San Miguel Beermen star June Mar Fajardo continues to recover from a shin injury and is hopeful he is close to being able to walk without crutches.
"I can now walk. I think I can put 70 or 80 percent of my weight on my foot. Maybe next month, I can walk without crutches or walkers," he said in Filipino on '2OT', an online sports show.
It has been nearly a month since he appeared at the PBA season opener on a electric mobility scooter. Fajardo was there to receive a record sixth-straight Most Valuable Player award.
In '2OT', Fajardo also opened up about the origin of his shin injury, which he first aggravated with a stress fracture that forced him to miss a huge chunk of the second half of 2018.
"It was back in 2018, during the All-Filipino conference. I think I took an accidental kick and then it bruised. But I played through it," said Fajardo "It hurt, but I really didn't think of it. In the third conference, it felt really painful. So I had it checked, and they saw that hairline fracture."
The 6-foot-11 star went on to recuperate successfully and play all 61 games for San Miguel last season, where he averaged 18.9 points on 53.3 percent shooting, 13.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 blocks to help the Beermen clinch two titles in the first two conferences before falling short of clinching a Grand Slam in the season-ending tournament.
Fajardo said his massive workload with the Beermen and with Gilas Pilipinas contributed to the fracture and initially hid his injury from his parents until he successfully underwent operation a day later.
"I told my mom, my parents what happened after the operation when I was in the recovery room," he said. "After the operation, I decided to call them. When my mom answered, she was pretty lively. She asked me where I was and I told her I was just at home, resting from practice. But she heard some noises in the hospital room during the call and asked where I really was, so I told her the truth. Her voice changed quickly. She cried and couldn't speak, then she gave the phone to my dad, who also cried. They said they'd come visit me, but I told them not to because they'd only get stressed if they see me. I'd only get sadder if they were there."
After some tough nights in the early weeks of his journey through his rehabilitation stage, Fajardo said he is biding his time and keeping a positive outlook.
"I was really sad. I couldn't sleep for a while and I thought about what happened. But if you think about it, I've achieved a lot and this is what I got for now in exchange for that success: a year of rest. I just need to be positive. If we think about the negative, we'll attract the negative," said Fajardo. "It's not the end of my career. I'll be able to return, and at the same time I'll be able to rest my whole body too. ... The one year where I won't be able to play probably won't be that long. I still have years ahead of me."
Why he stayed in Cebu
During the show, Fajardo also explained why he spurned offers from Metro Manila-based schools and chose to stay with the University of Cebu
"When my game blossomed in the University of Cebu (UC) and when I improved, schools in Manila tried to recruit me," Fajardo shared. "They'd even visit me at my dorm."
His mentors at UC would even encourage him to take these offers. Fajardo, however, refused every time.
"It reached (team manager) Atty. (Baldomero) Estenzo and he called me up to (school owner) Atty. (Augusto) Go's office, and Atty. Estenzo explained the situation. Atty. Go said it would be good for me, the opportunity would be great for me because that's where the PBA is. I could get into the PBA easier there. But I said, 'No sir. This is where I started, and this is also where I'll finish.'"
To understand the six-time Most Valuable Player's decision to stay loyal to his alma mater, one would have to go back to 2007 during his days as a lanky 6-foot-5 fledgling that didn't spare one look at basketball as a future career.
"After graduating from high school, I was just supposed to look for a job. My mom's brother saw me and said I can try out because I'm tall. I could get a scholarship. So we went to Cebu City," he explained.
His first choice was the University of Southern Philippines Foundation (USPF), though UC would later field a more preferable offer and immediately took the 17-year-old Fajardo under its roof.
"(USPF) gave me a 50 percent discount in my scholarship. My dad talked to me and said 50 percent would be free, but we can't shoulder the rest. Someone then told my dad to try UC. So we went to UC. I did a walk-in tryout and they took me in immediately," he continued.
Fajardo played some basketball in elementary and high school, but he admitted that he wasn't by any means a prodigy in the making when he started training with UC.
"For two weeks, I practiced with the high school team and not with the collegiate team. I didn't have skills. I didn't really know a lot about basketball," he said. "They let me join scrimmages and I was only standing in the corner. I didn't head down the middle. I was very thin before. I was afraid of contact. So I just stood in the corner, asked for the ball and just threw up shots."
"They'd tell me to go to the middle but I'd say no because I might get hurt," Fajardo said with a laugh. "The high schoolers would even dunk, but I couldn't even reach the backboard then."
When he eventually began working out with the Webmasters, Fajardo would continue to discover the lengths of the team's patience and willingness to develop him as a better basketball player.
"In my first workout, I nursed a fever for almost two weeks after carrying a five-pound dumbell. It was light but it felt really heavy for me," he laughed. "And my trainers would tell me during bench press to think of Asi Taulava, Eric Menk, Danny Ildefonso. I told them I wouldn't reach that level, but they'd tell me otherwise."
"When I practiced with the collegiate team, they really taught me well. I'm really thankful for UC because if not for them and for the people who helped me develop, I wouldn't be where I am today," added Fajardo.
But what really won over Fajardo's loyalty was how UC management treated him when he injured his knee in his first year -- an injury the center thought would prematurely end his days with the university.
"We initially thought it was an ACL injury. It was really swollen in practice. It wasn't even my first year yet and I injured myself. I thought I'd have to go home to my province, because what else would I do there? I figured they wouldn't keep me because I was injured and I hadn't proven myself yet," he admitted.
"I was hospitalized for three weeks. I was supposed to undergo an operation in Cebu, but Atty. Estenzo said I shouldn't do it in Cebu because they'd have to open my knee. He told me to go to Manila."
Go decided quickly and referred Fajardo to famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. Raul Canlas, the same doctor who operated on the SMB's star's shin injury over two months ago.
"That's when I met Dr. Canlas, too," he said. "Dr. Canlas gave me some exercises and said if I do those, I wouldn't have to undergo any operations. I did those and avoided an operation. My knee was just strengthened."
"They really took care of me," Fajardo said of UC. "I said I'd stay in Cebu because that was where I started. I wanted to finish everything there. And they took care of me, I couldn't just jump ship just because I improved."
Fajardo would later lead UC to two CESAFI (Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc.) titles, win three straight MVP awards from 2009 to 2011 and head over to the Asean Basketball League (ABL) with the San Miguel Beermen before being drafted with Petron's first overall pick in the 2012 PBA Draft.