A Grand Slam for the ages

Posted at 07/10/2014 6:07 PM
The San Mig Coffee Mixers celebrate after their 92-89 win over Rain or Shine in game 5 of the Governor's Cup bringing home the grand slam. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com

This wasn’t going to come easy.

If the San Mig Coffee Mixers were going to win the 2014 PBA Governors Cup and complete only the fifth Grand Slam in league history, they were going to have to go through the proverbial eye of the needle to do so.

Such seemed to be the edict of Rain or Shine Elasto Painters coach Yeng Guiao as the deciding game of the Best-of-Five Finals series began to unfold, as his boys were not going to just lay down in front of SMC.

The elusive trifecta

The Grand Slam entails winning all three tournaments in a PBA season, and it’s such a difficult thing to attain that in 39 full seasons, it had only been previously done by a select few franchises.

The fabled Crispa Redmanizers first accomplished the feat during the PBA’s second season in 1976 under the watchful eye of “The Maestro” Baby Dalupan. Crispa repeated the Grand Slam in 1983 powered by “The Black Superman” Billy Ray Bates and coached by Tommy Manotoc.

Norman Black would coach his own Grand Slam-winning squad with the 1989 San Miguel Beermen. And Tim Cone proved the Triangle Offense could result in complete domination in 1996.

In the 18 seasons since, however, the Grand Slam has proved elusive for any single team to claim. The Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters came painfully close in 2012 until they ran in the Petron Blaze Boosters in the Governors Cup Finals.

A bountiful draft and a three-peat

When the San Mig Coffee Mixers won the 2013 PBA Governors Cup over Petron Blaze in seven games, few would predict that this team would have a stranglehold on every PBA title for the following year.

True, James Yap, Marc Pingris, and PJ Simon were still entrenched as the team’s superstars, Marqus Blakely had redeemed himself for a collapse in the 2012 Finals of the same tournament, and Mark Barroca was coming into his own as a clutch performer, but there was no inkling that they would be so dominant.

The 2013 PBA Draft yielded the second overall pick in Ian Sangalang, and the prized big man out of San Sebastian would prove to be a perfect fit in the Mixers’ roster. By nabbing the high-leaping Justin Melton in the same draft and teaming him with Barroca off the bench, Cone had put together a quick, pesky, and ultimately explosive backcourt combination that fueled their fullcourt press and fastbreaking attack.

Even after shaky starts to their 2014 Philippine Cup and 2014 Commissioner’s Cup campaigns, this team always managed to right themselves before falling too far, earning a reputation for having Rasputin-like recuperative properties. Facing down crowd darlings Barangay Ginebra in a grueling seven-game Philippine Cup semis series, SMC would emerge victorious and claim the most prestigious all-Filipino crown in six games.

New import James Mays was an untested commodity when he suited up for the 2014 Commissioner’s Cup, but the veteran crew around him more than made up for any deficiencies in his game.

Facing a then-undefeated Talk ‘N Text squad that had won 13 straight games, it would be the Mixers taking the fight to Norman Black’s wards. The balanced SMC attack, punctuated by timely sniping from Yap, earned them a rare “three-peat,” and placed the Grand Slam squarely in their sights.

Aiming for the Slam

With Blakely reinforcing San Mig Coffee for a third straight Governors’ Cup campaign, it was hard to bet against the Mixers. Cone had said repeatedly that this team reminded him of his 1996 Grand Slam winning Alaska squad as its collective mental toughness and refusal to lose kept popping up when they needed it.

Slowly and methodically, SMC would carve up their opponents once more, reaching the Finals yet again. Standing in the way of history would be Guiao and his proud Elasto Painters once again.

Aside from Game Four of this short series, every game proved to be tightly contested. Neither team was willing to concede to the other: SMC hungry for the Slam, while RoS aching to throw a monkeywrench into their plans. A sellout crowd of 23,324 packed the historic Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, with many more turned away at the gate in their desire to witness history.

Perhaps no other Elasto Painter personified the pride and guts of their team like 2014 Governors’ Cup Best Import Arizona Reid. In his third tour of duty for the Terry Que and Raymond Yu-owned franchise, Reid bucked a severely swollen right foot heading into the fifth and deciding game to carry the fight for Rain or Shine. Despite trailing by 16 points in the third quarter, “AZ” practically dragged his foot and the whole team to slice into the deficit before the final canto.

In a tug-of-war that was emblematic of the best basketball in the professional league today, San Mig Coffee would lean on the heroics of Yap as Pingris was limited by foul trouble. It was Yap’s booming triples, as well as a bit of bad luck on Rain or Shine’s part from the three point range that would decide this series.

The Elasto Painters missed on four clear attempts from beyond the arc that could have tied the game, and even surprising misses by Yap and Barroca from the free throw line would not yield the necessary points for Guiao’s team.

One with the immortals

The final score read 92-89 as Tim Cone now becomes the only coach in PBA history to win a Grand Slam twice. The fact that Cone did it 18 years apart with two different teams is even more amazing.

For San Mig Coffee, a franchise that has had superstars like Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codinera, Jojo Lastimosa, Dindo Pumaren, Boy Cabahug, Rey Evangelista, and Kerby Raymundo at one point or another donning their colors, none of those players attained the Grand Slam under the Purefoods/Coney Island/B-MEG umbrella.

Securing his second straight Finals MVP Award, James Yap has reached the pinnacle of his career with this accomplishment. Together with Blakely, Pingris, Simon, Barroca, Sangalang, Melton, Allein Maliksi, Alex Mallari, Rafi Reavis, Joe Devance, Jerwin Gaco, Ronnie Matias, Yousef Taha, Isaac Holstein, JR Cawaling, and Lester Alvarez, San Mig Coffee’s dynasty has reached that rarest of airs in the local play-for-pay league, the Grand Slam.

Even as three new franchises enter the PBA in its 40th season, it will be considerably hard for any team to match the success of this special group of Mixers.