Throwback Thursday: The Man in the Middle

This article was originally published in SLAM #188

Working through another off-season of transition and introspection, Greg Slaughter’s appetite for a PBA Championship just grows bigger and bigger.

By Carlo Pamintuan

Greg Slaughter stretched his hands up over his head at the CCF Center in Pasig City on a Wednesday afternoon. It was not to give praise to the almighty as is customary in the building. Instead, the Ginebra center tried to cool down as he reached up the air-conditioning unit installed above his head as the hot April sun permeated through the walls of the building.

Dorian Peña, Chris Ellis, and practice player Andrew Avillanosa surrounded Slaughter. The four wanted a few seconds of cold air on their heads. The heat was punishing but it was nowhere compared to the pain brought about by their third practice with newly installed head coach Frankie Lim.
“With him, you only get a minute of rest,” said Peña, a veteran in the league. “With other coaches you get to rest and talk to other players but with him it’s just a minute.”

Slaughter smiled as Peña shared his thoughts on their new training regimen. Perhaps not yet comfortable to be brutally honest about training, Slaughter had a more politically correct description of it.

“It’s been pretty good,” Slaughter said. “We’ve been working hard and we’ve been working smart. We’re doing what we need to do to get better. We’re getting in better shape and we’re paying attention to detail. I like coach Frankie a lot. He’s a very fair coach and he knows what he’s doing.”

Slaughter has played for good coaches before so he knows what he’s talking about. He spent two years with Norman Black in Ateneo, with Boyet Fernandez in NLEX. With the Kings, he learned from Ato Agustin, Juno Sauler, and Jeffrey Cariaso. The challenge now was how to translate all this learning into winning.

Selected first overall in the 2013 PBA Draft, Slaughter helped Ginebra make it into the 2013 Philippine Cup semifinals in his first conference as a professional. Maybe still a bit naive, the young center thought there was nowhere else to go but up.

“When I was coming to the PBA, there was news that [Ian] Sangalang would be the number 1 pick but at that time I didn’t want to get my expectations high,” he said. “I didn’t want to assume that I was going to be the number 1 pick. I just stayed humble. I kept working. But I really wanted to go to Ginebra. Why wouldn’t you want to go to Ginebra? It’s the best team in the Philippines. They have such a rich history and they have the best fans. Every game they prove that.”

In the conferences that followed, Ginebra’s rich history and rabid fans remained the same but the “best team in the Philippines” part was tough to defend. They were decent, especially in the elimination rounds but they were nowhere near being the best. Gregzilla, as some call him, wanted to change that.

Slaughter hopped inside Ellis’ car and occupied the front passenger’s seat while Peña occupied the backseat. The group went out to reward themselves with burgers after another hard day of training.
If you’re wondering, Slaughter’s lunch was a big double-patty burger, chicken strips, and two liters of buko juice to wash it all down. His appetite for food was big but not as big as his appetite for winning.

“When I started playing in the Philippines, in Cebu, we were always making it to the championship. I moved to Ateneo and we won two championships and even with the PBA D-League,” Slaughter recalled in between bites. “I got used to that. In my first conference in the PBA, we went against San Mig in the [Philippine Cup] semifinals. We got it to Game 7 and I really felt that it could have gone either way. We were defeated then but it still felt good because I felt we could be so much better. From that point, I completely expected that we would be in the semifinals at least in all of the next ones and possibly the finals.”

“It’s been four conferences since that and we’ve only made it to the quarterfinals. It’s getting tiring.”

In Ginebra’s last game of the 2015 Commissioner’s Cup, Slaughter carried the Kings against Rain or Shine with 26 points and 16 rebounds. With import Michael Dunigan struggling, the big guy stepped up to lead Ginebra in the win-or-go-home match.

However, the Kings failed to involve Slaughter in the fourth quarter as they went back to their old guard-heavy play. Slaughter watched Jayjay Helterbrand put up a Hail Mary shot over the outstretched arms of Gabe Norwood in the dying seconds of the game. He moved his head to follow the ball and prayed for a rebound he had no shot at getting. The ball bounced off the shot clock signaling Ginebra’s quarterfinal exit once again.

Slaughter had one field goal attempt in the final 12 minutes after making 75% of his field goals in the game. He did not touch the ball in their final possession even if the Painters had no idea how to stop him.

“It’s frustrating but you can’t let it affect you. You just have to do everything to help your team to win. You have to trust your teammates. Trust that they’re also in the same page as you, that we all have the same agenda – to win. If I’m going to allow myself to be frustrated, that only makes me a bad teammate who’s looking out for my own self,” Slaughter said.

“It’s very, very frustrating, especially with the team that we have, especially with the fans we have behind us,” he continued. “If we’re not doing it for ourselves, we definitely owe it to the fans who pay good money to watch us play live. When we lose in the playoffs the fans get very upset. We’re better than finishing in the quarterfinals and, personally, I’m pretty sick of it. I want better for the team and our fans.”

Ginebra is a team currently stuck between the past and the future. The Kings have always been a guard-dominated team. Even if they had popular bigs in their history, fans related more to Bal David than to Noli Locsin and Marlou Aquino. Even if they had an MVP in Erik Menk, the barangay cheered harder for Mark Caguioa and Jayjay Helterbrand.

Ginebra was all about run-and-gun but now they’re at a crossroads. Run-and-gun has been their identity for so long but it’s no longer their biggest strength.

Slaughter was fourth in scoring among the locals in the Commissioner’s Cup with 17.6 points per game at an outstanding 54.3% clip from the field. He was also the league’s second leading local rebounder with 10.2 per game.

The PBA is transitioning to a big man’s game once more with reigning MVP June Mar Fajardo leading the charge. The San Miguel Beer center, Slaughter’s nemesis from Cebu, has won multiple individual awards and boasts of having a Philippine Cup championship ring around his finger. The Beermen won a title when they finally decided to accept it was The Kraken’s team.

Other young bigs have also experienced more success compared to Slaughter. Ian Sangalang, who was drafted after him, already won a PBA Grand Slam with the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers. Raymond Almazan, the third pick, had two stints in the PBA finals and was about to make his third.

“Another person’s success never affects me. I’m happy for them. I want to be there. But those guys earned it,” he admitted. “That shows you the level of competition that’s out there. We can’t wait for those teams to slow down. We need to raise ourselves to get into their level.”

Slaughter was undoubtedly the best of the bunch in 2013. He was supposed to be in a relatively good situation after landing with a stacked Ginebra team that looked to him to turn them from a contender to title favorites. Yet, here he was on sidelines as the semifinals unfolded without Ginebra once more.

“I try to watch as many games as I could in the elimination round to see how everyone’s doing,” he said. “But during the playoffs, I try not to watch anymore until one team is about to win the championship because when I watch, I get that feeling that we should have been there so I just try to stay away as much as possible.”

If there’s a silver lining in their early elimination, Slaughter says that it’s the longer opportunity to learn Lim’s system.

“The biggest difference is that coach Frankie has a different system on offense. Practices are handled differently. I really like coach Frankie even if he’s more on the yelling side. He’s going to yell at anyone,” he said with a smile. “It’s just been three days, so I haven’t heard him shout all that much. But I know the stories and we’ll have to see when the games start.”

Lim will be Slaughter’s fourth coach with Ginebra. Most fans see the rampant changes as the cause of their bad luck. Slaughter likes to look at it differently.

“The good thing about having a lot of coaches is that you pick up something new from each one,” Slaughter explained. “But, I guess, we have some chemistry issues that we need to fix to really get past the quarterfinals and really contend in the playoffs.”

“You gotta have each others backs. You gotta be ready to fight for each other. You have to be a single unit on the floor.”

Pardon Slaughter’s hugot line. The pain is rather fresh to him. They were bruised, bullied, and crotch-chopped by Beau Belga in their elimination round game. In that game, the fans took it upon themselves to defend the Kings because they didn’t seem to be interested in defending themselves. A fan threw a bottle on the court and he was hastily escorted out.

Ginebra fans are passionate like that. There are some who would gladly be taken out of the arena to express themselves in the game. They’re a courageous bunch with some of them even willing to barge into a burger joint just to get a picture with their idols.

A group of five women stopped just outside the restaurant where the group was eating. After a few seconds of hesitation, they finally gathered the will to step inside. Slaughter and Ellis obliged with smiles as Peña and Avillanosa teased them to smile better.

“As a team, we just have to look for whatever it is that will help us win games. If it’s the bigs or the smalls or if it’s going to whoever was on fire that game, we just need to find ways to win,” Slaughter explained. “We have so many options in this team that anyone could explode in any certain game. As a team, we just have to able to support each other.”

“Don’t worry about it, Greg will get his 30-30 [points-rebounds] game next conference,” Peña butted in. Slaughter could not do anything else but laugh. “I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get a 30-30.”

Pena’s confidence in Slaughter is not unfounded. Even with other giant imports in the Commissioner’s Cup, he managed to hold his own. With all but four behemoth reinforcements to contend with in the Governors’ Cup, Slaughter’s already impressive numbers are expected to rise.

“Coach Frankie has really laid down a plan on how to use this time to get us ready for the Governors’ Cup,” Slaughter said. “With the direction he’s taking us right now, I’m really optimistic about it. I know Coach Frankie is going to expect a lot from me this conference. He’s not alone because I’m also expecting a lot from myself this conference. Hopefully we could stick to the system that would showcase our team’s biggest advantage because that’s the easiest way to win games.”

“Is this your team right now?” I asked.

“I know this is what I’m about. I know I put in the work. I prepare myself to be ready for whatever comes my way. I got great coaches, great teammates, great veterans who teach me, and I’ll just try to combine everything to be better,” he explained.

“Whether it might be my team or not, I’m willing to take any responsibility that the coaches assign to me.”