This article originally appeared in SLAM #177
June Mar Fajardo began his PBA career as a rookie trying to fit in. Countless of double-doubles, slam dunks, and a Best Player of the Conference trophy later, he realizes he was born to stand out.
By James Velasquez
Within the walls of the Reyes Gym in Mandaluyong City one Thursday morning, an oddity of a ball game is taking place. Playing defense is a pint-sized kid, maybe standing just a little over 4 feet, in nothing but his flip-flops. He’s barely holding a proper defensive stance because he’s laughing so hard at the task at hand. In front of him is a 6-10 mountain of a man, the recently crowned PBA Best Player of the Conference. The ball is in the big man’s hands. The big man flashes the biggest grin you will ever see on a human being.
June Mar Fajardo launches a three that just grazes the front of the rim, much to the delight of the youngster. The little guy is gonna have a heckuva story for his friends: he just stopped June Mar Fajardo in a 1-on-1 game. The kid high fives San Miguel Beermen guards Ronald Tubid and Paolo Hubalde as he makes his way to the sidelines, proud of his gargantuan feat.
It’s amusing to see Fajardo in a different context. Under the bright lights, Fajardo barely smiles. He’s even more serious during television interviews, speaking in a very low tone complete with a stoic expression that makes courtside reporters think about getting a ladder just so we can get up there and hear what he’s really saying.
Here, within the walls of the Reyes Gym, with only his coaches, teammates, and a handful of onlookers in attendance, I would try and pick the brain of the PBA’s Most Dominant Big Man today. After a good 5 minutes of chatting by the baseline, June Mar offers me a seat so we can relax. As I get comfortable, that humongous grin I saw on his face while playing the kid 1-on-1 reappears. “Naaawa na kasi ako sayo bro eh. Baka sumakit na yung leeg mo.”
If this dude’s wisecracks are as good as his low post fadeaway, this is going to be a fun interview.
When Fajardo prepared to come to Manila a couple of years ago, he did so with only basketball success in his mind after accomplishing his goals back in Compostela, Cebu. He’d just finished his HRM course at the University of Cebu and had won a CESAFI championship for the Webmasters while also earning league MVP honors.
His mother Maritess made sure June Mar’s head was in the game. “Mama’s boy talaga ako. Laging sinasabi ng nanay ko sa akin ‘Pagpunta mo ng Maynila anak, bawal kang mag-girlfriend muna ha! Basketball muna. Kasi pag nagkagirlfriend ka wala, kakalimutan mo na ako hindi mo na ako iki-kiss!’”
June Mar credits his parents for teaching him the value of dedication and hard work. “Ako galing ako sa hirap, kaya parang pamana ng magulang ko sa akin yung halaga ng pagsisikap. Pagsisikap sa pag-aaral, pagsisikap sa basketball.”
Basketball actually started as sort of a burden for June Mar, who was over six feet when he entered Bato National High School, and was literally treated like a giant by most of his peers. “O.P. talaga ako sa mga ka-age ko noon. Nakakailang yung lahat ng tao nakatitig sa akin pag dumadaan ako, tapos yung ibang ka-edad ko parang di ako sinasama sa mga laro-laro.” He developed a habit of walking with his head a little bowed, if only to avoid the stares from the people he passed by.
Inevitably, he was recruited to play barangay hoops, but his heart wasn’t into it. June Mar didn’t ask for all that attention. He didn’t want any of it. He just wanted to do his own thing and be a kid. “Mahiyain talaga ako noon. Minsan napagkakamalan pang suplado. Pero kasi talagang O.P. yung feeling ko sa ibang tao eh kaya dun ako sa mga ka-close ko.”
Up until his sophomore year in college June Mar was awkward around people and his teammates, until his basketball coach Roel Gomez took him aside for a talk he’d never forget. “Si Coach Roel ang unang nagsabi sa akin na yung height ko, ultimate gift sa akin ni Lord. Kaya dapat ko raw gamitin. Dapat daw panindigan ko yung laki ko. Iyon din yung first time na naisip ko na baka pwede ako sa PBA.”
June Mar worked hard. He built his body, honed his game, and toughened his spirit. He started to walk with his head high more often, not in the imposing manner, but definitely with more confidence. After a dominant college career and an Asean Basketball League stint, June Mar took his game to the Philippine Basketball Association.
I ask June Mar a question I’ve been dying to ask him since I saw him dominate versus Rain or Shine in last season’s Governors’ Cup semis: “Noong mga unang laro mo sa PBA, nag-iingat ka ba sa galaw mo para hindi ka makasakit ng kalaban dahil mas maliit sila sa iyo?” Because I was wondering what changed. When did he flick that switch that turned him into the meanest inside machine in the league.
June Mar laughs and replies, “Eh kasi kahit yung mga guardiya pinipisikal ako eh. Sabi ko tama na. Ako naman!”
For Fajardo, it was facing off with Gilas Pilipinas teammates Beau Belga and later on Marc Pingris that hit the switch. “Sila Ping at Beau, may pwersa maglaro. Nung nagsimula ako sa PBA, nahihiya pa ako kasi rookie ako, gusto ko muna makisama. Pero sa mga series na iyon talagang na-realize ko na kailangan maging aggressive pa kung gusto ko makatulong sa team.”
Belga and Pingris were also the ones who reminded June Mar to play loud and proud as the PBA’s big man on campus. “Pinaalala nila sa akin na panindigan ko yung pagiging malaki ko, kasi nga gift sa akin ni Lord ito.”
Other gifts came in different forms, such as admiration from fans, respect from fellow players, and the means to provide for his family back in Cebu. You’d expect such for a legit PBA superstar on one of the PBA’s most storied franchises, and for Fajardo it did take some getting used to. The self-confessed biggest Mama’s Boy in the Philippines (only Greg Slaughter could possibly dispute that, but that’s for another feature article) is now living on his own in a one bedroom unit in Mandaluyong, gets around with a personal driver, and has the latest gadgets with which he shares his own brand of humor.
June Mar maintains a typical bachelor’s pad: messy, big-ass TV set-up with large speakers and an entertainment system, sofa set just right to accommodate a couple guests, one-bedroom, and a PC setup for gaming, where he regularly teams up with Marc Pingris to dominate the online gaming world.
In these few precious moments of privacy, June Mar morphs into abai22 or wanpayb15 or whatever moniker he’s feeling on Instagram, and I promise you, following him will be one of the best decisions of your life. His soft spoken nature belies a strange yet wildly entertaining sense of humor: in one picture, he features a cooked chicken with one leg outstretched, and June Mar’s caption reads “This chicken died with honor!! Fight til I die!” In another, he bombards followers with pictures of him fighting trolls from The Hobbit during one of Gilas Pilipinas’ trips abroad. My personal favourite is the one where he drew an Apple logo on his door and claims it’s his new iPhone, fit for a big dude like him.
“Parang Vic Sotto yang si June Mar” says Chico Lanete. “Kunyari tahimik, pero pag humirit, matinik!”
Once a week, he has his driver come up to his unit to clean the guest area. Until today, June Mar is relieved that his mom hasn’t seen his room. “Yari ako pag nakita ng nanay ko yun” he laughs. He has a lot of cleaning and arranging to do in his abode, in the same way that he has a lot to learn about living in the big city as the best player in the big league. I cut the guy some slack, because I’m sure the banging he got from Rain or Shine in the Philippine Cup playoffs drained Fajardo of any and all energy to clean his room after games.
But the moment Fajardo steps out of the confusing confines of Bachelor June Mar, The Kraken sees the big picture: Fajardo is in Manila to ball. To bring championships to San Miguel Beer. To show the league that big men are back in the game. “Pag nasa court ako, mas malinaw yung buhay ko dito sa Manila. Itong PBA ang kabuhayan ko. Ang duty ko tumulong sa team ko. Wala akong iniisip na ibang bagay.”
The main lesson he learned from his Gilas Pilipinas experience and the 1-on-1 training with Danny Ildefonso was to focus. For Fajardo, more than brute strength, he learned that focus would be key for him to improve. Until today he can hear the voice of Danny I everytime he gets the rock on the block: “Pakiramdaman yung bantay ko. Dapat maayos ang footwork. Soft touch pag titira. Nakabaon na sa isip ko yung mga paalala niya.”
But there’s one other thing: June Mar is slowly becoming more vocal. When Rain or Shine eliminated Petron in the playoffs and as his teammates went home one by one, June Mar voiced his opinion during postgame interviews, saying this moment should pull the team together, not rip them apart. “United naman kami, lalo na pag panalo. Ang ayoko lang yung sari-sarili na pagkatapos ng laro kapag talo. Hindi dapat ganun. Dapat nga mas i-lift namin yung isa’t isa diba?”
There’s a stark difference between June Mar the gamer and Instagrammer extraordinaire, and BPC June Mar and June Mar The Kraken. Fajardo can afford to coast through learning how to live in the big city as a 6-10 comic bachelor, but on the court, everything has to be in order. In the PBA, he has to dominate his defenders, lift the play of his team, and ultimately win championships as its undisputed franchise center. The mission is difficult, there are many obstacles, but the marching orders are clear.
As I stand up and say goodbye and good luck to June Mar, I notice his big goofy grin again. The face he makes when he’s up to no good. “O so uuwi ka na bro? Ok ka na? Ingat ha. Kita kita na lang” and he laughs. Something’s up. I make it to the stairs when suddenly the security guard stops me to point something out. “Ser, yung sintas niyo po.” I’m pretty sure I did a double knot on my Air Jordans before leaving the house so who’s clowning me here?
I look back at June Mar Fajardo, PBA Franchise Center, and comic Instragrammer extraordinaire, ice on his knees lying flat on the trainer’s table, waving at me while flashing the biggest grin you will ever see on a human being.