It was only a couple of decades ago, but the 2000s already seems like another era altogether. This is especially true when you look back at what the Philippine Basketball Association was like back then. In this series, we harken back to the time of two-network broadcasts, a two-conference format, Fil-Shams, and other events that defined the PBA in the first decade of the new millennium.
Let's venture back in PBA history. Remember the league's first decade? Of course! That was dominated by Crispa and Toyota, perhaps the most storied rivalry in Philippine sports. By the time Toyota disbanded after the 1983 season and Crispa exited at the end of 1984, the two teams had combined to win 76 percent of the championships up for grabs since the inaugural 1975 season.
As regards to imports, it was the era of the big, defensive-minded ones like Cyrus Mann and Andrew Fields, the high-scorers like Larry McNeil and Lew Massey, and the do-it alls like Billy Ray Bates and Norman Black. There were many legitimate PBA superstars to choose from, almost all of whom are considered among the best to have ever played in the league, with more than a handful mentioned in greatest-ever discussions. We do not need to name them - they are household names for any real PBA fan - but we must note the four MVP awards of Ramon Fernandez scattered every couple of years ('82, '84, '86, '88) throughout the 1980s.
In the mid to late '80s, the former amateur stars slowly entered the league, replenishing the stock of basketball heroes that was slowly dwindling as the pioneers and early outstanding performers retired. Great Taste and Tanduay had their share of winning, and San Miguel Beer closed the decade out with a Grand Slam performance (winning all three tournaments for the year), proving that Crispa did not have a monopoly on the feat after garnering it twice before.
Several teams, including Purefoods, Shell, Ginebra, and Swift tried staking their claim to greatness in the new decade, the 1990s. Each won championships, but would not emerge as the ultimate winner of that span of the PBA. That honor has to go Alaska, which at one point went to eight straight Finals series and ended with nine championship trophies (10 if you count the year 2000 as part of that decade).
Import Bobby Parks etched himself in PBA annals with a stack of Best Import Awards, which led to the award now being named after him. Tony Harris took the league by, well, hurricane. Resident Alaska import Sean Chambers became the yardstick for reinforcements of that time. As a side note, amidst all of this, the popularity of Ginebra rose to unequaled proportions, which remained consistent despite the team's inconsistent win-loss records. Alvin Patrimonio was clearly "the face" of the league, as he won four MVPs of his own. It was also the era of "The Aerial Voyager", "The Flying A", "The Bull", and "The Tower of Power". Again, you know who those are.
Of course, each fan has his own vivid memories of the achievements of his team, the matchups, the notable moments, particular imports, regardless of era. But, the true mark of a particular timeframe is when it is etched in the minds of the majority, if not most, and even, all.
The decade that just passed brings PBA memories of San Miguel Beer (five straight Philippine Cup crowns) and June Mar Fajardo (six straight MVPs). Of course there is a dabble of TNT, an occasional Rain or Shine, a smacker of Barangay Ginebra (always in the discussion), and of course, a big chunk of San Mig Coffee - a Grand Slam winner as well. There're Denzel's free throws, Brownlee's three, and Balkman's choke. Those are some of the standout memories, without a doubt.
But, what about the 2000s? San Miguel started out the decade strong, making it to five straight finals and winning three. Danny Ildefonso won back to back MVPs. And then, things got, well, different. In 2002, three different teams won championships. It was the same case in 2003. When the PBA shifted to a two-conference format starting the 2004-2005 season, two different teams won the championship each year until the end of the decade, and the champions were any of six different franchises, or 60 percent of the PBA's member teams. Championship trophies were passed around like hot potatoes. The one "evil villain" team that everyone else wanted to defeat did not exist.
MVP-wise in the 2000s, Willie Miller and James Yap also garnered two awards each, but they won theirs years apart from each other (i.e., Miller in 2002 and 2007, Yap in 2006 and 2010). There were no overwhelming MVP awards by any means. There were several legitimate contenders each year, so there was no runaway MVP winner for the entire period, if you really think about it.
In short, it was open season. It was anybody's ballgame. It was, dare we say, a time of parity - perhaps the most overall parity the league ever had.
Even as far back as the early '80s, the league was striving for parity. Certain players, all big men, were banned from playing on the same team, to spread out the talent. When the powerhouse teams disbanded, their players were not absorbed by just one new franchise. The team-less cagers were distributed to two or three other teams to "level the playing field." The idea was that parity would make the league more interesting because everyone had a chance to win. Most agree with this because, which serious participant in a major sporting competition would be happy if it had no chance at all to win? When winning is within everyone's reach, everyone will try to grab it, right? However, the question arises: While everyone may want parity, does parity leave lasting memories?
One's memory generally retains only so much. Unless one was personally involved and actually immersed in the experience, the ordinary or irrelevant happenings and goings-on will not oftentimes stick, and recollection would entail a little Q&A, a little research. Try to remember the dynasties, though, or the highly dominant teams and individuals. If they shined brightly for more than a fleeting moment, they made lasting impressions, regardless of a fan's affiliation. Toyota-Crispa? Check. San Miguel Grand Slam? Yup. Alaska dynasty. How can we forget? Tim Cone Grand Slam, again? Oh, yes. Everyone wanting to beat SMB in the All-Filipino? Of course. June Mar is MVP? Some may say the MVP race had become boring. But they remember!
With no disrespect at all meant to the teams and individuals that won in the 2000s, it does seem that that decade is left wanting when it comes to branding the brains of the regular (and maybe even avid) fan. It is not anyone's fault in particular. That may just be the way it is. Is the age of seeming parity to blame? Perhaps.
Consider these questions: Was there a PBA dynasty in the 2000s? Did any team win a Grand Slam? (No, it was the only decade that none did.) Are any of the championship teams from that decade included in a top-of-the-head list of the greatest champion teams in PBA history? Were there one or two, or let's say a definite group of players that just played so dominantly well in that time, such that they are included in the greatest-ever debate? Sure, there will be those who will posit an argument here and there, but will the people around him agree or engage him in debate immediately, without looking the matter up on the internet or elsewhere for verification? This all leads to another question. Does the brain of a fan, in hindsight, actually prefer when there are more dominant teams and players, who, in theory, are more memorable, rather than a drab flatland of equal opportunity?
Others will look to explain the seeming disinterest in the results of the 2000s PBA wars. Foremost would be the fact that their teams did not perform too well in conferences other than the ones they won, if they won at all. Naturally, if your team is not in the thick of things, you will lose interest. Perhaps there was controversy. The fake Fil-Am problem that hit just at the beginning of that decade without a doubt led many fans to turn away in disregard. Also, the hoops heroes of many from the late eighties and throughout the earlier nineties were either in retirement or in a downward spiral heading there, playing-wise. Fans may have been still acquainting themselves with the new blood, especially in the early part of the decade. It might have been that the imports just weren't as talented as they used to be, and several had questionable characters to boot. It could be partly these reasons or a host of other things.
The bottom line is, in the PBA's 45 years or four or so decades of being, it is arguably (but not too arguable) the 2000s that, while being the most evenly matched, results-wise, whether for teams and individually, are the years that require a little more thinking when it comes to discussions of teams, players, and achievements. A parting point to ponder: Was the period of parity actually an impediment to PBA immortality?