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Jul 23, 2017
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Comebacking Ginebra star big man Greg Slaughter didn't have the requisite stamina necessary to participate in a full scrimmage yet on the day we dropped by the Gin Kings' practice last July 7.

Slaughter has been practicing with his team since the tailend of the Commisioner’s Cup, but he’s been limited to one-on-one’s and two-on-two’s as Ginebra was still trying to reach the finals then. He suited up for Ginebra's semi-finals series against TNT KaTropa last June, although he didn't have clearance yet to play. In practice, he helped his teammates prepare by playing burly KaTropa import Josh Smith’s role in a number of half-court drills.

At the time of our visit, we saw the 2014 PBA Rookie of the Year winner catching his breath after going through sprints and some rebounding and conditioning exercises. He was bent down, his hands clutching his shorts.

That, however, wasn't much a cause for concern for the team. It was still early in the defending champs' preparation for the 2017 PBA Governors' Cup, after all.

The obvious thing, though, about Slaughter was, he now looked stronger and more capable to hurdle the grind as it gets tougher down the road. His biceps and triceps are bigger, his legs, thicker, a clear benefit of the rehab and strengthening exercises he has been doing since he got the go-signal to practice with the team.

His rehabilitated right knee, which succumbed to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear during a game in September 2016, wasn't heavily braced, which was a good sign. Also, there was nary a trace of Slaughter being overly protective of his knee.

In fact, when asked to hang onto the basketball rim for the photoshoot, the self-confessed Gilbert "Agent Zero" Arenas fan jumped up with full confidence and panache, holding on to that rim spread-eagled with frightening ease.

He's fifteen pounds heavier than his usual 260-265 lbs. playing weight now. The backboard, in fact, shook vigorously the second he let go of the rim after we got the shot we wanted.

Right there and then, it became apparent to everyone that the return of Ginebra's prized slotman was almost at hand.

Silver linings playbook

Slaughter says he now understands why he's always been injury-prone, thanks to his ACL rehab program. For one, he'd been playing almost non-stop since Ginebra had drafted him in 2013. It was difficult, with the short PBA offseason and breaks in between conferences, to give his injuries time to heal.

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Playing for the national team—he'd been a part of the Gilas 1.0 team under coach Rajko Toroman since 2010—also helped contribute to his injury woes. In 2014, Slaughter had no choice but to back out of the team. People, who hardly knew the extent of the center's condition, were quick to criticize his decision. "I went through some injuries. I think that’s what eventually led to my ACL injury. It started in my ankle at first, then it led to the knee injury. The hardest part with Gilas was being able to stay healthy (since you’re playing all year round)." 

Recuperating from his 2016 season-ending ACL injury, Slaughter says now, "turned out be a blessing in disguise. I had a lot of people helping me along the way. It gave me a chance to learn more about my body and how to develop it and get stronger.”

Part of the problem before was that his exercises were not focused on building his core, an intricate network of muscles around the hips and abdomen that stabilizes and strengthens the whole body. Building the core and knowing how to move his hips are essential to keeping his body healthy and injury-free.

Slaughter also explains his injuries stemmed from not knowing how to move properly. Golden State superstar Steph Curry had a similar problem during his early years in the NBA when he couldn't seem to let a season pass without spending considerable time on the injured list. He came back stronger after his rehab and is now a two-time champ and league MVP.

"[To remedy this,] I’ve been working on my core,"he says. "And I really understand how to use my hips better. "I have a better understanding of my body now. I've just got to stay conditioned."

Staying in tip-top shape means repetitively doing the necessary exercises day in, day out. It also requires adhering to a strict healthy diet, eating lots of chicken and vegetables, and avoiding greasy and junk food.

“A lot of people think the exercises are really easy and boring, but if you really concentrate about what you’re doing, it can be very hard. We’d start with simple stuff. We’d activate every hip muscle I have."

This takes a lot of discipline, but Greg has realized how vital it is in his quest to satisfy his burning desire to win.

Business as usual in the paint

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Slaughter says he always can shoot from beyond the arc, perhaps because of the influence of 2017 Finals MVP Kevin Durant, his current NBA favorite. "I've always liked Durant. Even though he moved to Golden State, I didn't hold that against him. I’m the same way. I want to win; [I'd do] whatever it takes to win. I don’t know why he should be criticized for that.”

Don't take that factoid to mean, though, that the Slaughter you'll see today in Ginebra's 2017 PBA Governors' Cup debut will be a stretch-4 in the mold of KD or the Cavs' Kevin Love. Of course, he knows his primary business will still be conducted in the paint, where his newly harnessed mobility and strength will be put to a test.

Even in his college days, Slaughter has always been extraordinarily strong. During his PBA draft tests, he made the most bench presses among the rookies. According to him, the biggest difference now is "I’m a lot stronger in terms of carrying my weight rather than just being able to move my weight. That’s going to be good for me because basketball is a game of running. Just being able to carry my weight more will make me look a lot stronger."

He purports to be mentally tougher, too.

“I think that’s one thing I’ve always had with my game, the mental toughness," the former Ateneo Blue Eagles and University of the Visayas Green Lancer center says. "No matter what happens, I can always stay in the middle and control my emotions and not get carried away. Just always focus on what I need to do.”

Gregzilla has often been labeled soft, seemingly lacking the viciousness of the awesome and gigantic mutant sea monster he was nicknamed after. Is it a fair assessment? Greg is so tall—almost 7 feet and with a prodigious wingspan (85 inches)—that he looks lanky rather than your typical, muscle-bound jock.

But being cool and calculated has served him well for years. He's never the type to easily get rattled, even during those raucous Ateneo vs. La Salle games in the past. We may have a tendency as fans to equate passion with power and toughness, but who says manning and operating in the shaded lane with finesse can't be just as impactful and lethal? 

Speaking of Ateneo vs. La Salle, ever wondered how he'd fare against reigning UAAP MVP and DLSU center Ben Mbala, who also played in Cebu for the Southwestern University Cobras? “I’ve actually played him already in Cebu in the Philippine Collegiate Championship League," recalls Slaughter. "We kicked their butts. He’s strong and athletic, but he’s like 6’6”. Check out the video of the game and you’ll see I did an up-and-under dunk on him.”

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Something to prove

Greg does not know if he’ll be a starter in Ginebra's Governors' Cup campaign this year. Ginebra plays a different game now that's predicated on ball movement. We saw flashes of that offensive evolution last year when two-time Grand Slam-winning coach Tim Cone ditched the triangle in favor of a faster and more fluid offense.  

Will the big man's role change in light of these offensive tweaks? “It’s going to take a lot of adjustments on my part, but coach Tim assured he and my teammates will be there to help me along the way," says the 3-time PBA All Star. “I think there are a lot of expectations for me. I have a lot of expectations for myself, too. But I think they’ll see I’m coming back as a stronger player, better than before. I’ll still have a big role to play on this team.”

The Barangay Ginebra Kings are cautiously optimistic about defending their Governor’s Cup crown. Team defense is getting tighter, a hallmark of many a great Tim Cone-led team. Import Justin Brownlee, who had made the championship-winning buzzer-beater last year, has been with the team since the last conference and his chemistry with the team is more solid now. But will it be there with Greg Slaughter back in the fold?

As coach Cone puts it in a recent Spin.ph report, “Greg is a tremendous impact player, and he’s going to impact the ball, but he’s also going to impact the team in terms of winning and losing, but also the chemistry, and how we do things.”

Adds Slaughter: “The main thing for me is, I've got to find out where my opportunities will come up in offense and then work on that. I want to be able to blend with my team. I think we have a really good system now.”

It's a system, he says, that doesn't just rely on premier point guard L.A. Tenorio getting him the ball. "That’s the good thing about our plays now—it takes the pressure off him because he doesn’t always have to facilitate everything. We can rely on other people for the ball movement.”

Also, Ginebra's offense allows for him and Japeth Aguilar, the Twin Towers who usually play center and power forward respectively, to switch roles depending on the demands of the play. This flexibility excites him, but he insists he's got to get his rhythm first. That's going to happen the more he plays the game.

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“I’m definitely faster, stronger, able to use more muscles and core in my movements. My trainer helps me be explosive," he says. "The thing I really need now is my cardio. I still got to get used to my legs. I don’t know how many miles it will be before it feels natural again. I just have to keep running until I feel comfortable."

So does this mean it'll take a while before we see tomahawk dunks from him?

"Let’s see what happens," Slaughter says, laughing. "I don’t want to promise anything. I just want to take things one step at a time.”

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