#TBT Jeff Chan and Larry Fonacier: National Wings

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National Wings
Larry Fonacier and Jeff Chan are more than just three-point shooters for Gilas.

By Mico Halili

Taken from SLAM #170

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Players ran down the court of the San Juan Arena to find their spots on offense. Spreading out on the floor, they sprinted to their battle positions. It was methodical basketball choreography. In this half-court set, players moved along to the steady drumbeat of the Gilas system. Five pieces glided with a purpose the way magnetic circles move on a whiteboard. On the last practice session in town before the Gilas training camp in Lithuania, they danced to the tune of careful preparation.

Eight seconds into the possession, shooters Larry Fonacier from Talk ‘N Text and Jeff Chan from Rain or Shine occupied familiar places. Larry planted his feet on the right corner of the court. Jeff darted towards the left corner. They turned slightly, enough for other players to see the numbers on their chests (12 for Larry, 16 for Jeff), enough for them to see their point guard Jayson Castro. The Gilas wings were in position. They were ready to receive a pass, crash the boards or shoot if open.

Larry and Jeff were especially ready to shoot if open. It felt right to see Larry on the right corner and Jeff on the left corner. Because we know they can hit shots from those areas. Because we know they can hit it when it matters.

Larry watched the offense unfold. He was like Private Jackson, the super sniper from Saving Private Ryan. Remember him? Larry could’ve totally played that role. Private Jackson was sort of a humorless man with a humorless job. They even pouted the same way I think. Both men are understandably grumpy. Jackson’s task was to observe and wait and decide and attack. But he had to know when to do it. And when he had to do it and he to act quickly, decisively.

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This could’ve been the play during that half-court offense:

Castro sends the ball to Fonacier. Fonacier snatches the ball and studies the situation. Where are his teammates? What are the defenders doing? What’s the score? What’s the time? What does the team need? He decides that the team needs him to shoot. He angrily bites his lip, the clearest sign that he’s about to launch a three-pointer and is hell-bent that that three-pointer will go in. He squares up for the shot. We can all imagine Larry uttering Private Jackson’s pre-sniping prayer:

“Be not Thou far from me, O Lord. Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight. My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust. O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not my enemies triumph over me.”

I asked Jeff, “Ano role ni Larry sa Gilas?”

Jeff answered, “Shooter.”

Even if it was a one-word answer, it explained a lot.

Since Larry’s father played tennis, a lot used tennis balls were scattered around the house. Five-year-old Larry learned to shoot with tennis balls. In the morning, he spent hours trying to shoot tennis balls into a small makeshift rim made out of sampayan wire. I’m sure that self-inflicted boyhood challenge helped him become the shooter that he is today. At night, he watched PBA games. His favorite team was Purefoods. His favorite player was Alvin Patrimonio. While watching games on television, he tried his best to copy Patrimonio’s moves and dutifully wrote down Patrimonio’s stats on his school notebook. It was really an advanced form of fandom for a five-year-old. It was likewise advanced training for a future national player.

“I try to focus on intangibles lang,” Larry, the PBA Rookie of the Year during the 2005-2006 season, shared. “I’m also a spot-up shooter. Yun naman ang sabi ni Coach Chot (Reyes) sa akin even when he got me for Talk ‘N Text and now with Gilas. Whatever helps the team kahit hindi ako shu-moot. Intangibles.”

Is competitiveness an intangible quality? I suppose it is. Then again, there are episodes of competitiveness from competitive individuals that can’t be measured in numbers. There’s a legend about Larry: during one school-organized immersion trip, residents invited Larry to join a pick-up game on the neighborhood court. This was strictly an all-slippers affair. No sneakers. No socks. No shiny jerseys. No electronic scoreboard. No television coverage. Regular citizens of the Philippines versus Ateneo star Larry Fonacier. What did Larry do? He didn’t treat them with kid gloves. He didn’t play some half-ass game just so the residents wouldn’t feel bullied by the big city player. Sorry guys, talagang hindi niya pinagbigyan. Larry Fonacier, in his tsinelas, treated his normal-sized opponents like they were the La Salle Green Archers in Game 3 of the UAAP Finals. No mercy.

“Even when I was a kid, I really wanted to win,” Larry, famous for being stubbornly yet admirably “suplado” even to his own Ateneo teammates, recalled. “Pikon ako eh. I would get mad at my teammates and classmates if they didn’t have the same drive and passion as I have. Kaya sa intrams sa school marami ako kaaway (laughs). Bata pa lang ako, napansin ko na may competitive ako na ugali.”

Larry hasn’t lost any of that competitiveness. Competitiveness drove a second-round draft pick to win Rookie of the Year. Competitiveness drove a player who neither dunks nor executes spinning-Youtube-worthy-fastbreak-lay-ups to win championships. Competitiveness drove Larry to make it all the way to the National Team.

The white Gilas home jersey looked good on Larry. Parang ang tagal na niya sinusuot. Like he truly belongs on this squad. His body language said so. Assured but not over-confident. His rhythmic synergy with his Gilas teammates revealed as much. Parang ang tagal na nilang magkakampi.

“At home ako dito sa Gilas kasi yung sistema ni Coach Chot, three years ko na tinatakbo,” Larry admitted. “And alam ko na ano yung binibigay niya na role sa akin kaya malaking tulong na rin yun. Also, yung teammates ko alam ko na rin paano maglaro and alam ko na yung tendencies nila. So madali ko i-fit yung game ko sa kanila.”

In case Castro saw it best to pass the ball to the left corner instead of the right corner, Jeff was just as ready to receive the kick-out pass.

Just like Larry, Jeff was a second-round pick for Red Bull. Just like Larry, Jeff was once named PBA Finals MVP. Just like Larry, Jeff is now a mainstay on the National Team. Just like Larry, Jeff was always ready to shoot. But unlike Larry, Jeff has always been compared to one of the greats. Even when he was still playing for the FEU Tamaraws in the UAAP, fans saw the resemblance between Jeff and PBA legend Allan Caidic. Both are lefties. Both are shooters. There’s only one Triggerman. But Jeff will proudly insist there is also just one Jeff Chan.

“Kahit nung nasa FEU pa ako, tinatawag ako ng mga tao na ‘Caidic! Caidic!’ Hindi na nga Chan eh, Caidic na,” Jeff, who always laughs about the comparison, remembered. “Gusto ko sana sabihin, ‘Chan last name ko.’”

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Don’t get Jeff wrong. He’s not annoyed to be compared to a legend. Far from it. Who wouldn’t want their names mentioned in the same sentence as Allan Caidic? Perhaps part of Jeff’s reluctance to completely embrace the comparison is embarrassment. That’s Allan freakin’ Caidic we’re talking about. Perhaps part of it is also Jeff’s conviction not to piggyback on any legend’s name.

“Masyadong mataas na kasi yung narating ni Allan,” Jeff, the PBA Most Improved Player during the 2011-2012 season, explained. “Mahirap na sigurong abutin yung mga narating niya. So gagawa na lang ako ng sariling pangalan ko.”

As soon I spotted Jeff on that left corner, I was reminded of Legolas, the super-elf-archer from Lord of the Rings. Like Legolas, Jeff is always ready to aim, ready to shoot. Legolas, at least the film version, doesn’t look like a superhuman weapon of mass annihilation. He is lean. He looks dignified. He doesn’t look like he could take on ten to fifteen orcs at a time. But as soon as he uses his bow and arrow during battles, handsome Legolas turns into a fearsome automatic arrow-firing machine.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

“He was as tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgûl, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship.”

Jeff, however, wasn’t always the smooth perimeter operator. When he was in Grade 4, he played power forward and emulated Bulls big man Horace Grant. He wasn’t dreaming about the UAAP. He wasn’t even thinking about the PBA. He just wanted to enjoy playing basketball in Bacolod. He just wanted push other players under the basket and win games.

In high school, Jeff finally discovered that he could hit outside shots. So he worked on his outside shots during practice and made even more outside shots during games. As a more versatile high school player, he performed well during several national three-on-three tournaments. As a result, he was invited to try out for schools like Ateneo and San Beda for college. After getting homesick in Manila, he decided to go back to Bacolod. Then, after one semester and a confidence-boosting stint in the UniGames, he finally decided to play in the UAAP. By the time he suited up for the FEU Tamaraws, he evolved into an offensive inside-outside threat.

“For me, Jeff is a complete player and he’s getting better every year,” Fonacier, who played alongside Jeff in last year’s Jones Cup and FIBA Asia Cup, stated. “Bagay na bagay siya sa international game and he has proven it in the two tournaments that we played in.”

Strangely, Jeff could say the same things to describe Larry. Larry is likewise a complete player, gets better every year, bagay na bagay sa international game and has proven in as well in the two tournaments they played in last year. I wonder if Jeff and Larry have more similarities than differences.

“Well, granted there are similarities but if you’ll look closer or dig deeper you’ll see two very different players,” Gilas Head Coach Chot Reyes explained. “First of all, there’s a value to one guy being a natural leftie and one guy being naturally right-handed. Number two: they also have different facets of their game. Larry in his position is an excellent rebounder. He has always delivered and has gotten rebounds for us. I think in the passing ability, Larry has a slight edge. In athleticism and ability to drive to the basket, I think Jeff has a slight edge. There are little differences sa kanilang dalawa.”

Reyes insisted that the guy parked on the right corner is different from the guy parked on the left corner. He won’t say which one is better than the other. I won’t either. Is Larry Fonacier better than Jeff Chan? Is Private Jackson better than Legolas? That discussion doesn’t seem necessary since many believe it’s necessary that we have both players in the roster. The team needs players who can shoot. The team needs players who are ready and willing to shoot. The team needs players who will do more than just shoot.

Fonacier and Chan will face taller defenders on offense. They will guard bigger players on defense. They’ll need to make extra passes just as crucial as the open shots they need to make. They’ll stand in the corners of the basketball court in August, with games of the FIBA-Asia Championship on the line, prepared to give what the team needs.

Like a sniper with his rifle.

Like an archer with his bow and arrow.

“We try to do what other two-guards and small-forwards do in international competition kaso sila, mas malalaki sa amin,” Larry said. “They’re bigger and more versatile so dinadaan na lang namin sa puso kagaya ng sinasabi lagi ni Coach Chot. We are undersized talaga. Aminado naman kaming lahat.”

“Gagamitin namin ang utak. Dadaanin namin sa sipag,” Jeff added. “Maglalaro kami ng all-out. Kasi yung mga makakalaban namin na same position, mabilis sila, magaling mag-dribble, shooter din. Kumpleto yung skills ng mga players nila. So kami, papakita namin puso namin, laban lang.”

Photos c/o University Basketball League, Paul Ryan Tan, Paolo Papa