Daryl Hall and John Oates sang the famous line, "So close, yet so far away." In forty-four PBA seasons past, there have been only five teams that won the coveted Grand Slam, i.e., winning all three conferences in one season. There are, however, nine teams that won the first two conferences of an ongoing season, set their sights on the Slam, but faltered in the end, shaking their heads and wondering about what might have been. Let's revisit each one and try to rank them according to how close they really got to team immortality.
1. 1975 Toyota Comets
In the league's inaugural season, Coach Dante Silverio's powerhouse Toyota squad handily won the first two conferences over blooming arch-rival Crispa. Each best-of-five series ended at 3-1. The Finals were knotted at two games apiece and Toyota needed just a game more to sweep the season. However, Crispa seized control to narrowly defeat Toyota, 96-91, and win the series, 3-2. Toyota ended the game with just four players on the court as Comets coach Silverio refused to replace the fouled-out Ramon Fernandez after what he felt should have been an offensive foul on Philip Cezar. Toyota was oh so close that it could probably taste the Slam, but the team fell just short in what should be considered the closest effort to win it all.
2. 2010-2011 TNT Tropang Texters
TNT won the first two conferences over San Miguel and Ginebra, respectively, and looked well on its way to being the first Grand Slam winner since 1996. The Texters topped the elimination round but seemed to falter in the playoffs. They replaced original import Maurice Baker with Scottie Reynolds. Despite their struggles, they reached the Finals against the Petron Blaze Boosters and even took a 2-1 series lead. After Game 3, a word war, and allegedly almost a fist-fight, erupted between TNT coach Chot Reyes and Petron coach Ato Agustin. Petron dominated the next two games to go up 3-2. TNT guard Jayson Castro felt the effects of an injury, missed a game, but was back on the court for the must-win Game 6. Coach Chot Reyes, prior to Game 6, decided to recall Baker as Reynolds had been under-achieving. TNT won by 26 points to set up a winner-take-all seventh game. Petron's strong start in the decider had TNT playing catch-up all night, and, when time expired, the dream was gone. One more win - a Game 7 decider - is all that separated this TNT squad from Grand Slam glory.
3. 1998 Alaska Milkmen
Having won the Slam in 1996 and with a beefier lineup in 1998, the Milkmen of Tim Cone seemed shoo-ins for a triple crown repeat. After twin wins over Ron Jacobs' San Miguel teams in the first two conferences, it seemed there was no denying the Alaska juggernaut from replicating the feat in the third. Alas for the Uytengsu-owned squad, national team duties came a-calling. Cone was named coach of the "Centennial Team" that would compete in the Asian Games. Three key players (Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, and eventual MVP Kenneth Duremdes) were recruited for that squad. Their absences were too heavy a blow for the team. The remaining locals, with Alaska resident import Sean Chambers and his partner Monty Buckley, tried to keep the team afloat, but the effort proved too much without the key personalities. The Milkmen finished tied for last with Sta. Lucia in the elimination round. The reason they are ranked third in near-Grand Slams is that, with a complete lineup under Cone, they would have most certainly repeated their 1996 achievement. Instead, Formula Shell defeated Mobiline in the third conference Finals.
4. 1995 Sunkist Orange Juicers
Derick Pumaren was traded to Sunkist from Pepsi for Yeng Guiao in a swap of coaches prior to the season. Under now-called "Manong" Derick, the Juicers won the first two conferences over the on-the-rise Alaska Milkmen. Pumaren had eventual season MVP Vergel Meneses and Best Import Stevin Smith leading the way on the court, ably supported by veterans like Al Solis, Nelson Asaytono, Yoyoy Villamin, and younger guns such as Kenneth Duremdes, Zaldy Realubit, and Boybits Victoria. Sunkist topped the elimination round of the third conference with an 8-2 record. Things were looking rosy for the Juicers as they entered the playoffs, but for some reason, they faltered, going 3-5 the rest of the way. They were eliminated in the semifinal round and went on to clinch third place against Formula Shell, winning the best-of-three, 2-1. Alaska went on to win the championship against San Miguel in seven games. Sunkist had the best overall record for the season, but it could only manage a semis seat in the third conference.
5. 1986 Tanduay Rhum Makers
The Elizalde-owned team had just acquired Ramon Fernandez to team up with veterans Willie Generalao, Padim Israel, Jayvee Yango, and Freddie Hubalde, among others. With a perfect combination of imports in the first conference, the Open (Rob Williams and Andre McKoy), Turing Valenzona's Tanduay defeated Great Taste 4-2 in the finals. Then, in the All-Filipino, in a heated finals battle featuring then-rivals Fernandez and Ginebra playing-coach Sonny Jaworksi, the Rhum Makers pulled out a 3-1 series win after losing the first game. However, import-laden conferences are usually the problem for All-Filipino conference champions. While its first conference import tandem was impeccable, Tanduay could not find a proper partner for Williams in the third, trying Benny Anders, then McKoy again, and settling for Andy Thompson. Against stronger import pairings such as Manila Beer's (Michael Young and Harold Keeling) and Ginebra's (Michael Hackett and Billy Ray Bates), Tanduay faltered, losing to both squads en route to elimination. The Rhum Makers ended at fourth, losing 4-0 to Great Taste in the best-of-7 battle for third. The franchise's only chance at a Grand Slam had fallen flat on its face.
6. 1977 Crispa Redmanizers
Coach Baby Dalupan already had a Grand Slam from 1976. When the Redmanizers won the first two conferences of the 1977 season, they had already won six titles in a row, including the third conference of 1975 (number 1 on this list). First, they dispatched of the Mariwasa-Honda Panthers (with Billy Robinson), 3-1, then the U/Tex Wranglers in a fifth game decider, 3-2. The third conference for the season was called the Invitational, as the league invited two teams, the Emtex Sacronels of Brazil and the Ramrod Blocks of Australia, to participate. Cyrus Mann, who had played for Crispa in the second conference, returned, to team up with Chris McMurray. Chemistry seemed to be a problem as the team lost its first three games and never recovered. The Redmanizers did not reach the finals as they finished in fourth place overall, the Grand Slam objective thwarted. Toyota (with Bruce "Sky" King and John Irving) went on to win the crown, 3-0, vs Emtex.
7. 2017 San Miguel Beermen
Dominating the Philippine Cup for the fourth straight year (4-1 vs Ginebra) and also clinching the Commissioner's Cup championship, the Beermen were poised to finally repeat their 1989 Grand Slam achievement. In the third conference, the Governors' Cup, SMB chose Wendell McKines as their import. He played five games and the team had a 3-2 record. Terik Bridgeman came in to replace him and played two games, which they split, 1-1. A third import, Terrence Watson, arrived to try to salvage their Slam aspirations. Things were looking good, as he led them to a 3-1 finishing kick, giving them a place in the quarterfinals, albeit with a twice-to-win disadvantage against Barangay Ginebra. The Beermen lost big, 104-84, and were eliminated. Blame it on import woes, fatigue, pressure, or whatever, but Coach Leo Austria's team failed to achieve the Grand Slam and, despite a wonderful season, whimpered out of contention as the Barangay went on to defeat Meralco, 4-3, in the Finals.
8. 2019 San Miguel Beermen
This might sound eerily familiar, as the Beermen again clinched the Philippine Cup by eking out a 4-3 Finals win against Magnolia, then also the Commissioner's Cup, this time versus TNT (with Terrence Jones), 4-2. But, in a bit of déjà vu, the Beermen again appeared out of sync in the Governors' Cup, ending once again the eliminations in the middle of the pack and gaining a quarterfinals seat with a twice to win disadvantage. Similarly, SMB faced Barangay Ginebra, and, even if the result this time was much closer, the Grand Slam-seekers still fell, 100-97, and were booted out unceremoniously. This was unfortunate for them since they seemed to have found a gem of an import in Dez Wells, but an injury and off-the-court problems sent him packing. John Holland replaced him, but they never won again. Twice in three seasons, the Beermen came out of the gates on fire, sustained it midway, but sputtered to the end, much to the dismay of team management and die-hard fans. Ginebra won it all, 4-1, against Meralco.
9. 1985 Great Taste Coffee Makers
The Coffee Makers won the last two conferences of the 1984 season, and they also clinched the first two conferences of the 1985 season (defeating Magnolia and Shell Azodrin, respectively). They wanted five straight and a Grand Slam, but the road would be tough as opponents always brought their A-game against GTC. In the third conference, in what is a familiar theme for Grand Slam seekers, Great Taste encountered "import problems". Coach Baby Dalupan first recruited hulking Wally Rank, but he could not get the job done. Then came Michael Britt, but he, too, proved ineffective. Finally, Corey Blackwell arrived. The team ended up at fifth (out of seven) in the eliminations, but played well in the quarterfinals to earn a playoff game against guest squad Northern Consolidated Cement (NCC). NCC proved too much for Great Taste, as the national squad won, 123-107, and relegated the Coffee Makers to the battle for third against Ginebra. The NCC rampage continued, as the team swept the Francois Wise-led Manila Beer Brewmasters, 4-0, in four straight routs.