THE last time two independent teams squared off in a PBA Finals, Danny Ildefonso was stil league MVP, Yeng Guiao was barely a year removed from a coaching sabbatical spent mostly as commissioner of the PBL, and the pro league's games were almost exclusively played at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City.
Yes, it has been that long.
No wonder then that win or lose, Guiao has found a reason to celebrate Rain or Shine and Alaska's entry to the 2016 PBA Commissioner's Cup Finals - the first in 16 years that no team from the San Miguel Corp. and MVP organizations is involved in a championship series.
"It's a refreshing change," said Guiao, an understatement really for a coach who has stood as a defiant figure head for independent teams in an age when multiple ownership became acceptable in Asia's first pro league.
The last PBA Finals without an SMC or MVP team came in the 2000 season, when Alaska beat Purefoods in the All-Filipino Cup Finals. Purefoods' ownership changed hands soon after from the Ayalas to SMC, giving the conglomerate a third team after San Miguel Beer and Ginebra (previously acquired from the Palancas).
The PLDT group, which had just one team in Mobiline at that time, soon followed suit with Meralco and NLEX, setting the stage for a rivalry that put as much focus on rival owners - Manny V. Pangilinan and SMC's Ramon S. Ang - as the teams under their control.
At least one of those teams made the finals in each PBA conference for the last 16 seasons until Alaska eliminated Meralco and Rain or Shine booted out SMB in the Final Four of this tournament.
Alaska owner Wilfred Uytengsu, an oldtimer in the PBA, said he found it odd that suddenly, a battle between ballclubs not affiliated with either the SMC or MVP groups has become a momentous occasion in the league.
"I'm surprised how many times I've been asked about this by media," said the maverick owner. "It's pretty sad this even becomes a topic of discussion."
Yet Uytengsu himself admitted that there is extra satisfaction to see non-affiliated teams overcome what he said was the advantage SMC and MVP teams enjoy by the mere 'economies of scale.'
"In some way it is nice to see independent teams are able to make the finals despite the handicap that the 'conglomerate' teams enjoy by simple economies of scale," Uytengsu said, adding, 'there will always be doubt when sister teams are playing (against each other)."
Guiao feels the same way, noting it is 'satisfying' to see teams with far less resources succeed at a time when ballclubs under a single ownership are pretty much run by the same people, constantly raising suspicion not only of cooperation but also of collusion.
"Can you imagine what the odds are of two independent teams facing off in the finals?" Guiao said. "It's satisfying that your resources compared to those of other organizations are a lot less, yet you achieve a lot more.
"By being in the finals and being independent, we've already beaten the odds. So that says a lot about the organizations, the management, and the way these teams are run.
"You really don't get help from anybody. It's really an independent effort, that's why you're called an independent team."
Aside from that, Rain or Shine and Alaska have been by and large above suspicion amid increased scrutiny in the league over salary cap violations and lopsided trades.
"We're not saying that they're not doing it the ethical way," Guiao said, "but we do it the ethical way."
Regardless of what happens from hereon, Uytengsu said Alaska has already shown admirable character by bouncing back from the historic collapse in the Philippine Cup Finals against San Miguel.
"We are just fortunate to be back in the finals after last conference's disappointment and that speaks a lot about our team's character," he said. "RoS also should be recognized for its string of nine straight semifinal appearances."