Throwback Thursday: Monsters Inc.

This article originally appeared in SLAM #195

What’s in a rivalry? The massive match-up between San Miguel’s June Mar Fajardo and Barangay Ginebra’s Greg Slaughter has been the subject of raging debate. Is the Kraken the league’s supreme Kaiju or is Gregzilla the most fearsome focal attack? It’s time to settle the score.

By Anthony Libre

Are we human because we weave narratives or do we weave narratives because we are human? Storytelling is compelling because it gives the mind—one that can’t help but connect dots and seek patterns—something satisfying to follow. Audiences are given a set of characters who hold qualities that they can adore, relate to and aspire for, or despise. Arguably more important than the characters, however, is the tension that pushes the plot forward.

And is there any form of tension more riveting than the rivalry? There’s nothing as consuming as the emotions an archenemy stirs within a person—the kind that nags and seethes, spurring one’s pride and will to outdo and outsmart the counterpart. Equally exciting, still, is bearing witness to when the irreconcilable clash.

Look no further than popular culture. It’s sprinkled with nemeses that helped define the eras which immortalized them: Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. Star Wars versus Star Trek. The Eraserheads versus Rivermaya. The Spurs versus the Big Three-era Heat. Because the pressure between the ideologies represented by the warring sides so captured the zeitgeist, the magnitude of the impact was enough to shift and shape our collective consciousness.

Enter June Mar Fajardo and Greg Slaughter, Atlas-like in bearing the weight of expectations laid upon them by the constituents of Philippine basketball. Both drafted first overall, their work was cut out for them at the get-go: resuscitate their respective franchises. They crashed the league at a time when Tim Cone’s San Mig Coffee Mixers were small balling their way to supremacy, and while the (pre-Fajardo) San Miguel Beermen—then called the Petron Blaze Boosters—and (pre-Slaughter) Barangay Ginebra San Miguel were languishing in frustration.

Nowadays, it comes as no surprise that whenever San Miguel and Ginebra meet on the court, electricity fills the air. The crowd is pumped because 1. Filipinos are crazy about their basketball 2. these teams are among the most popular in the PBA and 3. the clash between titans Fajardo and Slaughter (shoutout to Japeth Aguilar) makes for quality entertainment.

Think about it this way: Would you miss out on a kaiju battle?

You would not.

While it may be too early in their careers to flesh out what each athlete symbolizes in the context of ideology and culture, the hardwood match-up between Fajardo’s “Kraken” and Slaughter’s “Gregzilla” is from now on a compelling talking point.

II

It has to be said that June Mar found a great team situation in a shorter time compared to Slaughter. All things being equal, nurture prevails over nature; by virtue of Fajardo finding an environment conducive to his overall development, he automatically gains an edge over Slaughter.

What blows the mind when mulling over The Kraken’s abilities is that it seems like there’s nothing he cannot do. To say that he fits the mold of a traditional big man is to severely underestimate his talents. He can execute turnaround jumpers and Nowitzkiesque fadeaways at the perimeter, take the ball down the court and finish at the rim—all this, without even mentioning his mastery of the paint.

One would think that his bulky frame diminishes his agility but, unfortunately for teams not named San Miguel, Fajardo is nimble for his size. June Mar fools defenders by dancing under the rim and ending the move with reverse layups off the glass. He can split double teams and shoot over the outstretched arms of four defenders, inspiring facepalms from the opposite bench.

In his career, he averages 16.49 points, 12.36 rebounds, 1.69 blocks and 1.11 assists. Of the players who averaged a minimum of 36 minutes in 11 games this Philippine Cup, he leads the league in PER (30.6) and rebounding (20.7% TREB%), and is second in defensive rating (93.7), per HumbleBola stats.

June Mar gets by with a little help from his friends—not to mention his enemies. Having the likes of Marcio Lassiter, Arwind Santos, Ronald Tubid and Alex Cabagnot space the floor is a comfort any center would die for. Interestingly, Fajardo expanded his game the way he has precisely because his adversaries have centered their game plan around stopping him. He’s Tom Cruise’s character in “Edge of Tomorrow”; JMF modifies and improves on what he does based on his knowledge of what’s coming. Because opponents will always come at him, he will have to adapt to survive. And adapted, he has. SLAM PH’s Jutt Sulit superbly sums up the giant’s menace in ten words: “How—for mankind’s sake—do you stop June Mar Fajardo?”

III

There has always been something ominous about Gregory Slaughter, the most obvious point being that the name on his jersey is synonymous with massacre, butcher or annihilate. Next is the way his seven-foot physique slouches; it appears nobody can keep that same posture and come off as self-assured as he is. Perhaps it’s because of the face that rests above his arched shoulders. Regardless of the game situation, his expression is grave, eyes seemingly piercing through dimensions beyond our own—either that or he’s probably just locked in.

Gregzilla managed to contribute and step up despite the erstwhile turmoil in Ginebra. It’s as if being baptized by fire in the form of in-fighting and slapdash personnel (and strategy) turnover molded him into solid steel. Seeing him gracefully launch and sink his jumpers from the elbows is a spectacle in itself. That he enjoys playing above the rim gives jaded Ginebra fans and the rest of the league something to cheer for and fear, respectively.

Greg’s game to this point has been a mercurial blend of finesse and aggression. He doesn’t make a habit of bullying his defender at the post. Rather, he prefers to utilize his infinite wingspan and respectable footwork to take the ball out of his guard’s reach and throw it down. He flourishes in the open court, where he drives and takes it hard to the basket.

He averages 15.88 points, 10.78 rebounds, 1.17 blocks and 1.58 assists in his career. Among players who averaged a minimum of 36 minutes in 11 games in the Philippine Cup, he ranks second in PER (29.2) and rebounding (19.5% TREB%)—behind only Fajardo. Lastly, he ranks first in defensive rating (89.1)—ahead of Fajardo—per HumbleBola stats.

With regard to his overall potential, the gap between his head and ceiling is wide. There seems to be a consensus—online at least—asserting that Slaughter can and must develop his physicality and speed. The eye test confirms it: for instance, he tends to spin and face up to the rim after backing down his defender just a few inches, which is a missed opportunity for a shot with a higher percentage. He has also been backed down himself by smaller opponents, which is verboten for a man of his stature. Bodying up on both offense and defense will surely bolster his case as one of the most formidable players in the league.

As far as speed is concerned, sure, he could move much faster but the length of his strides makes up for the slow-mo. In fact, quickness may not even be an issue at present given that Ginebra has swapped its run-and-gun identity for their new coach Tim Cone’s downtempo triangle offense. Per HumbleBola stats, BGSM is dead last in pace, at 89.1 possessions per game.

IV

If The Kraken and Gregzilla were to lock horns on the court in a one-on-one match-up, who wins? Given the status quo, it has to be the former. At this point in their careers, Fajardo is the more experienced athlete. For one, he has faced some of the best basketball players on the planet (FIBA), dealt with double-through-quadruple teams and won a title in the pros.

While Slaughter may have the advantage anatomically, Fajardo has the smarts to counteract ‘Zilla’s physical assets. This is where the difference between their speeds is highlighted; it’s likely that JMF loses Slaughter with a series of creative moves. Additionally, June Mar’s release on his jumpers are snappy in contrast to Greg’s prolonged catapult, and this kind of thing holds weight in a one-on-one dogfight.

It matters that June Mar got an earlier start in the league because he’s ahead in his stage of development. Until Slaughter grows in experience and catches on in terms of skill and basketball IQ, this rivalry will remain unjustly lopsided. With Ginebra finding steady footing thanks to their new coach in Cone and rookie in Scottie Thompson, a smudge of continuity should be sufficient cause for the players—Gregzilla included—to settle down and level up. We’ll have to give it time before returning to this titanic match-up. Things will certainly be different then.

V

You know how sportsmanship somewhat dampens the competitive spirit sometimes? That’s how it is between Fajardo and Slaughter. There are absolutely no signs of loathing besides when they go at each other—within the bounds of the rules—in a ballgame. Even then, you can still just chalk it up to playing hard and nothing more. No vitriol is spewed through the media. No friction, no hostility. You’d wish that someone drew first blood just to spice things up.

This is perhaps one of the reasons people build up the rivalry so much. Unless you closely followed their duels during their collegiate days in Cebu, the Kraken and Gregzilla rivalry happens mostly in the mind—one that craves characters to root for, idolize and hate, and tension to be engaged by. It’s fantasy and escapism, two things that are inseparable from entertainment and culture, which in turn are inextricable from sports. Especially Philippine basketball, a prime strand of the modern Filipino identity.

Hey, who knows? Maybe June Mar and Greg will start hating each other eventually and really go at it on and off the court. In the meantime, we’ll all be watching intently.

In the film Star Wars: A New Hope, there’s this scene where Luke Skywalker strides out of his Tatooine home to gaze at what’s called a binary sunset—two adjacent suns setting simultaneously. Literally nothing happens in this sequence yet some say it’s one of George Lucas’ finest moments as a director and visual artist. This is the pivotal hour in Luke’s life where, as his 70’s mid-length hair is cheesily blown by the wind, he realizes he’s meant for greater things. That it isn’t in his destiny to live his days as a farm boy on a desert planet. It sinks in—for Skywalker and the audience—that because he is to become a jedi, his life will never be the same.

For the rest of us, Fajardo and Slaughter embody our “binary sunset” moment in many ways. They have made us aware that something bigger (literally and figuratively) is going on, even if we don’t yet fully understand it. Like the twin suns, the gravity of The Kraken and Gregzilla is inescapable, rendering all of us helplessly ensnared in their orbit. And while we’re here, we might as well witness their stories unfold.

Isn’t this what we always wanted?

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