Larry Fonacier almost died last conference.
It was the semifinals between the NLEX Road Warriors and Magnolia Hotshots in the 2018 PBA Philippine Cup. Fonacier was tired, he had to drive home, and he didn’t feel like eating the packed dinner provided for players. “I thought I could just pass by a restaurant on my way home, but the traffic was so bad that I just went home and slept,” he recalls. He crashed into bed, and awoke a few hours later too weak to move. At the hospital, doctors told him his heart was working overtime to keep his dehydrated body afloat. “You almost died,” they told him later.
“Hindi nakikita ng tao, but my body is hurting a lot,” Fonacier says. The 35-year-old still looks young enough for the name “Babyface Assassin” and can still knock down threes like nobody’s business, but on his 13th year in the PBA, he admits staying sharp takes more work than it used to. “I see some younger players who don’t even stretch sometimes, but at my age, hindi na talaga pwede. You can’t make mistakes because your body will make you pay for it.”
Safe recovery, shifting roles
Fonacier is one of many PBA players whose professional careers have lasted more than 10 years. Some teams have more of them than others—on Fonacier’s Road Warriors, you’ve also got Cyrus Baguio, JR Quinahan, and the “Ageless” Asi Taulava.
There’s an acknowledgement among such players that they’re closer to the end of their careers than they are to the beginning. But the roles of older players vary based on both their current abilities and the nature of their teams’ composition.
Fonacier starts often for the Road Warriors, and his outside shooting earned him several Player of the Game nods last conference. “That just comes from the confidence that the coaches give me. It’s about repaying their trust,” he says.
But to be able to repay that trust, Fonacier has invested more time and effort in his recovery. The incident last conference was out of character—the Road Warriors’ team captain credits his health in part to nutritious home-cooked meals.
“It’s a struggle when your body doesn’t cooperate and you need to find ways when you’re playing against kids who are stronger than you,” says Fonacier. “I have to thank my wife [Lora] who really helps me and cooks to help me recover. At my age, I can’t abuse my body and I can’t abuse my diet.”
Fonacier’s favorite recovery meal? “She makes this bowl with quinoa, avocado, steak and shrimp that I love, and she makes this vegetable shake for me too. She’s very creative,” he shares.
A 2017 ESPN Stats & Info project found that the average age of an NBA player is a sliver shy of 27 years old. There’s a reason why there are articles listing “30 players over 30.” It’s the same reason why Jon loves “titos who can still hang with the cool kids” like Manu Ginobili, hairline notwithstanding. Wherever you are in the world, the grind of professional basketball takes a toll on one’s body, and longevity is an achievement in itself.
Taulava is a full five years older than Ginobili and on his 20th year in the PBA. Past the age of 40, he admits: “My body was killing me, I had so many injuries.” It took a while for him to settle into his current role for the Road Warriors—playing less minutes and mentoring the team’s younger big men—that helped him extend his career in a way he now enjoys.
“For me, I think it was a blessing in disguise to end up with Coach Yeng in the latter part of my career. My first 18 years in the PBA, I was on the floor for 30-40 minutes a game. Then here comes Coach Yeng. At first I didn’t understand it, the short minutes, short rotation, everyone plays. But the responsibility is shared among all the players. He doesn’t demand one guy to go out there and dominate the game,” Taulava says.
He adds, “It gives me more freedom to take better care of myself, and my body gets to heal. I don’t have to go through the wear and tear that I usually do, and it’s a lot funner.”
Some things never get old
It’s not just about physical readiness—even players who are healthy may choose to retire to pursue other priorities, after all. For older players who already have championships, MVPs, and All-Star appearances under their belt, a sense of personal fulfillment and growth becomes more important the longer they’re in the league.
This is Fonacier’s first time to be team captain. “Even if we didn’t make the finals, it’s evident that we reached new heights,” he says of their first-ever semis appearance. “I was really happy when we made the semi-finals, but when we were down 2-4, I’ll admit I was having thoughts about vacation already. But then I saw how much the guys wanted to keep fighting and that kept me going.”
Taulava, meanwhile, says it’s important not get stuck in “dinosaur days where you’re doing the old things you grew up doing.” He gets his satisfaction from learning new skills. After years of playing in the paint, he’s been working on his three-point shot and joining guards on their shooting drills.
“Trying to learn and get the rhythm of shooting jump shots is pretty tough,” Taulava admits. “But once you get it down it’s pretty fun to make your first three.” (He made his first three of the conference in their losing outing against Rain Or Shine last week.)
“You know, the game of basketball is so big and you can learn something different every day as long as you want it in here,” he says, tapping his chest. “You’ll learn.”
Both Taulava and Fonacier talk about “winding down” their careers. Taulava calls his run with the Road Warriors a “one-and-done” mission to end his storied career with a championship, while Fonacier cracks jokes about his age: “I’m so old!”
There’s little doubt that when they do retire, they’ll be showered with tributes from fans, highlight videos compiled by TV networks, and (in this day and age) tweets from younger players talking about how their game inspired the next generation.
In the meantime, though, they’re still enjoying the ride.
“Winding down for me doesn’t mean I’ll just relax and enjoy. It’s still satisfying for me to go out there and fight it out during tough games, to make the shots for my team,” says Fonacier. “That part never gets old.”
Photos from the Arangkada NLEX Team