MANILA - "Is this really it?"
This was the question that ran through Jeff Cariaso's mind at the final buzzer on Saturday, which made official the result of their game against the NLEX Road Warriors.
The Alaska Aces lost, 80-96, in their quarterfinal game in the 2021 PBA Governors' Cup. They had stunned NLEX last week, 93-79, to force a do-or-die contest but couldn't complete the upset, and bowed out of the playoffs.
The loss also meant that the Aces are now officially out of the PBA. This conference was their last in the professional league since joining in 1986, ending a historic campaign that saw them win 14 championships including a Grand Slam.
"I asked if this was really it. Is this really it, are we really done?" Cariaso said of his thoughts at the final buzzer. "Eto na ba 'yun, eto na ba 'yung huli? Eto na ba 'yung final game namin?"
The PBA, in a brief ceremony, paid tribute to the franchise that emerged as one of the most successful -- and most loved -- over the past three decades. Confetti fell from the ceiling of the Araneta Coliseum as the Alaska players and coaching staff stood on the court, along with some officials from team management.
There were plenty of fans who watched at the Big Dome, and afterward, some of them were seen in tears. Cariaso, after the game, was all class as he looked back on their last game. They had gotten off to a strong start, but a brutal second quarter allowed NLEX to pull away and the Aces were never able to undo the deficit.
"I believe in deserving to win," Cariaso said. "So tonight, we didn't deserve to win. I don't think we played well enough to win. So you have to play well enough and hard enough, and want it enough for you to win."
"You have to deserve it. So, hat's off to NLEX, and good luck to them," he added.
When he announced that Alaska would be leaving the PBA at the end of the conference, team owner Fred Uytengsu had expressed his hope that they would exit with a title -- the team's 15th. Though they fell short of their goal, Cariaso believes they can hold their heads high at the end of their campaign.
"I think everyone can attest to this -- even if they weren't part of the organization -- I think they know that the PBA will miss Alaska," he said.
Cariaso expressed his pride in the culture that Alaska built, and how they stayed true to their principles and values as an organization over the years. Alaska had crafted a mantra of "We not me" over the years, and it's one that the Aces stuck with until the end.
"A lot of good people, a lot of great people have come through this organization. It was stemming from, again, the leadership of Boss Fred, and the coaches that were here who continued that culture," said Cariaso.
"Just the values that they carry themselves with. We tried to teach that and make sure that we live by those standards and I'm proud to say that we did," he added. "We're proud to say that we're winners in that regard."
"We're winners there, because that's something you carry with you for the rest of your life… That's why Alaska is special. That's why Alaska is always gonna be part of me. I grew up here. I feel like everything that I've become is because of the teachings and how we did things here."
Cariaso said Saturday that he was "out of the loop" as to what comes next for Alaska. Their management is in talks with a potential buyer for the franchise, and Cariaso said that they are adopting a "wait and see" approach as to what will happen.
If the franchise is sold, the coach is hopeful that the new owners will retain the core of the team, as he noted its potential and competitiveness.
"I hope they see the team that we're starting to build. I hope they see that this team is competitive. I think this team just needs a few tweaks here and there, kulang pa ng isa, dalawang pieces here and there," he said.
"Our young vets [are] learning how to play more consistently and stepping up in the big games, katulad nito. So, I hope so. I hope that there's someone who's willing to take a risk with this team," he added.
The fate of the coaching staff -- including Cariaso -- is still up in the air as well, but he stresses that the priority is the players.
"We haven't discussed it," Cariaso said of their future. "I know there's deep talks with a certain company, and if it happens, you know, that's great because the priority there naman is the players."
"No. 1, sila 'yung priority, which is something I'm happy about. I want them to have at least an opportunity or a chance to be part of the same team, but maybe a different name, kung matutuloy 'yun," he added.
"And then, bahala na 'yung bibili if we're gonna be retained, if we're gonna be part of that."