so-called Fil-Shams (or Filipino-foreigners said to be possessing “fake” citizenship papers) almost ruined the PBA’s reputation.

The PBA is perhaps the only basketball league in the world with three conferences (or tournaments) in a single season. And 39 years of Asia’s first professional cage league, only five teams have scored that elusive grand slam. San Mig Coffee’s grand slam is the first in 18 years, the longest gap between grand-slam PBA champion squads. (It is to note that from 2004-2005 to 2009-2010, the PBA adopted a two-conference format to give way to players training for the national team.)

The PBA is synonymous to the “powerful” Crispa Redmanizers, first to achieve a grand slam (1976) and the only PBA franchise to have scored two grand slams (the second one was in 1983). Both squads had quality first five players and notable second stringers.

Like the 1989 San Miguel Beermen, boasting of former national players in the amateur ranks and three former PBA most valuable players (MVPs).

But San Miguel’s “namesake” San Mig (without the “uel” to distinguish the coffee drink from the liquor brand that is a separate franchise) only has around six-to-seven quality local players but it has a bench that got peppered up by the coaching of the PBA’s only two-time “grand slammer” Earl Timothy (or Tim) Cone.

And in a post-game interview, with a microphone volume that’s heard all the way to the top of the Big Dome, Cone praised those he didn’t field during the finals —like Lester Alvarez or Isaac Holstein— or even a former college MVP that is not in the Mixers’ active roster: Ken Bono.

“All of them contributed to this feat,” Cone told the crowd. “This is not only a James Yap team.”

But game 5 was the James Carlos Yap show. His triples even on tightly-guarded situations are a given, but the two-time PBA MVP’s one-handed, hanging thrust of a shot during inside incursions had bailed out the Mixers in the crucial stages —so are his game-high 29 points. Yap now joins an illustrious group of league MVPs —like Ramon Fernandez or Abet Guidaben or Atoy Co— with  grand slam feats to show for.

Yet Yap, who had declined the last five years of national team invitations, echoed Cone: “We (Mixers players) all worked hard for this.”

So did the Philippine Basketball Association, a league that, during the first decade of the new millennium, admittedly struggled in getting the old throng of fans with or without Crispa, Toyota, or Ginebra.

While Ginebra’s the easiest crowd drawer (whether the Gin Kings win or lose), the PBA had employed lots off gimmicks just to lure —or lure back— more fans. But the July 9 game’s 23,234 attendance, even while 71 people short of the 23,305 of last UAAP season’s game three decider between De La Salle University and the University of Santo Tomas, cemented the PBA’s turnaround from those struggling years a decade ago.

What also ailed the image of the PBA were disappointments when its star players were lent to form medal-less Philippine teams to Asia-level tournaments. What changed those disappointments was a dare to host last year’s FIBA Asia Championships and that 86-79 upset of Korea in the semifinals to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.

The feat by a team called Smart Gilas Pilipinas is by far the most impactful accomplishment of the PBA in an international tournament. With the fans chanting #Puso (“have a strong heart”), Gilas’ silver medal finish behind Iran brought back the Philippines to the FIBA-organized world level tournament after 36 years.

But the way today’s generation of Filipino hoop fans cheered for their Spain-bound national team (their collective of PBA players) even expressed the hope, as said by PBA team owner Mikee Romero of Globalport, that there’ll be heightened interest towards the PBA in the 2013-2014 season.

And all San Mig Coffee displayed —for three conferences, in fact— were heart, resiliency from double-digit deficits and struggling elimination round games, and the championship poise and feel that had made them ready to face whoever in the finals.

What more if one achieves a grand slam at the mecca of Philippine basketball (the Araneta Coliseum), with that sizeable crowd, with public pressure mounting, and with a pesky opponent in Rain Or Shine standing in the way?

So for the PBA, the FIBA Asia silver medal, the return of heightened fan interest that’s a product of the teams’ competitiveness (not just the Ginebra draw), and San Mig Coffee’s grand slam feat under pressure-packed conditions and a record attendance prepped up the resurging league. Three feats like those, all in a year’s span, are enough of a grand slam accomplishment for the PBA.



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