In a shocking announcement that rocked the PBA early Wednesday, Alaska announced that it will be leaving the pro league at the tail end of the 2020-21 season and after a 35-year run where it established itself as one of the league’s most preeminent ball clubs.
While team owner Fred Uytengsu said the franchise’s departure was always an eventuality after some recent organizational streamlining within its mother company FrieslandCampina, the development is still nothing short of jarring, especially considering the proud history that Alaska has built from the ground up.
Since joining the league in 1986, Alaska managed to collect 14 championships and appear in 31 PBA Finals series, both marks currently tied for the second-most tally all-time. The franchise has also seen seven members of the league’s 40 Greatest Players — Johnny Abarrientos, Bogs Adornado, Kenneth Duremdes, Abet Guidaben, Jojo Lastimosa, Willie Miller, and Eric Menk — don the red and white threads, with three of those names (Abarrientos, Duremdes, and Miller) even winning the Most Valuable Player award during their time with Alaska.
In honor of one of the most successful franchises in PBA history, we took a quick look at five of the best moments during Alaska’s outstanding tenure in Asia’s pioneering pro league.
This run was all about ushering a new era in the franchise’s storied history.
After longtime head coach Tim Cone’s departure at the end of the 2010-11 season, Alaska endured a mostly unproductive 2011-12 campaign before rebounding the following season by winning their first trophy under a new mentor in Luigi Trillo, the second coach appointed to the position in the post-Cone era after Joel Banal.
Of course, some roster upheaval was necessary in the rebuild. Alaska, by virtue of having the second-worst record in the league, earned the second overall pick of the 2012 PBA Draft and used it to select Calvin Abueva, the highly-touted, do-it-all forward from San Sebastian, before trading away veteran star LA Tenorio and three other bench players in exchange for Jvee Casio, Dondon Hontiveros and a 2015 second round pick a few weeks later.
The moves bore fruit in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup, where Alaska tapped Rob Dozier to reinforce the squad for the second conference. The Aces clinched the top seed after the elimination round with an 11-3 record to reach the playoffs, where they bulldozed past Air21 in one game and San Mig Coffee in four games to reach the finals for the first time since 2010.
There, they didn’t disappoint and handily swept Barangay Ginebra in three games, where they won by an average of 18 points. Big man Sonny Thoss was named the Finals MVP, and Dozier claimed the conference’s Best Import award.
The Aces reached the finals five more times after that but unfortunately fell short at each turn.
In 1986, the league accepted Alaska’s application as its sixth team after the Magnolia franchise (now the San Miguel Beermen) filed a leave of absence at the end of the previous season.
Some of the first players acquired by the franchise from the preexisting player pool were Arnie Tuadles and Ricky Relosa from Ginebra, Frankie Lim and Teddy Alfarero from Great Taste, and Dennis Abbatuan from Shell, as well as Magnolia’s Marte Saldaña, Rudy Distrito, and Noli Banate.
The team also had a crack at the first overall pick of the 1986 Rookie Draft, which they used to draft Rey Cuenco. They also selected Naning Valenciano and Reynaldo Ramos with the fifth and seventh overall picks, respectively.
Five imports — including Hall of Fame import and coach Norman Black — also suited up in two import conferences for Alaska, which went on to amass a 20-29 record in its first season while making the quarterfinals twice and the semis once.
Now, where would Alaska be without the superstars that carried them to the promised land?
Alaska relied on stars that struggled and grew together to emerge as one of the most formidable cores in the ’90s, but it took some time before the team was able to bring them together.
Jojo Lastimosa, already one of the league’s best shooting guards shortly after stepping into the PBA floor for the first time in 1988, was the first one to arrive through a 1991 swap that saw him come from Purefoods in exchange for Boy Cabahug. Following suit was Sean Chambers, a replacement import who eventually became the team’s resident import until 2001.
Bong Hawkins joined a year later, when Alaska traded a disgruntled Bong Alvarez to Sta. Lucia, then Johnny Abarrientos later came on board when the Milkmen snagged the 5-foot-7 guard out of Far Eastern University with the third overall pick in the 1993 Draft.
The trio won eight titles together, with Chambers still, the import with the most titles in league history, in tow for six of those championship runs. All four have had their jerseys retired by the franchise along with current head coach Jeff Cariaso, Alaska’s sixth overall pick of the 1995 PBA Draft who eventually went on to win Rookie of the Year, and Bogs Adornado, who briefly played and coached the team in the late ’80s.
After a coaching carousel that saw Alaska shift through five coaches in the first four seasons, the franchise finally found stability in coach Tim Cone, an Uytengsu acquaintance back in their days at the International School, and who was then a broadcaster for Vintage Sports, which was the league’s official TV partner back in the day
Cone, a mainstay in the Alaska sidelines for 22 years before leaving in 2011, relied on Tex Winter’s famed triangle offense to coach the franchise to 13 of its championships and was easily one of the biggest reasons for its rise from being a small market team to becoming league royalty.
Of course, it still took quite some time before he and Alaska got on the winning track. After a couple of seasons of struggling with the triangle, Cone bagged his very first title with the franchise in the 1991 Third Conference, where he coached a team powered by Chambers, Lastimosa, and Alvarez past a Ginebra team led by Sonny Jaworski in four games in the finals.
The fourth “triple crown” in league history was a story of overcoming seemingly endless trials and tribulations.
Before winning it all in 1996, Alaska had to pick itself back up from a bunch of stinging defeats in the finals. The Milkmen reached the championship round four straight times from the 1994 Commissioner’s Cup to the 1995 edition of the same tournament, but they won the title just once during that stretch and were booted out thrice.
A turning point came in the 1995 Governors’ Cup. Alaska, at that point, had lost the season’s first two titles to a Sunkist team that was shooting for a Grand Slam of its own, but it was San Miguel who trudged on to the finals to set a showdown with the Milkmen. Down 3-2 in the series, Alaska ended up winning the last two games to prevail in the season-ending conference and set in motion a tremendous 1996 campaign that would see them become just the fourth team to win all three titles in one season.
Alaska wasn’t dominant right off the bat. In the All-Filipino Conference, the team bucked slow starts in the elimination round — where they went 4-3 before winning six of the last seven to top all eight teams — and the semifinals — where this time, they lost the first four games before finishing second among a field of five — to figure in a playoff for the second finals seat, where they thwarted Ginebra to set up a duel with a Purefoods team coached by Chot Reyes and bannered by Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codinera, and Rey Evangelista, among others.
The Milkmen held steady and sealed the deal in five games thanks to Cariaso, who sank a pair of free throws with under a second left to seal the deal in Game 5.
Chambers helped save Alaska’s campaign in the Commissioner’s Cup, where he stepped in as an undersized reinforcement following the exit of previous import Derrick Hamilton. Alaska ended up winning in seven games against Kenny Redfield’s Shell via some late-game heroics from Lastimosa and Hawkins, who was eventually named Finals MVP.
Alaska looked like it was about to fold under the pressure of heavy Grand Slam expectations in the season-ending Governors’ Cup after winning just one of the first four games, but the Milkmen eventually flipped the switch and won the next 13 games on their way to the finals, where they ended up dispatching an overmatched Ginebra team in five games.
Cone’s wards also achieved some individual glory that year. Abarrientos, the Finals MVP for the season-ending conference, won the season MVP award and was named to the Mythical First Team along with Lastimosa and Hawkins, while standouts Poch Junio and Jun Reyes earned the Most Improved Player and Mr. Quality Minutes awards, respectively.
The second game of each playdate is also livestreamed on SMART Sports.