By Drei Christopher Villanueva
When Greg Slaughter played his first game back after being sidelined by a severe ankle injury, fans eagerly awaited his head on collision with June Mar Fajardo, the reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player, arguably the most dominant big man in the PBA today.
But the player’s worst nightmare happened – Slaughter, the seven-foot slotman, suffered yet another injury, this time his knee. The Gin Kings frontliner suffered a tear on his ACL, which will keep him out of action for six to eight months.
It was a devastating blow for Slaughter, who was playing his finest season until injuries slowed him down, as his rivalry with Junmar Fajardo is one of local fans’ most highly-anticipated match-ups, coming across like a local version of Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain, two titans who collided and elevated the popularity of the NBA during the 1960s.
Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone described the rivalry as somewhat similar to the one happened during the 1970’s and 1980’s which featured Mon Fernandez and Abet Guidaben, a rivalry which began during the height of the Crispa-Toyota wars and spilled over during the Tanduay-Beer Hausen, Purefoods-San Miguel rivalry.
Twice, Fernandez and Guidaben would switch places and the feverish rivalry would go on until both players retired.
The new age rivalry between FaJardo and Slaughter can be traced during their collegiate days. Fajardo was the star player of University of Cebu while Slaughter was the main man of the University of Visayas. While Fajardo appeared to be the more dominant individually, Slaughter had the better team and the Lancers would win multiple championships.
In the PBA, Fajardo’s star shone brighter. Not only did the 6-foot-10 slotman fast track his improvement to become the best player in the PBA as proof of his back-to-back MVP awards, he also had the better team.
Three times over the last five conferences, San Miguel would capture a championship with Fajardo serving as the anchor. As for Slaughter, he remains to be a big project and although he’s improved immensely, injuries would slow his progress.
Slaughter would miss the semifinals series against Fajardo and the Beermen, but the rivalry between two of the most well-loved squads remained feverish. Both teams would split the first two games until Japeth Aguilar, now the Gin Kings’ starting center, would preside in Game 3.
The other half of the Gin Kings’ twin towers would rise to the occasion, hitting a buzzer-beating jumper from the side to put Barangay Ginebra closer to entering the championship round in three years.
Aguilar’s basket was like a dagger it struck right through the hearts of the embattled Beermen, who would use this as motivation to buckle down from the get-go in Game 4.
The Beermen made the Gin Kings’ zone defense pay as Marcio Lassiter torched them for 25 points on a 7-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc while San Miguel’s defense was also unforgiving, holding Ginebra to just 29-percent shooting from the field.
The result was a one-sided 101-72 triumph which kept San Miguel’s title retention bid alive. For Chris Ross and Arwind Santos, they already sensed that the Beermen would bounce back and force a deciding fifth game.
“I wrote on my Twitter, don’t count us out yet,” said Ross. “It’s true because I know the capabilities of my teammates. We’ve been in a lot of different tough situations before yet we were able to get it done. I’m not surprised we did it. Now, it’s down to one game.”
Santos said he could tell the moment they practiced on Saturday the eagerness of the team to bounce back.
“Kitang-kita naman sa galaw ng katawan ng mga players yung kagustuhan nilang makabawi,” said Santos. “Masakit sa amin yung pagkatalo sa Game 3, kaya makikita mo talaga sa kanila yung gigil na makabalik. Kailangan lang naming ma-sustain yun ganitong klaseng energy para makabalik kami sa finals.”
On Sunday, close to 23,000 fans packed the Big Dome, the second-largest crowd this season and, as early as Monday, the tickets in several sections were already sold out. Now, as both teams brace for tomorrow’s semifinals-deciding match, any sibling rivalry displayed by each will have to be set aside once they step onto the court in what is sure to be a grueling contest.
Image source: PBA Images