I think part of the explanation lies in Alaska's much-admired team culture. The Aces value continuity--most of the time, when they draft or trade for a player, they intend to keep him around for years and give him a chance to develop (they've been less successful integrating talented draftees like Aaron Aban and KC dela Peña than veterans). Alaska tries to run the team with the same wholesome values that you might associate with the milk company's brand image. This isn't just marketing, but a philosophy that comes straight from owner Fred Uytengsu. The times I talked to him, I got the feeling that the most important part of owning a PBA franchise, to him, was not winning championships but competing honorably. That means creating an atmosphere of trust and respect among teammates and coaches and following league rules on the salary cap and maximum salaries to the letter. Team Manager Joaqui Trillo, the lead negotiator in Alaska's contract talks with players, once told me that when players come to Alaska from other teams and asked about side contracts and extra bonuses, all he can do is chuckle and offer them an extra crate of milk.
This team-building approach is refreshing, especially considering that Alaska's stiffest competition often comes from teams who pursue winning at any cost and assemble rosters like rival powers accumulating nukes in an arms race. But don't forget that when all is said and done, Alaska Milk Corporation is a business, and any money they don't spend on players' salaries enhances the company's bottom line or can be reinvested into the business. While I believe that the team is committed to honest competition for its own sake, there's no denying that this commitment helps keep the team budget under control. That's good for Alaska Milk, but what about the Aces themselves? It's a complicated issue for the players. Like any athlete, they're competitive and want to win every game. At the same time, they're aware that they're playing this sport professionally, and that the number of years they have to earn PBA money is limited. They're supporting their immediate families and usually extended families in Manila or the provinces. They have to be conscious of getting the best deal possible, because no one but themselves is going to look out for them.
Sometimes, from this perspective, a player might wonder if Alaska's "family values" are really about being honest and playing by the rules or just a convenient justification for paying their players less than competing teams do. Team management's challenge is to find players who might not be thrilled to be making less than their peers at Talk 'N Text, but who nonetheless are such competitors that they'll play their guts out as long as their with the Aces. For players, it's much easier to buy into the team ethic during good times. When Alaska's on a roll, the team really does feel like a family. Willie Miller's pranks will have the entire team and coaching staff in stitches, players will show up unannounced at JoLas's summertime clinics for kids and step in as coaches, and you'll find half the team sitting around a bank of Monoblock tables at Metrowalk, drinking San Mig Lights and making kuwento. Players who came to Alaska from other teams or left the Aces to play elsewhere said that while locker rooms are always tight-knit, nothing compares to Alaska.
In bad times, however, everyone seems more aware of the business side of basketball. The coaches, feeling like their jobs may be endangered if they don't produce wins, get short-tempered with the players. Fewer won-game bonuses come in, and players gripe more often and more vehemently about their salaries. They start to question the coaches' judgment: Does a younger player deserve my minutes? Why should I lead the team if there are older guys to take that role? Why do we have to spend so much practice time on the triangle?
And so the happy family devolves into a dysfunctional one very quickly, and, using recent seasons as examples, almost irreversibly. I want to stress that I haven't been with the team during their last two, disappointing import conferences. Bottom line, I am an outsider speculating about what happened. But I was once an insider, and based on the understanding of the organization I developed, I think this analysis can be useful, if not definitive. There are other obvious reasons to explain Alaska's struggles in the recent past. In the 2008 import conference, they fielded 6-8 (and that's being generous) Randy Holcomb in a conference with no height limit. Alaska hoped that Holcomb, a superior slasher, would attack the basket and get bigger, opposing imports into foul trouble. Too often, he settled for jumpers, and Sonny Thoss had to defend legit 7-footers like Adam Parada and Chris Alexander. In 2009, the Aces hired Galen Young to keep Roe Ellis's spot warm while the former Best Import finished his season in Australia. Young turned old since we last saw him lead SMB into the 2007 semifinals, and Alaska started 0-4. Ellis returned and put up ever-steady numbers, but the team was already in a death spiral, and Alaska sputtered to an exit in the wild card phase of the playoffs. The right import can make a huge difference--look at how Shawn Daniels and Steve Thomas have turned Air21/Burger King from All-Pinoy also-rans to Fiesta conference contenders year after year.
It would be crazy to blame Alaska's troubles in the past two import conferences on the team's balancing act of contracts and egos. So much more determines whether a team has a successful season. But if Alaska sometimes seems combustible and volatile, like they'll either be world-beaters or cellar-dwellers, it might be wise to consider how the team is dealing with its ever-present challenge of paying top players less than they could earn elsewhere and keeping them happy.