There’s a little extra something when it comes to the Alaska Aces of the Philippine Basketball Association. Win (Alaska is just one of four franchises to have won a “Grand Slam” or three conferences in a single PBA season) or lose (the Aces’ last title came in 2013), the team’s culture allows it to stand apart from the rest of the league’s franchises, keeping it both relevant and competitive.
That said, “culture” is a word that gets thrown about with ease nowadays. In the context of this PBA pillar team, what exactly does it mean?
For Alaska, it starts at the top.
IT FLOWS DOWN TO THE REST OF THE TEAM
Ask Alaska players, past or present, and they will all tell you that when it comes to the Aces, it all starts with their team owner, Wilfred Uytengsu. “Boss Fred” brings with him a background that is unique, in that he too is an athlete.
“He’s a triathlete,” notes current Alaska Aces head coach Jeffrey Cariaso, who himself used to play for the team. “Imagine the training…it’s really three sports in one and you’re trying to master it. The same work ethic is expected of the team. How you handle difficulties and injuries is also the same expectations that he expects from the team.
“So being an athlete himself, he’s motivated. He wants to win. That’s the same passion. Owning a franchise and expecting them to bring the effort each and every day and expecting to win is really his bar. It [then] becomes everyone’s bar. Of course, you’re not gonna win every day, you’re not gonna win every conference, but again, striving for that is really the number one goal.”
Jojo Lastimosa, who helped lead Alaska to their first-ever PBA championship back in 1991, called the team owner “unique” because “you wouldn’t think of him like an owner.
“We don’t even call him sir; he’s just like one of the guys. It feels like he’s just one of the guys because he is sports-minded and he likes the things that we do. Magkapareho kami ng lahat ng ginagawa, and he’s family-oriented.
“I think in that way he’s unique as an owner because not a lot of the owners can do what he does.”
The Alaska franchise, which went by the Milkmen and Air Force monikers too, as well as a one-year run as the Hills Bros. Coffee Kings, played its first game in 1986, but didn’t rise to the top until 1991. That was the third season as head coach of Tim Cone, another individual credited with playing a huge role in establishing the club’s culture.
Cone, who would go on to become the PBA’s most-decorated head coach with 22 championships, 13 with Alaska, shook things up when he took the reins of the team, installing “The Triangle Offense” as the squad’s main approach to the game. While it was the same system that was winning championships for Coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, the structured, equal-opportunity style of play was very different from the isolation-heavy tactics favored by other teams at that time. For that alone, Cone’s team stood out from the pack.
“At the beginning…it was hard because there’s a lot of moving parts,” explained Lastimosa, one of the players who most needed to adjust to the new system. “The moment he [Cone] broke it down by parts, by options, that’s the only time we understood it. It took us about maybe two years to actually get the real fruit of the system.
“Nakita ko na the only way for us to win is to have that kind of system na the opponent would not know who to guard right away. So if the ball moves from side-to-side, and there’s a lot of passing involved, mahihirapan yung opponent namin to actually guard any one of us.
“I started with the PBA being an iso league, and I love isolation so when the change came…it was hard. You have to get used to the new things.”
“One thing that I learned from Coach Tim is…just sticking with it. Sticking with and believing in it,” said Cariaso, whose system also incorporates elements of the Triangle. “The Triangle Offense, after some time, it was really just a dance. And you five [players on the court] have to always be dancing together at the same time.
“Once everyone understood that, and it was natural for everyone, it was really amazing the opportunities you get when you run that offense.”
Though the learning curve was steeper than the other PBA teams for new players, Cariaso feels the payoff is worth it. “I don’t think there’s any better place than Alaska for you start your [PBA] career.
“You understand more the importance of earning your position and earning your minutes. You understand that there is a process you go through each and every day. And your growth as a player is not only clear, because the coaching staff is always supportive and always making sure that you are on the right path, but you learn how to handle hardships. You learn how to handle struggles.”
A GRAND SLAM PAYOFF
The Aces had a pair of championships to their name entering the 1995 season. In that year, they entered into a lengthy rivalry with the Sunkist Orange Juicers/Orange Bottlers. Across three conferences, the two teams met each time in the Finals. The first two tournaments went Sunkist’s way, then finally, Alaska broke through, to win the Governors’ crown.
It was actually the franchises’ third such title. By then though, they were hearing whispers from critics and fans of other teams, saying that they couldn’t win the league’s most prestigious title, the All-Filipino crown.
“Kasi naman totoo ‘yun eh,” admitted Cariaso. “And normally when you win the All-Filipino, it really just gives you that ‘extra’ as a team.”
That’s exactly how things unfurled, as Alaska emerged victorious in the All-Filipino tournament of 1996. Though they finally got that monkey off their back, the team was still encouraged to go for more.
Lastimosa recalls, “I think we presented the [All-Filipino] trophy to the elder Uytengsu, the father of Fred, in the office. So after he got the trophy, the players were there, the coaching staff, he said, okay, so when are you going to win the next one? Ganon kaagad yung tanong niya.
“So palaging ganon na you can never be satisfied. For me, I never get tired of winning. Who gets tired of winning? So that should be the mindset.”
But before they could think of three titles in a row, they had to overcome a stumbling block in the semifinals of the Commissioner’s Cup, when their import, Derrick Hamilton, had to be replaced after testing positive for marijuana. With time being of the essence, the team opted to bring in a known quantity in Sean Chambers, an import that helped them win their previous championships. There was just one catch.
Standing at 6’2″, Chambers was undersized compared to the imports of other squads. Despite the disadvantage though, the hardworking Chambers, and the rest of the Milkmen managed to prevail, winning not only the Commissioner’s Cup, but also the next conference, the Governors’ Cup, achieving not only a Grand Slam, but four straight championships.
“That foundation I got in Alaska is still ingrained in my soul now,” says Chambers. “We used to have a saying in our board, ‘The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.’ So we have to prepare and it’s so vital that we, as an educator [Chambers is now a Dean of Students in his post-hoops career], and schools, that we all prepare…and I got all that from Mr. Uytengsu and Coach Tim and my Alaska experience.”
A CONTINUING LEGACY
In the wake of the Grand Slam, Alaska now had six PBA championships to their name. Though they have yet to reach those same storied heights as 1996, the team added another seven titles, before Cone moved on to handle another club.
In the wake of his 2011 exit, times have been lean for Alaska.
The Aces, as they are now known, have picked up just one more championship, lifting the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup banner, though they’ve made the Finals five more times after that.
The names are different, the title opportunities rarer, but Alaska is still Alaska, culture and all.
“We’re really very proud na part kami ng organization with a winning culture and yung having the right core values and character,” says Jeron Teng, one of the current faces of the Alaska team. “We really value having the right character. Very ini-implement talaga sa amin yun.”
“I wasn’t there when Coach Tim was there, but you can see it in the players,” points out Jvee Casio, another current Ace, who first came to the team in 2012. “Yung mga veterans namin noon, when I entered there, it’s really different. You can also hear it from other players who come into the team na galing sa ibang team.
“Very different talaga sa Alaska, and doo lang maano mo yung culture. If you see that culture there, you want to do that, you want to be part of it, and of course, it has been like that for so many years.”
With the PBA set to begin their 2020 season in a bubble, the circumstances and environment around the team are very much different from 1996. But the attitude is still the same.
“Kasi you’re wearing a jersey with a rich tradition of winning championships, so it challenges us to do the same. Recently lang medyo struggling ‘yung Alaska, so siyempre challenge for us as players to bring back the winning tradition,” says Teng. “I think it’s a good thing. It will motivate us to play even better, and strive to win a championship.”
Wala paring tatalo sa Alaska.