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Mon Fernandez on SMB's 1989 Grand Slam: 'It was a powerhouse team'

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Norman Black's list of best players (5:05)

Norman Black names the six best players he's ever coached. (5:05)

In the 45-year history of the PBA, a Grand Slam - one team winning all three conferences in a single season - has only been accomplished five times, with Crispa winning in 1976 and 1983, San Miguel in 1989, Alaska in 1996 and San Mig Coffee in 2014. For our latest series, we interviewed one player from each of those Grand Slam teams. We started with the 1976 Redmanizers and followed it up with 1983 squad. Now we move on to the 1989 San Miguel Beermen.

Today's generation of PBA fans know very well their favorite San Miguel Beer idols like June Mar Fajardo, the pro league's only six-time MVP, Terrence Romeo, Arwind Santos, Chris Ross, and Alex Cabagnot, just to name few.

This batch of SMB has been running roughshod over its opponents since coach Leo Austria came on board in 2014. Austria brought his coaching magic to the Beermen's camp, turning the once talented but underachieving squad into the most dominant ballclub today.

San Miguel has in fact, won eight league championships, including five All-Filipino Cup crowns in a row, a feat that could be hard to match in the years to come.

Twice under Austria's watch, San Miguel came close to winning what could have been the second Grand Slam finish in franchise history. But in both instances, Barangay Ginebra thwarted that bid after ruling the season-ending Governors' Cup in 2017 and 2019 behind super import Justin Brownlee.

Former San Miguel star center Ramon Fernandez, who owns numerous individual league records, recognized the dominance of today's version of San Miguel.

But then again, he's got his own story to tell, especially since his 1989 San Miguel team finished the season with aplomb by winning the Grand Slam, making SMB just the second team to achieve the rare feat at that time.

Black magic

San Miguel's 1989 batch comprised the core of Fernandez, playmaker Hector Calma, Samboy Lim, shooting guard Ricardo Brown, bruising forwards Yves Dignadice and Alvin Teng, and role players Elmer Reyes and Franz Pumaren.

Even with such a star-studded lineup, Fernandez stressed there were no prima donnas in the team, a reason why SMB coach Norman Black could focus on his job of plotting the team's championship run that season.

"Our team during 1989 was a powerhouse team. In fact, our internal joke back then was, even our ballboy can coach our team and win the championship," Fernandez told ESPN5, while laughing in between during the interview.

However, Fernandez, nicknamed "El Presidente", said that joke wasn't meant to disrespect nor belittle the coaching abilities of Black.

"The great thing about having Norman was he can really focus on getting the best import for the team each conference," recalled Fernandez, who now serves as one of the commissioners of the Philippine Sports Commission.

"Norman can easily talk to the import because one, they speak the same language, and second, he understands what type of import we need for a particular conference," he added.

The 66-year-old Filipino basketball icon said he had high regard for Black, whom he faced numerous times since the American coach served as import in various teams like Tefilin (1981), San Miguel (1982) and Magnolia/SMB (1985-1988).

"As far as coaching, there's no more question about his ability because no player in his right mind would try to question Norman. He never had any problem with the team because everyone was coachable," explained Fernandez, whose bid for a then record fifth PBA MVP was denied when Shell's Benjie Paras won the Rookie of the Year and league MVP in 1989.

Championship juggernaut

San Miguel kicked off the season by sweeping two-round eliminations of the Open Conference on the way to an immaculate 10-0 record behind import Michael Phelps, who back then was coming off NBA stints with the Seattle Supersonics and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Beermen continued their dominance in the semifinals as they breezed their way to the Finals where they arranged a best-of-seven title series with Shell, which had the do-it-all Bobby Parks as its import.

While Parks was a scoring dynamo, and Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc played their guts out during the Finals, the Turbo Chargers were simply no match for the Beermen's championship experience, talent and firepower as they went on to rule the 1989 Open Conference via a 4-1 series win.

A month after the title conquest, San Miguel resumed its title bid, this time in the All-Filipino Conference, where Fernandez's former team Purefoods emerged as the team to beat.

The Hotdogs rolled on the solid core of Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codinera and Jojo Lastimosa. But the Beermen were not far behind. San Miguel and Purefoods eventually arranged a race-to-four-wins championship series.

The championship series offered an interesting subplot as Fernandez faced his former team for the first time since his aborted stint with Purefoods in the 1988 season.

Fernandez admitted he and then Purefoods president and chairman Rene Buhain didn't see eye to eye during his brief stint with the Hotdogs.

The former PBA four-time MVP had led Purefoods to a runner-up finish during the 1988 Open Conference as its playing-coach. He then guided the young Purefoods side to the Finals in the All-Filipino Conference, but was subsequently benched in the title series against Añejo Rhum.

The 65ers of playing coach Robert Jaworski eventually won the All-Filipino crown via a 3-1 series conquest.

From there, Fernandez was traded to San Miguel in a straight swap with Abet Guidaben.

With his troubles from the not-so-distant past with Purefoods as a backdrop, Fernandez played his guts out during the Finals to help the Beermen to a 4-2 series victory.

It was SMB's first All-Filipino crown in the pro league, but more importantly, the Beermen moved one conference away from the Grand Slam.

The Reinforced Conference though became the most challenging stretch for San Miguel. The Beermen struggled with Keith Smart, the team's original import, who lasted just the first round of eliminations and had to be replaced by NBA journeyman Ennis Whatley.

The Beermen though regrouped to book the semis after ending 1-2 in the standings with the Hotdogs with similar 6-4 records.

But SMB went on to win six of its last eight games from there to book the Finals seat.

Añejo Rhum, on the other hand, squeaked past Purefoods, 113-112 in their knockout game for the last Finals berth to arrange a titular duel with San Miguel.

Although San Miguel had to deal with a scoring demon in Añejo Rhum import Carlos Briggs, who earned his reputation after recording 80 or more points three times during the conference, San Miguel emerged on top just the same.

Briggs, the Reinforced Conference Best Import, closed out the title series with an eye-popping Finals average of 64.6 points. But San Miguel saved its best in the finals, playing like a well-oiled machine behind the heads-up plays of Whatley, Brown, Lim Calma and Fernandez.

The Beermen eventually dominated the Rhum Masters, 4-1 in the Finals to complete their Grand Slam mission.

"Winning the Grand Slam is really hard. The health of the players is very critical. Certainly, you need to be intact for the whole season to make that happen, though for our team then, Ricky Brown had his own share of injuries, while Samboy missed some games also," shared Fernandez, who concluded his PBA career with 19 championships and a spot in the PBA's 40 Greatest Players.

San Miguel finished the 1989 season with a 50-21 win-loss record, with Fernandez and Calma being named to the Mythical First Team and Reyes and Teng making the Second Team. Teng was also named to the All-Defensive Team.