After taking care of business in the first two conferences of the 1998 PBA season, a second Grand Slam felt increasingly certain for coach Tim Cone's Alaska, which fielded what he believed was a stronger lineup compared to the Milkmen squad that clinched the Triple Crown two years before.
But when the national team came calling, Cone didn't hesitate to immediately set aside the goal of a season sweep.
"To me, it was not even a decision. I look back on it and I have absolutely no regrets," Cone said on An Eternity of Basketball by ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna, Sid Ventura and Noel Zarate. "I regret that we didn't get the gold (in the Asian Games), but I certainly don't have regrets that we didn't get the Grand Slam. I find it hard to believe that anybody would basically equate the Grand Slam to the national team, and so it never even really occurred to me."
Alaska stars Johnny Abarrientos, Kenneth Duremdes, Bong Hawkins and Jojo Lastimosa all came along with Cone when the coach assembled the Centennial Team, though Cone did remember Lastimosa asking to be left behind to try win the Grand Slam with the rest of the team.
"I do remember Jojo coming up and saying that, but I didn't think it was as serious as he made it out to be. And maybe he was -- I just took it differently. But to me, it was a no-brainer. And that opportunity comes once in a lifetime as a coach," he shared. "To me, that was so much more exciting... To me it's not even a true question."
"I never gave it really any thought, and I don't think (Alaska owner) Mr. (Fred) Uytengsu gave it any thought as well. I think that we were all on board, and maybe the only one that wasn't on board was Jojo," added the coach.
Lastimosa staying with the Milkmen during the third conference probably wouldn't have been enough, according to Cone.
"Jojo by himself there with Alaska, I don't know if they would have been able to win the championship anyway in the third conference without Bong and Johnny and Kenneth there. We certainly couldn't leave all four of them there win the Grand Slam and go with the Centennial Team without them. So it was basically all or nothing," said Cone.
Jolas' 'Angry Game' with the Centennial Team
Being part of the Centennial Team to the 1998 Asian Games wasn't fun for Jojo Lastimosa, until the bronze medal match.
Dealing with a frustrated Lastimosa, pain of missing gold
Coaching a roster loaded with top-shelf talents from top to bottom would sound like a dream scenario, but making all the pieces work meant the unenviable task of maneuvering around personalities, egos and expectations.
Cone was no exception when it came to the challenge of that Asian Games buildup.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did. Coaching that team, without a doubt," admitted Cone. "And a lot of things were difficult because I was handling a superstar team. Total superstar team -- guys that were used to averaging 40 minutes a basketball game, and trying to get them to buy into, you know, 'If you play five minutes, then you play the best five minutes you can. You play 30 minutes, you play the best 30 minutes. It didn't matter; you were going to do whatever it took to win because it was bigger than all of us.'"
"It was very difficult to manage all the egos in there. Some guys were really good about it, some were not," he added.
And as the Centennial Team lost Hawkins to an ACL injury during their preparations - "I thought this really affected us in '98 and maybe prevented us from winning that gold... He would have been a tremendous boost, almost another coach on that team if he had been able to play in the Centennial Team," he said of Hawkins -- Cone said Lastimosa's role with the national squad became more important.
"Jojo was a real important part of what we wanted, because we needed him to help us get buy-in for all the other superstars. That was basically one of Jojo's and Johnny's and Bong Hawkins' roles," he said.
There was only one glaring problem: Cone and Lastimosa both had differing expectations about the shooting guard's role with the national team in the Asian Games.
"I think that Jojo had the impression at that time that he felt because he was my player, I was going to play him more. I was of a different philosophy. I felt that because he was my player, he would understand and trust that I would do the right things for the team, and that no matter what I did, because he was my player he would go along with it," he explained. "And I just didn't understand that he didn't understand that, and we were just kind of two different sides of the coin, and he got really upset about it."
When the Asian Games went underway, Lastimosa played sparingly and grew more and more frustrated at Cone, who was unaware of the star guard's dissatisfaction until the Philippines faced Kazakhstan in that battle for third place.
"I didn't even know he was upset about it until that actual game against Kazakhstan. I didn't even know that he was angry. Someone had told me but I can't remember who it was," he said.
Cone entered the tournament with a shot at a gold medal in mind, but heartbreaking losses to South Korea and China in the quarterfinals and semis dashed those hopes and drove the coach into the predicament of having to pick up the team's morale entering the bronze match.
"It was very, very depressing because we were playing for third, and we'd already gotten beat by China," he rued. "And we had a chance to beat China in that game, too. That was a game that [came to the] last possession, but we were that close to beating China... and they were awesome. That was, to me, their best ever China team, even the better than the Yao Ming teams. And they hadn't lost in ages. But we had played Korea and Korea had -- you know, I'm not going to go through that game because it hurts to think about it. I've been trying to make up that game ever since -- but we got beat up by Korea, and I just didn't coach it well. I should have used our personnel differently. We had versatility in our personnel, and I didn't use it. I was so focused on China that I looked past Korea."
Fortunately, Lastimosa -- lounging on the bench with a lot of contempt and bitterness towards Cone -- already had all the motivation in the world. Cone set the guard loose against the Kazakhs and the clutch guard delivered accordingly, eventually anchoring the Philippine offense to a narrow 73-68 win over the Kazakhs.
"Playing for third is the hardest thing ever... You know, it's really hard to motivate anybody. You already feel like you're a loser," Cone continued. "Kazakhstan, for them to place third was a tremendous achievement. And for us to place third It was like, 'Eh.' So it was a really tough game to get everybody motivated for it.
"The good news was Jojo was motivated. And he was not motivated to win third; he was motivated to make a point to me," he said. "And he went into the game, and he just went wildfire. He was making shots from all over the floor. And we were actually losing to Kazakhstan when he came in and he just led us to like a five-point win. It was close, and we almost lost that."
The aftermath provided Cone little relief. Lastimosa recalled the coach crying after the game once he confronted Cone about his playing time -- "I think he felt so bad. He felt so bad. I think he admitted to me and he cried after that game," said Lastimosa -- but Cone explained that it was due to the sheer disappointment he personally felt after falling short of a gold.
"I was devastated. Jojo, I think, mentioned that I cried, and I did. But I'm sorry Jojo, it wasn't about you," Cone laughed. "But I was really devastated about the whole emotion of the thing. I didn't go to the locker room after the Kazakhstan game. I was just feeling so bad. And I never, ever cried in any other game in my whole career, ever. That was the only game I've ever cried. I'm just not a crier -- I maybe cried two or three times in my whole life, and that was when my mother died and after that series."
"It still brings back a lot of emotion for me to talk about it. It seemed like such a failure because we didn't win the gold. And we really set out to win the gold, and I really thought we could. And we didn't," he said.
The challenge of dealing with Lastimosa's expectations also added to the emotional burden felt by Cone after the quadrennial tournament.
"It was just like an emotional release that I had over that whole experience. It was difficult. It was really, really difficult to lose that. And it was tougher because Jojo made it tougher, because he was so upset about it. So that made it tougher as well. And the next day, at the airport, it was tough. And he still wasn't speaking to me. He didn't speak to me for a few weeks."
Tim and Jolas
Even as Lastimosa's contempt for Cone didn't taper off for a while, the coach still credits the star's stature as a leader and how he delivered the success that brought Cone to where he is today.
"Jojo and I, we butted heads all the way through our careers together. And that's what made him such a tremendous leader. He had that great strength, that personality. He was a very strong-minded, very strong-talking person. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He talks brutally, honestly. He will never not let you know what he thinks. And again, that's the qualities of a great leader, especially in basketball, and he was our unquestioned leader throughout that all time. And because he was a leader and I was a leader, we kind of butted heads with each other all the time because he had very strong opinions of how things should be done," he said.
"We butted heads and screamed and yelled at each other a number of times, but we always got through it. He didn't hold a grudge for too long -- obviously he held that with him for a while -- but we got past it and you know, winning and doing and playing the game the right way was more important to us ultimately. So we always eventually got along. I mean it was one of those love-hate relationships that you have. But ultimately, you're always going to love them. And so without Jojo... I wouldn't be here right now."
Over 20 years later, Cone has a slightly different perspective of that Asiad bronze.
"We did our thing in '98 and we had to play against Ron Jacobs twice in that first conference and the second conference. We played San Miguel twice in the finals. And that to me was like the ultimate test, coaching against Ron Jacobs. So '98 was a good year. It was just a tough ending just because of the bronze medal instead of the gold," he said.
"Now we look back on it and go,' Wow, we won a bronze medal.' My wife says, 'Tim, why do you feel bad about that? You won a bronze medal. At least you won a medal. And I said, 'Boy, just to be there that time, eh. Bronze was nothing.' Now it's all right, but back then it was nothing."