One of the country’s greatest basketball players played the role of a cheerleader when Gilas Pilipinas marched into action in the men’s basketball event of the 31st Southeast Asian Games at the Tranh Tri Gymnasium in Hanoi.
Mon Fernandez, now the country’s chief of mission in the biennial meet, delivered a pep talk to members the heavily-favored Gilas squad moments before it faced Thailand late Monday.
In particular, he boosted the morale of June Mar Fajardo, the 6-foot-10 Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) superstar who used to be his trainee in Cebu.
“I told him to just do your best. The entire nation is rallying behind you,” Fernandez told Daily Tribune in an interview from the Vietnamese capital.
True enough, Fajardo was pumped up seeing his former mentor at the sidelines.
The six-time PBA Most Valuable Player went off, firing 28 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks to tow the Filipinos to a thrilling 76-73 win over the gritty Thais.
Although the result wasn’t as lopsided as expected, Fernandez noted that the Thais had improved tremendously and may soon beat the Filipinos on the hard court.
“They are not the same team we used to know. They have improved tremendously,” Fernandez said, noting that some of the Thai cagers have cut their basketball teeth in the United States.
“Like us, there are also some Thai-American basketball players. Some of them even played in the NCAA Division I or the D League. We can no longer take them for granted.”
Gilas flirted with disaster, but still managed to escape after Nakorn Jaisanuk muffed a potential game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer.
Gilas are facing Cambodia at press time.
Fernandez heaved a sigh of relief before mentioning the player who caught his attention.
“June Mar, syempre. He was the key factor,” he said, beaming with pride.
“I hope he keeps up his good work.”