BEIRUT, Lebanon — Chants of “MVP” started going off as Gilas warmed up for afternoon practice. Team captain Gabe Norwood was at the center of the court. His voice was the loudest among all.
On the sidelines, June Mar Fajardo took off the worn out sneakers he had been wearing for four days. For the first time in the trip, he pulled out the basketball shoes in his bag and laced them up.
A few days before leaving for Lebanon, news broke that a calf strain was going to prevent the three-time PBA MVP from suiting up in the FIBA Asia Cup. He had been enduring the pain for quite some time. But it worsened and became unbearable during San Miguel Beermen’s game against the TNT KaTropa.
Fajardo was devastated. He knew how big the opportunity was given that Andray Blatche wouldn’t be there. He wanted to play, but he couldn’t.
The night before Gilas Pilipinas completed their major upset of mighty China, June Mar sat in a room with the entire team. In a very intimate meeting, head coach Chot Reyes gave every person a chance to air out some thoughts.
“Gusto ko lang humingi ng pasensiya sa inyo,” June Mar told his teammates as he shook his head in disappointment. “God knows gustong-gusto ko talaga maglaro. Pero nagkataon lang talaga na na-injure ako. Sobrang hirap para sa akin. Kasi last FIBA Asia, hindi ako nakalaro kasi na-injure din ako. And then this time, eto na naman.”
“Gusto ko ngang i-question si God e. Na bakit ngayon pa ako na-injure. Sobrang sama talaga ng timing. Pero na-realize ko na kung ano mayroon ako ngayon, kung nasaan ako, kung ano man ‘yung narating ko, dahil din naman kay God e.”
To make things worse, it felt like the entire country turned on him. On whatever social media platform you can think of, there was hate for June Mar. People brought up the last time he was also injured and unavailable for a Gilas tournament. They said the timing was too dubious. From being everyone’s favorite gentle giant, June Mar became the public’s biggest enemy.
“Hindi mo naman maiiwasan na i-blame ka ng mga tao,” Fajardo told his teammates. “Alam ko sobrang hate ako ngayon sa Pilipinas. Pero anong magagawa ko? Wala talaga. Na-injure eh. Hindi naman natin kagustuhan. Sino ba naman ayaw maglaro, ‘di ba? Kung healthy naman, maglalaro naman ako. Binibigay naman natin lahat.”
A day before Gilas left for Beirut, Fajardo had second thoughts about joining the team. It felt useless to fly out just to sit on the bench and watch. But he realized that there were other ways to help.
In practice and during games, June Mar serves as an extra ball boy for his teammates. He assists in moving bags and coolers from the bus to the dugout. And during that game against China, as loud as the Pinoys were behind the bench, Fajardo made sure his cheers were heard on every Gilas basket made.
People will always have something to say. Many refuse to accept the fact that June Mar is really just hurt. Some point to the win over China and say that we don’t need the big guy after all. They are wrong. Horribly wrong.
And for all the hate that’s been thrown at him on social media, Fajardo has found a quick fix.
“And dami ko na-block eh,” he admitted to the team. “Huwag niyo na kong tawaging The Kraken, tawagin niyo na lang akong Dikembe Mutombo. Ang lakas ko mang-block ngayon eh.”
That’s June Mar Fajardo. Even in the darkest, most hateful stretch of his career, he only allows happy thoughts to surround him and his team.
For the first time in the trip, June Mar pulled out the basketball shoes in his bag and laced them up. For the first time in this trip, he was on the court for practice. He didn’t join the team in full contact but he was out there stretching and putting up shots. There’s no timetable for his return yet. But that sight should be a happy thought for Gilas and for Pilipinas.
MORE GILAS CONTENT: