By Jon Rodriguez

The year was 1996 and there were two things standing in the way between the Alaska Milkmen and their first All-Filipino Cup title: unshot free throws from Jeffrey Cariaso.

Cariaso, then playing in his second year as a pro, stepped to the line, took five dribbles and sank the first. He did the same routine for the second free throw. Same result. His hard work practicing foul shots had paid off. The time left on the clock said it was over. The scoreboard said the Cariaso’s free throws sealed the deal.

"That kind of put me on the map a little bit, right?” asked a much older Cariaso, in 2019, sitting in his high-rise office with a view.

These days, Cariaso holds many titles—not like the ones he won in the PBA, but new titles that describe how far he’s come along from being the steady team captain of Alaska.

Chief Brand Experience Officer. Basketball Evangelist. Head of Alaska’s grassroots program with the Jr. NBA. Head coach of the Titan Basketball Academy. Assistant coach of the Alaska Aces.

"It's a lot of basketball, but it's me. That's something I'm very passionate about and happy to be a part of," Cariaso said.

He was a rookie in ‘95, a champion in ‘96, a team captain in ‘97. In a short period of time, he had to grow up in the spotlight, almost instantly evolving from hotshot rookie to respected leader.

"I was thrown out there, so you understand setting an example, how to build relationships with your teammates, carrying yourself in a way that you're always respectable. If you walk the walk then people will follow," he said.

Life moves fast for the player once called “The Jet.” Merely one year in retirement and Cariaso was back on the courts. His attire was different though—necktie and slacks replaced the No. 22 jersey and sneakers. But the leadership values remained intact.

"When Coach Tim [Cone] called me to become one of his assistant coaches, I think he saw that I had some qualities when I was still a player and I would transform into a decent coach,” said Cariaso.

Cone has a gift of detecting great character and turning it into a championship-caliber attitude. He was Cariaso’s coach when Alaska won a rare grandslam in ‘96. His track record has since been impeccable: three-time Coach of the Year and 21 titles. Under Cone, Cariaso won four more titles as assistant coach. After a whirlwind side trip with Ginebra as head coach, now Cariaso is back home on the Alaska sidelines.

Most of his minutes are spent around the Aces. Practices and games are still his top priorities, while squeezing in a couple of hours at the office to get work done as one of Titan’s founders and chief decision-makers. Basketball is a 24-7 constant thing in Cariaso’s day. It’s air. Practice in the morning, meetings in the afternoon, pick-up games in the evening. Weekends are for hoops clinics organized by the Titan Basketball Academy, which focuses on teaching kids the fundamentals.

"One idea that we have here at Titan as partners: we try to never forget that 12, 13-year-old who likes to walk into the store and purchase a pair of shoes to play in. We never forget that kid,” said Cariaso. “That kid can be a weekend warrior who likes to play on Saturdays. But that kid can also be a varsity player who one day wants to play in the PBA. With that mind, the clinics and the academy, what it's for is, one, to give back. And two, making sure the future of Philippine basketball is on the right path.”

With basketball, there are no two days off, Cariaso proudly declared, no downtime nor rest. Even office small talk revolves around basketball, because, of course it does. Outside his office, Cariaso had just asked if one of his employees, who hurt a finger in a recent pick-up game they played together in, already had it checked.

That’s the vibe at the Titan office, where Cariaso also plays the role of somewhat like team captain and coach. The young, energetic group looks up to ‘Coach Jeff’, the only guy at the workplace who has reached the summit of the game.

"The environment in Titan is very relaxed, very at home and comfortable, but there is an understanding that you make sure you have to take care of the business," he said.

Cariaso started Titan with partners Dennis Tan and Raoul Reinoso in 2010, during his last playing year in the PBA. It almost didn’t happen for him. He had a plan to move back to the US permanently after his career. But after a year, he returned and called Manila home for good.

"I'm very happy I made the decision to be a part of Titan because obviously it has grown, we're nine years in now. We're going strong and improving. That's one of the smartest decisions I've made in my life," he said.

Titan has carved out a fresh identity in the retail industry, in that it’s not only a sneaker store or a brand. It’s a big contributor in shaping the country’s basketball culture through the shoes, style, SLAM, and its stores. The seven physical Titan stores in Manila have become sanctuaries for the various types of lovers of the game.

“That’s literally putting yourself on the map,” he said. “We're just trying to make it interesting and unique for people who come in and purchase a pair. There's always an experience that goes with it, there's always a story behind it, and I think that helps people want to be part of it.”

Cariaso has also created new, better shots at spreading positivity through basketball. It keeps him pumped up knowing that although his days of inspiring fans as a professional basketball player are behind him, there are other ways.

"The most exciting part is seeing one of your campers in a non-basketball environment and approaching you, and, honestly, just saying 'Hi.' It's important because you know in some form and in some way or another, you made an impact on them," he said.

Whether it’s hitting two foul shots with the championship on the line or calling the shots from the sidelines or calling the shots at the office, Cariaso owns the game. His moments these days are even bigger, and can’t be quantified anymore by points on a scoreboard. His highlights are longer, and can’t be viewed on a YouTube clip. It’s about growing a company. It’s about helping the future of Philippine basketball. It’s about owning the game.

"It's how you pick yourself up," Cariaso said.

"Those special moments are something you work hard for."