BY now, June Mar Fajardo is easily the most recognized basketball player in the country, and it's not entirely because of his size. The gentle giant from Cebu has distinguished himself as the best of the best in this basketball-mad nation, his greatness no longer measured through contemporaries but through legendary big men that came before him. Even before the year when he won a historic fifth straight MVP in the PBA and solidified his stature in the Gilas Pilipinas program, he was already an easy choice as the 2017 SPIN.ph Sportsman of the Year.
The usual image you see of Fajardo these days is of the unstoppable 6-foot-10, 270-lb. force powering past two, three defenders and laying the ball in from point-blank range. But that wasn't always the case for the late-blooming San Miguel Beer star who admitted he used to struggle with light weights early in his varsity career with University of Cebu.
"May mga times na nagwo-work out kami tapos after buhat ko ng dumbbell na five pounds lang, kinabukasan nilagnat ako," Fajardo recalled with a hearty laugh.
In between rigid drills at the UC Webmasters' practice, Fajardo's trainers would motivate him by mentioning the names of then PBA superstars Asi Taulava, Erik Menk, and Danny Ildefonso and their collection of individual accolades.
The kid was incredulous.
"'Yung coach namin parang sinasabi nya sa akin pag bench press, 'Isipin mo si Asi Taulava, Eric Menk, or Danny Ildefonso yan," Fajardo revealed. "Parang natatawa lang ako, sabi ko, 'Imposible naman 'yan, parang sobrang layo na nun.'"
We all know that Fajardo is so close to his mother that he once unabashedly wore a shirt with the words, 'Mama's boii' emblazoned on it, but only a few know that his dad Bonifacio had as big an impact both on his life and career.
Back when he was still trying out for a spot at UC's varsity lineup, Fajardo revealed that his father made the ultimate sacrifice of quitting his job at a furniture company just so he could accompany his son to the team's daily practice for a little over a month.
"Grabe yung sakripisyo ng papa ko," he said. "Nung may practices kami na mali-mali ginagawa ko tapos nakikita ko yung papa ko sa side na parang napapailing sya, sa isip n'ya siguro, 'Sana ako na lang andyan' kasi marunong mag-basketball papa ko e, ako hindi."
In the instances when he thought about throwing in the towel because the rigorous training at UC was taking its toll on a body that was only used to playing billards, his dad's sacrifice - and his desire not to let it be in vain - kept the kid going.
"May mga times na gusto ko na mag-give up pero pag nakikita ko papa ko, naiisip ko na bakit ako mag-give up? Papa ko nga ginive up lahat para lang samahan ako sa tryouts, then ako susuko sa kanya?" he recalled.
"Para lang mabayaran ko yung sakripisyo n'ya, kailangan ko makuha yung scholarship. Kasi yun lang gusto nya e. Sabi n'ya nga, kahit Team B lang ako sa varsity basta full scholarship. Papa ko talaga 'yung nagbibigay sa akin ng inspirasyon."
Fajardo said he would have likely ended up as a farmer or construction worker in his hometown of Pinamungahan, Cebu had he not become a basketball player.
"Kung wala ako sa basketball hindi ko alam ... kasi pag nasa probinsiya ka, normally ang hahantungan mo lang naman magsasaka, mangingisda, or construction worker," he said.
"Sobrang hirap ng buhay sa probinsiya. Naranasan ko na lahat ng hirap. Pero sobrang blessed namin sa parents namin. Kahit mahirap kami, yung parents namin di talaga kami pinabayaan," he added, his eyes seemingly ready to leak like a busted faucet anytime.
Now that he has made it big, he draws his biggest pleasure from being able to help his parents live comfortably. His family now owns a hogs feeds business in Cebu run by his father.
"Gusto lang namin makita na maayos buhay ng pamilya ko, yung pag-uwi ko ng probinsya stable na buhay nila. Financially di na nila masyado iniisip. Masaya na rin ako pag nakita ko silang masaya," he said, beaming with pride.
At 29, Fajardo has already won five MVPs - the only one to win as many, and the first in the PBA's 43 years to win them consecutively - as well as six championships. It's safe to say he's bound to win some more before he calls it a career.
Here are the other awards in his collection: two-time Finals MVP, seven-time Best Player of the Conference, seven-time All-Star, five-time Mythical First team member, 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-Defensive team member, 2013 All-Rookie team member, 2018 Order of Merit co-winner, two-time Sportsmanship award recipient, and 2014 Most Improved Player, two-time Cesafi champion, three-time Cesafi MVP, and four-time Philippine Sportswriters Association Mr. Basketball, among other accolades.
But if there's one he fancies more than anything else, it's a grand slam.
The humble big man couldn't help but wonder how achieving the feat would make him feel after seeing his pal and former Gilas teammate Marc Pingris cry unabashedly after San Mig Coffee (now Magnolia) pulled off the rare treble back in 2014.
"Yung grand slam pinapangarap ko," he told SPIN.ph. "Sobrang sarap siguro ng feeling nun, gusto ko maramdaman yun."
The way his career is going, that's not far-fetched.