MANILA, Philippines – Greg Slaughter stood solemnly atop the podium, but he hardly needed the boost to stand out. Standing at just about 7 foot even, the Barangay Ginebra center has always seen the world from a vantage point few else share.
Dressed in a black and white suit instead of the red-and-white Ginebra jersey fans are most accustomed to seeing him in, Slaughter accepted the Philippine Basketball Association’s Rookie of the Year award with a sincere grin. The award had been earned; averages of 14.5 ppg, 10 rpg and 1.4 bpg have already set him apart as one of the most imposing big men in the country.
As the only member of the nation’s most beloved team honored at this year’s Leo Awards, something was still missing, a void that left him lacking fulfillment.
“It sucks always losing, not always coming up to expectations,” Slaughter, 25, remarked candidly as he nursed a beer after personal training in Pasig City. “I feel like I want to live up to that Ginebra reputation and have everyone on our side. It’s been like 6 years since they’ve won a championship and they’re the favorite team. I think they really deserve one.”
Playing for the team that was immortalized by Robert Jaworski’s “Never Say Die” fearlessness comes with certain expectations. The 2013-2014 season, which began with so much promise after an 11-3 start in the Philippine Cup quickly degenerated into a puzzling decline that saw the Gin Kings exit twice in the quarterfinals and once in the semis while struggling to find their identity in a 3-6 Commissioner’s Cup and a 5-4 Governors’ Cup.
Save for his secondary school experience, where Slaughter played for what he describes as a poorly-coached Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Slaughter had always been on successful teams. After relocating to his mother’s home province of Cebu at age 19, Slaughter led University of the Visayas Green Lancers to 3 consecutive Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc. titles from 2007-2009 while garnering two MVP awards.
Slaughter then transferred to the National Capital Region in 2010, and after one year of residency led the Ateneo de Manila University to two straight UAAP titles in 2011-2012. Every time he steps on the court, as he’s fond of saying, he’s expecting to win.
Pros and Cons
We now know that the season was destined to belong to San Mig Coffee, who won the first PBA Grand Slam since 1996, but the first overall draft pick Slaughter and Ginebra showed flashes of promise. Bolstered by two of the tallest players in the league – Slaughter and the 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar – plus Gilas Pilipinas point guard L.A. Tenorio and 2012 MVP Mark Caguioa, the Gin Kings raced out to a quick start.
Though the Mixers would eventually eliminate Ginebra in the semifinals, Slaughter managed to have a breakout game in their third meeting of the series, scoring 29 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a loss on February 2.
“The skill level is a lot higher, longer quarters; this is a job now,” said Slaughter of the difference between the PBA and the college ranks. “You don’t have school taking up your time. That time used for school is used for extra training and getting yourself able to play. These are grown men you’re playing against now.”
The PBA is known for its physical, emotional play, which Slaughter found out quickly playing beneath the rim looking for rebounds. No big man reinforced that perception for Slaughter better than Barako Bull’s Dorian Peña.
“He’s just a real strong dude, it’s hard to get physical with him because he’s always looking for the contact,” said Slaughter of the 36-year-old fellow Fil-Am.
Fans were more interested in juxtaposing Slaughter with another counterpart, however. June Mar Fajardo, the 6-foot-10 center from the Petron Blaze Boosters (now the San Miguel Beermen), had been Slaughter’s chief rival during his collegiate run as Cebuano supremacy came down to his University of the Visayas squad and Fajardo’s University of Cebu.
Slaughter recalls the soft-spoken gentle giant from their collegiate days, whom Slaughter nearly became a teammate of after trying out for University of Cebu. Slaughter describes Fajardo as “a really nice guy who works so hard,” and from the moment Slaughter was drafted people began clamoring for a continuance of their rivalry.
After injuries sidelined Fajardo for their first two meetings (they played against one another in the Gilas vs PBA All-Star game), the two Cebu giants finally faced off on June 11 in the Governors’ Cup with Fajardo topping Slaughter on the stat sheet (23 points and 14 rebounds compared to 19 points and 10 rebounds) while Slaughter’s team won the actual game, 105-98.
The two young centers will likely meet many more times down the road with far greater stakes involved.
When asked whom he felt would win between the two in a one-on-one match-up, Slaughter confidently said, himself. “Just a feeling,” said Slaughter.
Growing Pains as a Gin King
Ginebra’s on-the-court problems were very visible to anyone following the team from the end of the Philippine Cup onward. Many in Ginebra’s large fan base were calling for the head of coach Ato Agustin, lamenting the lack of urgency in the team to turn their season around.
As the tempers of Ginebra’s loyal reached a boiling point, one of the team’s most experienced veterans let the country know his feelings via the unmoderated network of Twitter just after sunrise on April 23.
“Before everyone feared us, but now everyone wants to face us because we're lazy and soft,” Mark Caguioa said in the first of 4 scathing tweets towards his team. “Even if Phil Jackson coached this team, it wouldn't make the semis. These guys don't have heart.”
“I didn’t like that at all,” said Slaughter of Caguioa’s public rant. “Being a team, there’s just some things you have to keep within the team. When we’re out there playing there’s no one else out there with us. I didn’t think it was a really good move for our team.”
Slaughter says he understood the frustrations of the team but felt that the method of communication nullified the message. “I think if you want to say something to the team you address it to the team. I’m glad that we did get to address it as a team and work around that. That was at the end of the second conference I think but we’ve already moved past that.”
After significant pressure, Agustin was replaced by Jeff Cariaso, the former PBA star who had won a Grand Slam with the Alaska Aces in ’96 under Tim Cone before eventually becoming one of Cone’s assistant coaches with San Mig Coffee.
Cariaso had brought with him knowledge of the triangle offense, which Cone had used to unprecedented success in the PBA. With nearly no time to work together to learn an entirely new system, Cariaso and Ginebra still managed to start the Governors’ Cup 3-0 before finishing the conference 2-5 the rest of the way. The Ginebra season ended quietly, bowing out in one game to Alaska on June 18.
“We showed flashes of our potential last year. Hopefully next year with more time to work with coach Jeff, get the triangle set, hopefully we’ll have more of a gel as a team,” said Slaughter.
“In my rookie year I’ve had 3 coaches in 3 conferences; I think every coach was good but they didn’t really have the time to implement what they wanted. The good thing with coach Jeff is that he’s going to be coming back with us. I like his outlook on us. I agree with him on what he sees, I’m glad he has the time to work with it to give it a shot.”
While the Caguioa critique addressed the team as a unit, Slaughter would experience his biggest test in the public eye in front of a microphone in the media room of Araneta Coliseum.
Slaughter, who had previously played for the national team for 4 years under Rajko Toroman, withdrew from the Gilas Pilipinas pool on March 7. He reasoned that he didn’t want to interfere with the chemistry that earned the Philippine national team their spot in the World Cup with a silver medal finish at FIBA Asia in Manila without him.
The explanation did little to quell the outrage of netizens who blitzed his Twitter account with cries that he was unpatriotic and selfish. Not a few had drawn the connection between Slaughter and San Miguel Beerman forward Marcio Lassiter – who similarly declined the national team’s offer later that night – and drew the conclusion that the teams’ parent company San Miguel Corporation had pressured them into their decisions.
Cavite congressman Elpidio Barzaga had even gone as far as to ask the Games and Amusements Board to revoke the license of both players for their refusal to play for Gilas, a request that was soon after dismissed.
“I think people just didn’t understand the situation that well,” said Slaughter, who had played for the Sinag Pilipinas team that won gold medals at the 2011 SEABA and the Southeast Asian Games 2011. “There’s always going to be people speaking their mind when they don’t fully understand the situation. Did it affect me? No, not really.”
Despite the backlash, Slaughter says Gilas coach Chot Reyes was understanding all along and that he hoped to once again don the colors of the national team.
“Once they finish their business, finish the PBA season, if the country needs me for another tournament, I’d be glad to return to duty,” said Slaughter.
Slaughter knows the value of hard work. When he first applied to switch to Ateneo, he studied hard and scored in the top 2% on the school entrance exam.
“I always had that Asian ability with math,” Slaughter jokes. When he needed money as a teenager, he waited tables at a Bob Evans restaurant in Virginia, delivering pancakes to tables for a few extra bucks during summer vacation.
They say you can’t teach height, but you can be taught the skills to maximize one’s natural gifts. Which is why Slaughter spends his afternoons at the Green Meadows Gym in Quezon City, working on developing his game with former Red Bull Thunder skills coach Kirk Collier.
In addition, Slaughter is also working on building up his physical strength with a personal trainer at the Athlete’s Lab in Mandaluyong City.
“I know I’m the tallest person here but I’m trying to develop my body more. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with my genetic gifts and I just need to develop them to the best of my ability,” said Slaughter, who credits his love of “seaweed soup” as a child for his height.
He continued: “I also got a coach I’ve been working with, working on some fundamentals and getting the mechanics right. More efficiency. Just being able to do more options in a basketball game, not just being a one-dimensional player. The more dimensions you have to your game the more effective you’ll be.”
The team is also adding options that will likely make them more effective, too. During the off-season, Ginebra acquired 6-foot guard Joseph Yeo from the former Air21 franchise (now known as the NLEX Road Warriors) for a 2015 draft pick. Yeo, 30, has averaged 9.3 ppg since coming into the league in 2006.
“He’s definitely a veteran, he’s played a long time; he’s a very gifted scorer,” said Slaughter. “He’s pretty good as a slasher, he shoots threes pretty well. The way I see it, one of our problems was we shot a pretty low 3-point percentage. Hopefully he can bring some leadership and experience to the team.”
Ginebra’s training camp doesn’t begin until August 18 while the season is slated to begin on October 5.
Whether the team rebounds from the past season and finds a rhythm under Cariaso is still to be seen. All Slaughter can control is how he takes the lessons learned from his first 43 games in the league and adjust accordingly.
“[Dorian Peña] knows my coach and he says he was talking to him the other day. He was like, ‘Oh no, don’t get Greg to be a monster.’” – Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.