SUPREME SACRIFICE | Alaska shelves 1998 Grandslam bid for Asian Games
The Alaska Milkmen were a title win away from basketball immortality in 1998. But for the Wilfred Uytengsu-owned franchise, the call for a greater cause trumps a shot at basketball history.
Capturing the 1998 Governors’ Cup championship would have etched the Alaska franchise into the history books of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). With a chance of winning all three season titles for the second time in franchise history, all the Milkmen had to do was to defend the Governors’ Cup plum for the fifth straight season. They would have duplicated the feat of the legendary Crispa Redmanizers, the grand slam champions in 1976 and 1983.
With the 1998 All-Filipino and Commissioner’s Cup titles already in their possession, all that’s left for the Milkmen to conquer was the season-ending Governors’ Cup to annex another grand slam. But as fate and their “corporate social responsibility” would have it, Alaska would pass off another grandslam bid for a different opportunity.
A “golden” opportunity, not for the franchise, but for the Philippines.
Former PBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Kenneth Duremdes was one of the four Alaska personalities who were enlisted to the “Centennial Team”. The PBA-backed squad was the Philippine representative to the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games basketball tournament. Coached by then-Alaska mentor Tim Cone, the 12-man roster included players from Alaska namely Duremdes, Jojo Lastimosa and 1996 MVP Johnny Abarrientos.
In total, the Milkmen lost four key pieces for their 1998 Governors’ Cup stint whose staging ran smack to the Philippine team’s preparation and actual participation in the Asian Games basketball competition.
In an interview with FOX Sports Philippines, Duremdes, the current Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) Commissioner, recalled the events that led to the 1998 Asian Games call-up.
“We didn’t mind if we don’t win another grand slam for Alaska that year. What was more important is to represent the country. Yun ang feeling na masarap eh”, said Duremdes, who started his PBA career with the Sunkist Orange Juicers in 1995 but was traded to Alaska in time for the 1997 Governors’ Cup.
“We didn’t think about it that we will miss a chance to win a second grandslam. We were confident kasi ‘Sean Chambers’ conference ang tawag namin nun eh. Alam kasi namin na hindi natatalo si Sean Chambers kapag third conference. Pero wala, it’s the call to serve the country”.
With the absence of their head tactician and three main players, the Milkmen had no choice but to continue their quest for a sequel to their 1996 grandslam. With starting power forward Bong Hawkins recuperating from surgery, left to carry the fight for Alaska in the 1998 Governors’ Cup were Rodney Santos, Rhoel Gomez and imports Sean Chambers and Monty Buckley. Replacing Cone at the sidelines were his able assistants Jun Reyes and Dickey Bachmann.
After finishing seventh in the special edition 1998 Centennial Cup, Alaska bombed out of contention in the Governors’ Cup. A 6-9 win-loss record placed the Milkmen at the bottom of the standings and out of the title picture, effectively ending their bid for grand slam number two.
Clearly, the remaining Milkmen missed the presence of their mentor and three stalwarts. But service to the country comes first for the Alaska franchise, who were perennial title contenders in the PBA during those times.
“Si Sir Fred Uytengsu and Coach Tim Cone, they sacrificed the team’s second grand slam for the glory of the country. Hindi ka na dapat mag-isip dun eh kapag tumawag na yung bansa mo to serve,” said Duremdes.
All worth it for Duremdes, Alaska
Despite the failed grand slam bid, Duremdes and the rest of the Alaska management had no regrets over prioritizing the Asian Games stint above anything else. The experience alone as a national athlete parading the grounds of the Rajamangala National Stadium surpasses all, according to Duremdes.
“If I can just tell stories sa younger players ngayon. Yung opening ceremonies, yun ang pinaka-memorable sa isang athlete when you represent the country. Yung magpa-parade kayo sa gitna ng stadium, tatayo yung balahibo mo”, Duremdes shared.
“Yun ang feeling na hindi mo mararamdaman in any league dito sa Pilipinas. When you are representing the country, wala ka nang hihilingin pa. You’re proud of yourself and millions of Filipinos are watching you. It’s the best feeling ever”.
The all-PBA lineup came home with a bronze medal in the quadrennial meet, defeating Kazakhstan, 73-68, in the third place game. Led by basketball greats Wang Zhizhi and Gong Xiaobin, China claimed the gold medal over South Korea, 112-92.
Still, Duremdes cannot help but feel proud of the Centennial Team’s achievement. Waxing nostalgic, “Captain Marbel” vividly remembers the awarding ceremonies for the basketball competition with full pride. According to Duremdes, “Masarap yung nakatayo ka doon sa podium. Makikita mo yung flag mo na nire-raise during the awarding ceremonies kahit tinutugtog yung national anthem nung nag-champion”.
“You represented the country and you earned a medal. Hindi na matatanggal sa iyo yan.”
Looking back and beyond
The basketball landscape has changed in the country, as well as the formation of national teams to international competitions. From his early days as a junior national player all the way to the professional ranks, Duremdes had seen it all.
“Going back doon sa first national team na nasalihan ko, yung ‘RP Youth’. Hundreds of players under 18 years old makikita mo araw-araw from different provinces, umiiyak sa tryouts. Yung uniform lang, maisuot mo kikilabutan ka na”, Duremdes quipped.
Duremdes hopes that the PBA and avid basketball fans would still support the national team regardless of the tournament they play in, whether it is FIBA-sanctioned or not.
“Tayong mga Pilipino, kapag meron tayong team lalo na ngayong Asian Games, may impact pa rin yan simply because it’s basketball. During our time kasi, ang commitment lang ng PBA was Asian Games. Wala naman kaming FIBA noon kahit na gustung-gusto namin”, he shared.
“Ngayon, parang binaliktad. They focused more on the FIBA World, yung commitment ng SBP. Pero same lang din yan kahit anong international event na sasalihan ng basketball team natin, kasi you are still representing the country and you are still playing basketball”.
Duremdes, a member of the PBA’s 25 and 40 Greatest Players’ list, was one with the basketball community who heaved a sigh of relief when the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) rescinded its earlier withdrawal from the Asian Games. Tapped to represent the country for next week’s competition is a Rain-or-Shine-backed squad, shored up by players from other PBA teams and to be handled by Coach Yeng Guiao.
“Whether we are prepared or not, we need to send a basketball team. We are a basketball-crazy country. Ang basketball dito, religion eh. Malungkot ang Pilipino kapag wala tayong basketball team. Sa ayaw at sa gusto natin, napapawi ang lungkot ng mga kababayan natin kapag may basketball”, reflects Duremdes.
Photo credits: Philippine Basketball Association Retro 80s & 90s Facebook Page
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