Mark Story

Mark Story: Slaughter can't wait to play in Freedom Hall

As a little boy, A.J. Slaughter had a constant wardrobe staple.

"He had every kind of Louisville shirt you could find," Bonita Slaughter says of her son.

While he worked to develop the basketball skills that eventually made him an All-State player at Shelby County, A.J. sometimes imagined himself winning games in Freedom Hall like his favorite Cardinals players, Reece Gaines and Francisco Garcia.

On Saturday, Slaughter will finally live his fantasy. He will be wearing red in Freedom Hall when Louisville plays Western Kentucky University.

Of course, a little boy's dream has long since taken a detour.

Slaughter will be in the visiting uniform of WKU on Saturday. His goal will be to replicate the beat-down he and Western put on Rick Pitino's Cardinals a year ago.

Last November on a neutral court in Nashville, Slaughter poured in 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds as the Hilltoppers crushed then-No. 3 U of L 68-54.

"To get a victory over your idol team from your childhood," Slaughter said Wednesday, "it was real sweet."

The tour de force performances of Slaughter and former Elizabethtown star Steffphon Pettigrew (17 points, 12 rebounds) were seen as vindication by those who believe recruiters at U of L and Kentucky are often too quick to dismiss in-state talent.

"I think there are a lot of guys in Kentucky who can play big-time college basketball and get overlooked," said Slaughter. "I never really heard from Louisville or UK. But that's OK. Things have worked out great for me at Western."

After leading Shelby County to an appearance in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals, Slaughter was a prized recruit of then-Western coach Darrin Horn. The 6-foot-3 guard spent his first two years as a valuable "support player" on WKU teams led by star swingman Courtney Lee.

When Lee and fellow standout guard Tyrone Brazelton graduated after Western's trip to the 2008 NCAA Tournament round of 16, it gave Slaughter a chance to claim the spotlight.

Last season, as a junior, he showed a knack for shining on the biggest stages.

In addition to his strafing of U of L, Slaughter had 20 points in a WKU victory over Georgia. He earned MVP honors as Western won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

In the NCAA tourney, Slaughter had 24 in a last-second loss to Gonzaga in the second round.

With four starters back from last season, Coach Ken McDonald's Hilltoppers entered this season with high expectations. At 5-3 (with a bad home loss to Indiana State), Western has not exactly sprinted from the gate.

But the Toppers will enter the Louisville contest coming off an upset of then-No. 24 Vanderbilt in Nashville that was ignited by Slaughter's 27 points.

"We do have four starters back," Slaughter said, "but everybody else is new. It's taken some time for us to get the chemistry right."

For Slaughter, ups and downs on the court are easy to keep in perspective.

His mom, Bonita, has spent a good bit of this decade fighting a series of health concerns — brain cancer, blindness in one eye, a heart attack, lupus, kidney problems — that make Job's trials look like a trip down Easy Street.

"I can't believe all the things they say are wrong with me, you know?" says Bonita Slaughter.

Yet Bonita, 48, is still battling. A.J. now sports an arm tattoo that features a picture of his mom and her name.

On Saturday, Bonita and husband Anthony will be on hand to see their son play in the arena of his boyhood dreams.

Being in Freedom Hall yet not rooting for U of L will be different for the Slaughter family.

One of A.J. Slaughter's two older sisters, Toni, played college basketball at Louisville after transferring from Cincinnati.

"It is my alma mater and the school where I played," Toni Slaughter says. "But it's my brother. Blood comes first."

His youngest sister, Antonita, is a leading Miss Basketball contender at Louisville Christian Academy who has signed to play for U of L.

Says Antonita: "I'll be rooting for A.J. and Western."

The guard's oldest sister, Area, says simply: "Western is definitely going to win the game."

At least the guy who used to have such an impressive array of Louisville shirts will have a little support when he finally makes it to Freedom Hall.