At 6-foot-4, Ali Peek was undersized for a center but he made up for it with his strength, toughness, and efficiency.
Selected third overall in the top-heavy 1998 PBA Draft which only had four notable players (Danny Ildefonso, Noy Castillo, Will Antonio, and Peek) among the 23 picked, Peek started his career with Pop Cola before moving to the Alaska Milkmen and later on to the Coca-Cola Tigers. Although he won a championship with Alaska, his most memorable stint was with TNT where he won multiple titles as their starting center.
ESPN5 talked to Peek, who is currently an assistant coach with College of St. Benilde and PBA Rush analyst, to find out who were the toughest matchups of his career.
Peek on Offense
On March 10, 2006, while playing for the Coca-Cola Tigers, Peek set a PBA record that hasn't been touched to this very day. In that game against his former team Alaska, the Man Mountain went 12-of-12 from the field, the highest number of attempts without a miss in league history. This meant that Peek was an efficient scorer. He did not take shots he did not spend time practicing. Defending him was always a chore because of his wide frame but there were a handful of players that gave him some trouble.
"Freddie Abuda was a tough defender and so was Benny Cheng," Peek said of the stoppers most known for their stints with San Miguel Beer and Ginebra. "The funny thing about these guys is that they were not as big as I was but they knew how to position themselves, especially for Freddie Abuda. Benny Cheng, on the other side, was just physical. Every time I went up against him, I knew it was going to be a war."
Peek also mentioned that he also found it difficult to score on Dennis Espino who was "tough and deceptively athletic."
However, the toughest defensive matchup for Peek is a player that he vouched for before the 2004 PBA Draft.
"Later on when I got into my late 20s when I was still with Alaska, there was this guy who we were considering drafting at that time. He worked out with us a couple of times and the guy just would not back down. He was giving me fits. Coach Tim Cone asked me what I thought and I said we needed to draft him," Peek recalled.
"I think Alaska made a great decision by picking Sonny Thoss and it has worked out well for them as he has not played for any other team in his career. I've had a lot of battles against him. A lot of it had to do with the size. He was taller than I was and he was also athletic. He has good fundamentals on defense and he was disciplined."
Peek on Defense
While the first two editions of the series (Danny Seigle and Jojo Lastimosa) had Vergel Meneses as the toughest player to defend, for Peek it was his high-scoring Sunkist teammate that was the most difficult player to guard.
"Nelson Asaytono. Enough said," the 16-year PBA veteran said.
"I first encountered him when I was 23 years old and he was about 30, 31 years old. He was still in the prime of his career. We became teammates and I tried to study his moves," Peek recalled. "With Nelson, everybody considered him a power forward but he was only about 6-foot-3. In comparison to the other bigs, he was smaller but he's so talented. His prototype can still play in the PBA today. With the way basketball has evolved, I think he'd have an even better career if he played today because he'd be impossible to guard as a stretch four. He can put the ball on the floor. He had all these capabilities but he was also so strong near the basket."
With the illegal defense still in full effect during Asaytono's heyday, defending him from way outside for a center was close to being impossible. The Bull could get to any spot with ease and had an array of shots to fool even the best of defenders.
"I remember this one play when he went up for a layup. I challenged him and I thought I was going to block it then all of a sudden he just went around my hand for a finger-roll. He also got me with those shots under my arm. Man, that was embarrassing," Peek added.
Although Peek faced his toughest matchup late in his career, he has no doubt that he would have a tough time against this player even during his prime.
"I wish I could have played June Mar Fajardo when I was 25 or 26 years old," Peek said. "At the time we matched up, I was already 38 and was already slowing down. I was on borrowed time, actually. But even if we faced off in my prime, it would have been a tough matchup as well as his footwork is really good. He has all the tools on the low block."
When Fajardo came into the league in 2012, there were a lot of people who were already saying that he could be one of the all-time greats and Peek tried to put that to the test immediately.
"Whenever a big guy comes into the league with all that buzz around him, the first thing I want to do is test him. Of course, I'm competitive and I want to see for myself just how good he really is," he recalled. "The first time, he was solid but not dominant. But when he started polishing his skills and the Beermen started surrounding him with players that really complemented his style of play, at that time, I told myself that it was only going to be a matter of time before he dominates the league."
Peek added that Fajardo is tough to defend as he has a variety of post moves and knows how to throw his weight around. The Kraken also has good hands, as he catches passes well and can score on jumpers.
Defensively, Fajardo is also a handful according to Peek.
"You cannot score on him easily because he is so big and so strong so it is impossible for you to get a good position," Peek added. "But I'm happy I got the chance to go up against him. Of course, it didn't feel this way back when I was playing but looking back, it was a pleasure seeing him evolve into the player that he is today."