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've looked at the 1976 and 1983 Crispa Redmanizers, the 1989 San Miguel Beermen, and 1996 Alaska Milkmen. Now we move on to the 2013-14 San Mig Super Coffee Mixers.
The Grand Slam accomplished by San Mig Coffee in the 2013-14 season could be classified as one of the most unlikely in PBA history. Although they had a strong team, the Mixers were by no means favorites as there were equally loaded squads that stamped their class in the elimination rounds.
After winning, the 2013 PBA Governors' Cup, the Mixers did not dominate the competition. In the elimination rounds, they finished fifth (7-7) in the Philippine Cup, sixth (4-5) in the Commissioner's Cup, and tied for the third to seventh spots (5-4) in the Governors' Cup.
What set them apart was their ability to come together and win when it matters the most. The Mixers had amazing performances in knockout games, which really showed the poise of the squad.
"The prospect of winning a Grand Slam was never mentioned by Coach Tim (Cone) when he took over," said Richard Del Rosario, who was the team's assistant coach at the time. "All he told us at the start was that he'll do everything he can to gain our trust."
The big difference for the team was the Triangle system that Cone wanted to put in place. Since it was not an easy system to understand quickly, there were trying times for the squad and some players had to sacrifice more than others.
"Everyone had to make adjustments because it's a very different system from what we were used to," Del Rosario explained. "However, among the players, I think James Yap adjusted the most because he was a volume shooter, but, with the Triangle System, Coach Tim wants five passes or more to make the defense work before we take a shot. Before, when James gets the ball, he'll create for himself but he had to learn how to pass the ball first and trust that it will go back to him and he'll even have a better shot."
For Del Rosario, one of the biggest hurdles in completing the Grand Slam was the gruelling schedule of the PBA that season.
"What a lot of people may not remember was that we won the Grand Slam in a year when the PBA shortened its season because of the Philippine national team," he said.
"If fact, I remember we won a championship on a Friday and we only took the weekend off before going back to work again to prepare for the next conference. While we were still playing in the Finals, other teams were already preparing for the next conference so what we did was that our third group would practice in the mornings even on game days just to work with our imports. We had to be creative."
Throughout his PBA career, Cone has been known to have an eye for great imports. This became another huge building block towards the franchise's most successful run in its history.
"Early in the elimination rounds, our imports really kept us afloat," Del Rosario explained. "Coach Tim likes imports who are not scorers per se. He wanted defensive-minded imports who'd control the boards and that's what we got with both James Mays and Marqus Blakely."
With Yap often starting out with Marc Pingris, Mark Barroca, and Joe Devance, San Mig Coffee built a deep bench with players who could all step up in any given game.
"We lessened the pressure on our star players because we had a solid second unit," said the assistant coach. "They had their own identity, talking about Rafi Reavis, PJ Simon, and Justin Melton, they were a defensive pressure team. Injuries and just the wear and tear of playing so many games was another challenge, but our second unit allowed us to rest the players who needed rest.
Players such as Alex Mallari, Allein Maliksi, Ian Sangalang, and Yancy De Ocampo all did their share as well.
"We had an agreement after winning the Commissioner's Cup that we won't be talking about the Grand Slam," he added. "It would be a distraction and it would add to the pressure. When we got to the Governors' Cup Finals, we were all thinking about it but no one talked about it openly."
Asked about their biggest threat to completing the historic feat, Del Rosario mentioned their Philippine Cup and Governors' Cup dance partner Rain or Shine as their nemesis.
"They were an unconventional team," he said. "At that time, their guards were playing inside, Paul Lee and Gabe Norwood would post up our guards and their bigs like JR Quinahan and Beau Belga took shots outside so they took us away from our defensive comfort zone. They had a solid import in AZ Reid and they played very physically."
The Elasto Painters were merely inches away from pushing the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Governors' Cup finals into an overtime period but Reid narrowly missed on a three-point shot at the end that sealed their fate.
However, the Mixers were heavy underdogs in the second conference.
"TNT was also a tough team in the Commissioner's Cup. They were undefeated before the Commissioner's Cup finals. I think they were 13-0 so our mindset then was just to win Game 1 so that we can plant doubt in their minds because at that point they felt close to being invincible," Del Rosario shared.
"If there's one word to describe that [San Mig Coffee] team, it's selfless," closed Del Rosario. "The team's success was really the priority. During that run, none of our guys won Best Player or Best Import of the Conference and it didn't matter to them because the only important thing was winning the championship."