A BITTERSWEET SYMPHONY: THE LONG JOURNEY TO BANNER 14 and THE UNLIKELY FINALIST

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The Alaska Aces hoist the Commissioner’s Cup title in front of the mammoth crowd of 23,436 at the SMART-Araneta Coliseum.

Winning a championship ain’t easy, you can ask every team or any personnel from any team that winning a championship ain’t easy. You can even ask the New York Yankees who won 26 World Series wins in their storied history, you can even ask the multiple time Stanley Cup winners The Montreal Canadiens on how hard their journey was, the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers or even the New England Patriots on how hard the journey is, and I bet you will get the same answer from multiple time NBA Champions the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

My point is in every team, or any league a champion team has this specific journey that can be full of heartaches, disappointments, a number of trials and tribulations before getting a shot to immortality. In a way the journey of perhaps 2 of the historic PBA teams in history both the Brgy. Ginebra San Miguel Gin Kings and the Alaska Aces who battled their way to the recently concluded Commissioner’s Cup Finals have a lot of heartbreaking stories that they will share. In my opinion in life and in sports (whether individual or team sports) you have to at least have that journey, a journey that is full of pain and anguish that will motivate you to be the best, and once you’re in top, you continue to climb higher.

Both Ginebra and Alaska, had a lot of stories to share. We begin with Ginebra who’s last title was back in 2008 Fiesta Conference whom they won against the then upstart team of Air21 Express, despite virtually having a homecourt advantage night in and night out, having perhaps one of the best teams built in paper, have battled to numerous disappointing finish and heart aches, even in their last Finals back in 2011 Commissioner’s Cup can be told as one of the most heartbreaking moments in franchise history, on top of that numerous coaching changes and a lot of disappointments including eliminations from the Quarterfinals, the Semi-Finals, and always coming up 1 game away from the PBA Finals. Even with all those disappointments the Ginebra team led by Reigning MVP Marc Caguioa, former MVP Jay Jay Helterbrand and Billy Mamaril were always a significant fixture in the PBA.

Alaska’s journey on the other hand, was maybe a little different, after bagging the 2010 Fiesta Conference Championship and upsetting the San Miguel Beermen in that championship series, Alaska went on a downward spiral, failing to make it to the Finals in each of the conferences in the 2010-2011 PBA Season. In perhaps one of the most shocking moments in PBA history Tim Cone, the head coach of Alaska for 20 sum years and the same coach who gave the franchise it’s 13 PBA titles including a rare grandslam back in 1996 resigned from his position as head coach, only  to sign a few days with The B-Meg Llamados (now the San Mig Coffee Mixers) at the start of the 2011-2012 PBA Season. Alaska had a new coach at the helm which happens to be Joel Banal, a champion coach in both the professional and the amateur level, failed miserably in the Philippine Cup, had an above average 2012 Commissioner’s Cup good enough for a quarterfinals berth and an early elimination. Banal resigned from his position, and Luigi Trillo was appointed the new head coach for Alaska. Trillo then had a horrible Governor’s Cup as they were one of the cellar dwellers of the league at that time. To add insult to injury, while Alaska in having a miserable time during the Post Tim Cone era, the B-Meg Llamados clinched their first PBA title (the 2012 Commissioner’s Cup) with Tim Cone as chief tactician. Things do not look bright for Alaska, as we begin the 2012-2013 Season, while the Ginebra camp on the other hand is preparing a shot at greatness.

While waiting for the dust of the previous season to settle, LA Tenorio led Smart Gilas Team Pilipinas to a victorious campaign at the Jones Cup capped off by his dominating performance in the Finals. Tenorio who at that time was playing for the Alaska Aces, had a vintage performance in the said tournament. Alaska fans were excited to begin the season, but a few days later trade rumors of LA going to Ginebra was all over the place. Ginebra perhaps one of the big market teams of the PBA and was part of the San Miguel Corporation Teams that also owned the San Mig Coffee Mixers and the Petron Blaze Boosters (San Miguel Beermen). Ginebra was in need of a point guard that will lead them back to not only significance but also to back to prominence. Then the rumors suddenly came true.

Air21 Express, Petron Blaze Boosters and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel  were involved in a three-way trade. Air21 acquired Nonoy Baclaoand Rob Reyes  from Petron Blaze and KG Canaleta and John Wilson  from Ginebra. Petron Blaze received Paolo Hubalde and Magi Sision from Air21 and Air21’s 2014 second round pick. Barangay Ginebra acquired Elmer Espiritu from Air21 and the team’s 2013 first round pick.

And then Ginebra and Alaska this time were involve in the trade.

Alaska, Barako Bull, Barangay Ginebra, GlobalPort and Petron Blaze were involved in a five-team trade that sent LA Tenorio to Barangay Ginebra, JV Casio and Dondon Hontiveros to Alaska, Willie Miller to GlobalPort, Hans Thiele and Wesley Gonzales to Petron Blaze and Enrico Villanueva to Barako Bull.

Perhaps the last significant piece of the old Tim Cone era traded away which happens to be LA Tenorio and the promising (yet no promise has been shown yet) Hans Thiele was given away. In exchange we did have Don Don Hontiveros and Jayvee Casio, still the fans were disappointed of letting LA go. While on Ginebra side fans were in ecstasy as the thought of LA and Ginebra superstar Marc Caguioa will be in the same backcourt, perhaps their best backcourt since the Jaworski-Arnaiz tandem. At the draft Alaska took Calvin Abueva of San Sebastian while Ginebra took Chris Ellis a sweet shooting guard and forward who represented the Philippines in the South East Asian Games. Fans from both teams are happy, both teams got what they want, for Alaska perhaps the energy guy, who can provide rebounding, defense, and intensity, they found that in Abueva, while for Ginebra they probably found perhaps their franchise player 5 years from now (and I’m calling it Chris Ellis will be the Franchise for Ginebra).

As the Philippine Cup started both teams we’re pretty inconsistent, while they mange to stay a float both teams successfully entered the PBA Playoffs. Alaska finished 5th with an 8-6 card and have to face Cliff Hodge and the Meralco Bolts, while Ginebra finished 6th with a 7-7 card and was about to face eventual Philippine Cup runner up (the 2012 Governor’s Cup Champions) Chris Tiu (a.k.a. the Male Kris Aquino, minus the usual annoyance) the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, Though Ginebra failed to vanquish the tough Rain or Shine (ROS) team, Ginebra showed some promise and have something to look forward to come the 2nd Conference, while on the other hand Alaska shocked Meralco and advanced to face the defending champions the Talk N’ Text (TNT) Tropang Texters in the Semifinals. Alaska had shining moments during the 6 game series against TNT, eventually they young Alaska team who despite having some tested veterans folded against a much more experienced team in TNT. TNT eventually won their 3rd straight Philippine Cup Championship, and Alaska like Ginebra (during this time Alfrancis Chua was named head coach of Ginebra while Siot Tanquincen slided down as chief assistant) has something to look forward too come the next conference.

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While Herbert Hill was the original choice, Vernon Macklin proved to be a perfect fit for Ginebra and was a big factor to their resurgence during the Playoffs

While both the All-Filipino core for both Ginebra and Alaska were good enough to contend for a place at least in the Semis or maybe even the Finals, adding a very good import would perhaps put both teams back in the hunt for a possible PBA crown. Ginebra had no problem getting Herbert Hill, a former NBA draftee for the Utah Jazz, a fixture in the NBA D League showed promise in the first few games but after an 0-4 start was given the pink slip and was eventually replaced by Vernon Macklin who is also an NBA Draftee by the Detroit Pistons, and averaged double digits in points in his last 2 years as a member of the Florida Gators in the US NCAA, he eventually led Ginebra to a stinging 6 straight victories (7 out of their last 10) to lead Ginebra back in the Playoffs. Even with Marc Caguioa not playing (due to his MCL injury he suffered), LA and Macklin found ways to lead Ginebra.

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Rob Dozier was originally the 4th choice as Alaska’s reinforcement, he eventually won the Best Import Award for the Commissioner’s Cup and led Alaska to their 14th PBA Title.

Alaska on the other hand had a hard time recruiting imports after losing in the bidding war against Eric Dawson and Keith Benson*  (both played for Meralco and TNT respectively), Alaska tried to woo in Dj Mbenga, a rumored karate black belt and a former NBA veteran (and NBA champion) to be Alaska’s import, unfortunately Mbenga** refused. Alaska went on to recruit Rob Dozier who himself is a former NBA draftee, famous also for being Derrick Rose’s teammate back in 2008 during the Memphis Tigers’ run for the National Title. As Alaska import Dozier was their defensive anchor, like Macklin, Dozier is a tremendous rebounder and a very good shot blocker. Alaska stomped it’s class by winning 5 straight games and never looked back.

With both teams advancing to the Playoffs, the PBA geared up to what has been an exciting wind up in years. Alaska who finished the conference on top of the standings with an 11-3 card and an automatic twice to beat advantage in the 1st round, while Ginebra flashed a 7-7 card good enough to finish 7th in the standings. For Alaska standing on their way was Air21 one of the teams that has beaten Alaska in the conference, Air21 was led by a monster of an import Mike Dunnigan. While Alaska had a hard time during the eliminations containing Dunnigan, the team kept it together limiting Dunnigan’s effectiveness and eventually won over Air21. Ginebra on the other hand have to contend with their previous tormentors the ROS, with ROS holding a twice to beat advantage over the Ginebra team who is still missing Marc Caguioa. Ginebra with their Never Say Die spirit and the backing off thousands and thousands of fans at the game venues and the millions watching at home eventually, shocked the league by beating the ROS team twice to advance to the Semifinals.

With both teams advancing to the semis, both teams came in prepared as they faced their respective rivals. For Ginebra they will have to deal with the 3 time Philippine Cup Champions the TNT Tropang Texters led by Ranidel De Ocampo, Jason Castro and import Jerome Jordan (eventually replaced by Tony Mitchell), while Alaska on the other hand has to face it’s demons and will face former coach Tim Cone and his defending Champions San Mig Coffee Mixers led by two time MVP James Yap, Marc Pingris and then reigning Best Import Denzel Bowles. While both teams coming in to the series seemed to be overwhelming underdogs as Ginebra would have to contend with TNT and Alaska has not yet won over it’s former mentor.

The Alaska-San Mig coffee was a memorable one for Alaska, after dropping Game 1 in a tightly contested game, Alaska came roaring back scoring a blow out victory in Game 2, had a huge comeback in both Games 3 and 4 to score a series victory over the heavily favored Mixers. Alaska marched on to their first finals appearance during the Post Time Cone Era.

The Ginebra-TNT series was filled with twist and turns, after Ginebra winning Game 1 via blow out, TNT responded by winning Game 2, before Game 3 TNT changed import from a hulking Jerome Jordan and replacing him with the high scoring Tony Mitchell (tall enough to be their import in the 3rd conference), the replacement of Mitchell was due to the fact that TNT will have to continue playing without key players Kelly Williams, Jimmy Alapag and Jared Dillinger, all 3 are vital cogs to the TNT team. Tony Mitchell then surprised everyone with his scoring prowess torching every Ginebra defenders again and again that eventually led to a Game 3 victory. LA and Macklin came back smoking in Game 4, as Ginebra tied the series and force a winner take all Game 5. In Game 5 Ginebra broke TNT’s will as the Macklin-Tenorio show continued to torment TNT defenders. With Ginebra up big in the final seconds of the game. Alfrancis Chua fielded a Marc Caguio who is no in 100% as a symbol of “Thank You” to the fans. Ginebra went on and advanced to the Finals.

While Ginebra-San Mig Coffee (Purefoods or B-Meg) was a rivalry that is being marketed by the PBA on AKTV broadcast team, in my opinion the Ginebra-Alaska rivalry had more memories than the Manila Classico rivalry (Shell had a better rivalry with Ginebra in my opinion). Both teams faced in the Finals 3 times with Alaska winning 2 and Ginebra winning the last meeting back in 1997. Alaska and Ginebra featured great players in the 90s for Alaska it was Bong Hawkins, Johnny Abarrientos, Jeff Cariaso, Kenneth Duremdes for Ginebra it was Marlou Aquino, Vince Hizon, Bal David, Pido Jarencio, Robert Jaworski Sr, Noli Locsin to name a few. Back in the 90’s Jojo Lastimosa was Ginebra fans’ Public Enemy #1. Alaska fans’ on the other hand may have hated Bal David, maybe because David as a clear threat to Johnny A’s title as the league’s top point guard. Every Alaska-Ginebra game is a classic, even a blow out game something awesome is about to happen, just ask Marlou Aquino. Emotions have ran wild especially those games back in 1996 where Alaska completed the rare Grandslam, ironically the faced Ginebra in that season’s last title to complete the feat. Ginebra fans’ had this absolute hatred towards Alaska back in the mid 90s. Ginebra eventually got the last laugh in  1997 as the Chris King led Ginebra (then named as the Gordon’s Gin Boars) dominated the Alaska Milkmen who were led by import Kevin Holland, Gordon’s even led the series 3-0 before Alaska mustered up enough adjustments to win two straight games. To make this victory sweeter for Gordon’s, Chris King was injured from games 2 to 6, and I believe he didn’t get to play or play much in Game 3. Gordon’s eventually destroyed Alaska in Game 6 unleashing a 33-5 run that buried Alaska. The Ginebra/Gordon’s won their first title in 6 years at the expense of rival Alaska.

The story for both teams coming into the series is will Alaska eventually stepped out of the shadows of again the Tim Cone era, and ushered in perhaps the Trillo-Compton-Alas-Robinson era for Alaska. For Ginebra it’s a Cinderella run that they hope could lead to their 9th Championship in Franchise history. Added to the storyline for the Ginebra side is the resurgence of Jay Jay Helterbrand and Kerby Raymundo who suddenly started balling in the Playoffs, will this continue and eventually led to the championship. For Alaska, one of the added storyline is perhaps their re-emergence led by Rookie Calvin Abueva, who according to Fred Uytengsu perhaps the new face of Alaska. Multiple stories and drama eventually led to a possible dramatic series in memory. The 4th meeting of aged-old rivals, this is it for both teams and there’s no turning back.

The championship series was cut to a Best of 5 affair to give way for the FIBA Asia Championships that will be held here in the Philippines. With tensions running high, and minutes before tip off both teams were introduced to a raucous crowd at the Araneta in Game 1. Game 1 showed Alaska’s defensive dominance in the first quarter limiting Ginebra to a miserable 6 points to end the first, Alaska never looked back and eventually won Game 1 by 17 points. Game 2 at the Mall of Asia Arena was no different, Alaska showed it’s stuff in the 2nd Quarter and dominated them all the way, though Ginebra tried to threaten to make a comeback, Alaska has every answer to every Ginebar uprising in Game 2, Don Don Hontiveros’ 3 triples in the 4th Quarter, and a three point play by Sonny Thoss that proved to be the back breaker for Ginebra. Before Game 3 both Rob Dozier and LA Tenorio received their Best Import and Best Player of the Conference Award. Both of them bringing their teams along to accept it. Ginebra played much better in Game 3 than the previous 2 games, this time they went to an all out slugfest with Alaska, Marc Caguioa even showed promise that he’s coming back to his old form as he scored 10 points, LA was just superb, Jay Jay’s shots are falling this time, Chris Ellis the future of Ginebra is just amazing, for Alaska Dozier was dominant worthy of the Best Import title, Abueva is scoring big for the team, Hontiveros had his share of brilliance. Come the end of the 3rd it was 72-71 lead going into the 4th Quarter, Ginebra trying to force a Game 4 while Alaska trying to close it out. After an all out war in the first few minutes of the 4th Quarter Alaska eventually broke the game wide open after a 80-78 Alaska lead, they made a run similar to the one Ginebra unleashed in Game 6 16 years ago, Jayvee Casio went crazy, Thoss was dominating the paint, Rob Dozier who carried Alaska’s offensive attack all game long was phenomenal in defense, Abueva was smoking as well. The Alaska fans or the Gatas Republik went nuts as they saw their team dominating the tough Ginebra team. Alaska finished Ginebra off 104-80, finally getting vindication and the franchise 14th Championship, and their first during the Post Tim Cone era.

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Jayvee Casio’s performance in the Finals proved that he belongs with Alaska.

What’s fitting in this series is that Jayvee Casio, the guy who replaced LA Tenorio as Alaska’s chief point guard at the start of the season, the same guy who was big during some La Salle playoff and championship games in the UAAP, won his title with the Uytengsu franchise.

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Espinas who said that this is actually his 3rd time in the Finals, or perhaps his 3rd time facing Ginebra in the finals showed elation as he finally exorcised his Ginebra demons

With all the joy and elation happening all over the place Don Don finds some time to be with a fan amidst the chaos.

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Obviously that’s not Dagul

Even after Alaska has been doing all these things, the Araneta pro Ginebra crowd kept on chanting GI-NEB-RA! GI-NEB-RA! as a sign of respect and love to their team, eventually they were given their runner up trophy. With that I would like to say that Ginebra also deserves the championship,  much respect to them, they battled, they never gave up!

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A disappointed yet proud Ginebra team will take home the runner up trophy.

After awarding the runner up trophy Alaska was given their gem, then Fred Uytengsu gave props to the Ginebra team, and showed some love to the fans. Luigic then had the mic and started thanking his Alaska family, the fans, his dad, his wife and kid, and God.

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Sonny Thoss awarded the Papa John’s Pizza Finals MVP

Sonny Thoss on the other hand was adjudged the Finals MVP beating his other teammates Calvin Abueva and Cyrus Baguio. Thoss also thanked the fans.

With all the commotion and chaos, the Alaska managed to go back to their locker rooms and started celebrating. I just wish if they win their 15th title, they should consider pouring milk to Erik Padilla or even Jessica Mendoza.  With that Alaska’s journey has been a bittersweet symphony, Ginebra is still on the verge of finding their way back to greatness, if this  conference is an indication a few personnel moves here and there could spell the difference from their possible return to prominence or to obscurity. With that I close this piece by copying the old Alaska slogan.. “Wala paring tatalo sa Alaska!”

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