DURING Alaska’s historic Grand Slam in 1996, Jeff Cariaso played a huge part in the run-up to the rare feat in the PBA.
It was Cariaso who sealed the championship for the Milkmen in the All-Filipino Conference when he drilled two free throws with 0.6 seconds left to give his team a 93-92 overtime victory over Purefoods in Game Five.
Cariaso and the rest of the Milkmen went on to win the next two conferences – the Commissioner’s and Governors’ Cup to become the third team to win the rare feat.
“That’s really a special team,” said Cariaso during a recent recording of the SPIN Sidelines. “I’m just happy that I was able to be part of that team.”
The Milkmen’s Grand Slam was actually an offshoot of their success from previous conferences were they reached the finals five successive times prior to 1996. With Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, and Bong Hawkins as leaders of the team and Tim Cone as the coach, Alaska successfully defended the Governors’ Cup crown in 1995 after two finals losses to Sunkist previously.
“I think I grew a lot during my first two years in the PBA,” said Cariaso, who was a rookie when Alaska claimed the 1995 Governors’ Cup crown. “During our run in my first two years, I think that’s were not just the skills on the court but the mental part of what it takes to be a professional in the PBA.”
Cariaso said a big part of the Grand Slam in 1996 was their mental toughness in able to stay focused on the goal during their run of consecutive finals appearances capped by that Governors’ Cup title.
“Imagine come 1995 and 1996, medyo spoiled tayo because my two years in the PBA, I made the finals. I was in the finals for six straight times. Imagine the character and the mental toughness of that team.
"Going into my rookie year, Swift was a really strong team with Vergel (Meneses), Nelson (Asaytono), and Kenneth (Duremdes). They were actually going for their own grand slam and kami ‘yung tinalo nila first two conferences. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to make the finals pero nakapasok kami (in the Governors’ Cup).
“Being in the finals again for that third conference after losing the first two, imagine the mindset and the mental toughness. We finally won the championship at the end of 1995,” said Cariaso.
By 1996 after the Governors’ Cup title victory, Cariaso said the level of confidence the Milkmen had was very high with the team keeping its core led by Abarrientos, Lastimosa, and Hawkins.
“Our confidence level as a team was an all-time high and we really felt that we can make a big run come that 1996 season but again, the challenge there was becoming consistent, staying together, and staying disciplined. Once we have the taste of the championship in 1995, I think that really carried us for the next season. When we won the all-Filipino, feeling namin tuloy-tuloy na,” said Cariaso.
Alaska faced Purefoods in the All-Filipino Conference finals in 1996 where the Milkmen captured the crown in five games. In Game Five, Cariaso was the hero of the match. With 1.4 seconds left in overtime, the Milkmen down one, and the ball being inbounded at the baseline, Cariaso received the ball by cutting inside and drew a foul from Bong Ravena.
In recalling the play, Cariaso said he was definitely not the primary option on that sequence, and that he expected that Lastimosa will receive the ball for a last-second shot. Fortunately for Cariaso, Purefoods was thinking the same.
“During my first two years, obviously, we weren’t the first option when it comes to crucial plays like that. We had veterans like Jojo, Johnny, and Bong. But at that moment, wala na si Johnny because he fouled out. It was Bong and Jojo on the court. Obviously, Jojo will be our go-to guy and the guy that we will look for down the stretch. Hindi ako first option or second option at that time.”
“It was really a quick read,” he added. “I saw that Purefoods was anticipating that Jojo will get the ball. Even I was, that Jojo will find a way to get the ball and get a shot off and give us a chance. I saw that they were focused on Jojo so I had an opportunity to sneak behind the defense slightly ahead of coach Bong (Ravena) who was guarding me. I was able to get enough spacing to beat him when the pass was made to me. At the same time, there was contact. There was just enough for the referee to give me a foul or not to give me a foul to be honest. But there was enough contact to give me a call. I was fortunate enough to make the free throws and the rest was history.”
Cariaso said the trip to the line was, although one of the most pressure-packed moments of his career, something that he was glad to experience as a basketball player who dreamed of winning the ballgame for his team.
“It was one of those dreams na parang scenario na lahat ng players go though. When you are playing alone in the backyard, they are thinking you are down by one and you have two free throws and there was no time on the clock. That was really a dream come true for me. During that game, I was confident because I had a decent game. I think I played well [He finished with 25 points].
“But it was still nerve-wracking, I can’t deny that. I think the first free throw, hindi siya smooth but that gave me confidence for the second. But the first free throw was nerve-wracking when you think about it,” he said.
There were also hiccups along the way in the Milkmen’s Grand Slam bid. In the Commissioner’s Cup, Alaska had to make an import change after then import Derrick Hamilton tested positive for marijuana. The Milkmen also had a slow start to the Governors’ Cup before getting their bearings back to win the Grand Slam.
Fortunately, Alaska had longtime import Sean Chambers to help the Milkmen steady the ship to a potential stumbling block for a championship. The 6-foot-2 Chambers joined Alaska early to replace Hamilton in a 6-foot-7 import conference before his usual tour of duty in the Governors’ Cup.
“We needed to make a change,” Cariaso recalled about the import change. “We were lucky that Sean was available and ready. Again, Sean is special in our Alaska history because of the consistency he brought for I would say 10 years to our team and the type of player that he was and the type of leader that he was. Sean was crucial to the overall character of the team.”
“When we needed to make a change, it’s hard. Derrick Hamiton was a good import for us, very nice guy. Mabait siya and he works hard. But we had to make change. If I recall, it was towards the end of the conference so it was more than halfway.”
Alaska eventually beat Ken Redfield-led Shell in seven games to win the Commissioner’s Cup for the Milkmen’s second title of 1996.
“And again, we were just fortunate that Sean came in, although smaller was familiar with us. Siya din ang magiging import namin next conference so it makes a lot of sense that we brought him in early.”
Cariaso recalled that talk about the Grand Slam from the basketball community really went into high gear come the Governors’ Cup. However, a 1-3 start nearly derailed that bid which was quickly answered by a 13-game winning streak that spanned through the elimination round, semifinals, and finals.
That shaky beginning was just what Alaska needed in order to win that Grand Slam.
“I think the slow start, you have to put it in perspective. This was after five straight finals appearances. We went the distance with Shell and during that time, hindi matagal ang offseason. In between conferences is a week or 10 days. It was hard to reboot ourselves.
“I think it’s a wake-up call. I don’t recall anything significant aside from the team just coming together and wake up a little bit. I’m sure he (Cone) had his choice of words to wake us up. We really need to get the ball rolling,” he said.
Alaska finally put itself in the record books on December 17, 1996 when the Milkmen beat Ginebra, 91-83, in Game Five of the finals, joining Crispa of 1976 and 1983, and San Miguel in 1989 as the only teams that captured the rare feat at that time.
“It’s a feeling that is hard to describe,” Cariaso said, “because imagine the hardwork and all the sweat and tears that went with winning the grand slam, and how long it takes to be consistent. We always tell to our players now that I’m a coach to play at a high level. But to be able to play at a high level consistently makes your team special and really remarkable.”
San Mig Coffee, incidentally coached by Tim Cone, during the 2013-2014 was the next team to win the Grand Slam after Alaska, and no one has ever won since, with San Miguel in 2016-2017 and 2019 being the closest.
In the ever-changing landscape of basketball, there will be always debates on what era was winning the Grand Slam was the hardest. For Cariaso, now the head coach of the Alaska Aces, winning a Grand Slam is difficult whatever the era is.
“That’s why the teams that won and those teams who have won the Grand Slam are remarkable teams that found ways each and every day to stay passionate and to have this focus that nothing will stop them. I think once you’ve established that, good things happen,” Cariaso said.
“To win a Grand Slam, hindi siya madali. The common denominator is it's very tough. It’s the hardest. When you talk about the character and the frame of mind of the team, to win a grand slam, that makes it special.”