Decades ago, Cebu produced arguably the most celebrated center rivalry ever produced in Philippine Basketball when the dominating duo of Mon Fernandez and Abet Guidaben banged bodies under the basket for arch-rivals Toyota and Crispa respectively. So intense was the duel between the two teams – and their colossal slotmen – that fans would fill the Araneta Coliseum to the rafters everytime the rivals bared their fangs on each other in the hardcourt.
Not a lot of today’s PBA fans would know that Mon ‘El Presidente’ Fernandez was a proud product of Cebu City’s University of San Carlos; and that Abet Guidaben had been discovered while playing for the neighboring Colegio de San Jose Recoletos. From their humble beginnings in the hardcourts of Cebu, both behemoths would go eyeball-to-eyeball countless times, trading elbows in the prestigious arenas in Manila and abroad, regaling the crowd with a Philippine brand of center play that was more finesse than fury, more beauty than brawn.
Regarded by most as the greatest player ever produced by the PBA, Fernandez would cap his glorious professional career with impressive records, most of which have remained unchallenged by the present crop of PBA stars today. Mon was a reed-thin 6′ 5″ beanpole who retired in 1990 with 4 MVP awards and a record of 19 PBA championships. He was the all-time leader in most points scored with 18,996 points; was 1st in overall rebounds with 8,652; 1st in defensive rebounds with 6,435; 1st in minutes played with 36,624 minutes; and 1st in blocks with 1,853. He was 2nd in assists with 5,220; 2nd in offensive rebounds with 2,217; 2nd in games played; and 2nd in steals with 1,302. Steals and assists are normally the enclave of guards, but Mon showed what a complete player he was by figuring high on the list for both.
His most brilliant performance transpired in 1984, when he turned in an unforgettable season average of 27 points, 15 rebounds and 9.9 assists, almost a triple double season! Triple double games are celebrated because they show the clear dominance of a player in a single game. But to have a triple-double season requires a consistency to perform at high levels all season long, and this feat may never be approximated by any player – local or import.
Not to be outdone, the 6′ 6″ Guidaben would also figure prominently in the record books, clearly demonstrating how their regular face-offs had brought out the best in each one of them. Before finally hanging up his jersey in 1995, Abet would wrack up 2 MVP trophies; was 1st in games played with 1,081; 1st in offensive rebounds with 2,373; was 2nd all-time leading scorer with 15,775 points; 2nd in total rebounds with 8,570; 2nd in defensive rebounds with 6,197; and was also prominent in the top ten in the other key categories.
The Fernandez-Guidaben center struggle will always be remembered for its finesse, its fine artistry and its intensity. No center rivalry has ever made the fans come alive as much as this pair of Southern slot keepers.
Or so it seemed. Today, another set of Southern stars are threatening to dominate the shaded lane and make fans forget the quintessential center sensations of yesteryears. Enter: two Cebu-toughened keyhole enforcers with scary nicknames such as the Kraken and Gregzilla.
June Mar ‘The Kraken’ Fajardo is today’s toast of the PBA, having copped the MVP award in the recent PBA Philippine Cup Conference. The 6′ 11″ June Mar played college ball at the University of Cebu, where he first matched wits with Gregory ‘Gregzilla’ Slaughter. Slaughter donned the colors of the University of Visayas, before he was plucked by Ateneo to play in Manila’s more prestigious UAAP collegiate wars.
Truth to tell, Gregzilla – at 7′ 1″ – used to regularly lord it over the Kraken in Cebu, collecting 3 consecutive college MVPs before flying off to Ateneo. The Kraken would get his taste of 3 MVPs only after his arch-rival, Gregzilla, had left for Manila. Greg would school June Mar at the perimeter in these clashes, with June Mar trying to lure Greg out where his better mobility could negate Greg’s size advantage.
In Manila, Greg would continue to reap accolades, giving the Ateneo Blue Eagles the UAAP crown twice during his 2-year stint there. The Kraken, in the meantime, would have a not-so-impressive stint with the San Miguel Beermen in the Asian Basketball League (ABL).
In 2013 however, June Mar would get the break that would later send his career zooming skyhigh. Chosen to be a part of the Smart Gilas Team that would play for the 2013 Fiba Asia, the 2014 Fiba World and the 2014 Asian Games, Jun Mar would get the golden opportunity to test the finest big men in the Asian region and in the world.
Greg had opted to stay home, despite the invitation to join the team for the Fiba World. It was more of a calculated move; to rest his body for the next PBA conference and to avoid the possibility of an injury.
But, as if on cue, the basketball gods would reward June Mar for his selflessness in risking life and limb, manning the Philippine trenches against the bigger, bulkier bullies from across the globe. June Mar would come home a wiser, more confident man from the experience, and this would bode well for the San Miguel Beermen.
For now, the positive karma has placed June Mar on the driver’s seat of this developing rivalry. But it is an unlikely situation that could however be reversed soon.
With the league’s winningest and most respected coach, Tim Cone, now moving over to Barangay Ginebra, expect some changes in the Gin Kings’ style of play. Coach Tim’s philosophy is known to put premium on order and discipline. It will be interesting to see how Ginebra’s razzle-dazzle guards – traditionally the senior partners in the team – adjust.
Greg’s size will be a big asset, should Coach Tim elect to use the triangle offense again. And given more ball touches this time around, Gregzilla will certainly give The Kraken a serious run for his money.
Photos courtesy of forum.philboxing.com, interaksyon.com, video48blogspot.com, pba-online.net, imgbuddy.com, bworldonline.com, rivalsph.com, rappler.com, gmanetwork.com, dzrhnews.com, mb.com.ph, forum.hoops.ph.