San Miguel welcomes back June Mar for Philippine Cup

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Coach Leo Austria expects June Mar Fajardo to regain his bearings as the season progresses. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

June Mar Fajardo, the Philippine Basketball Association’s only six-time Most Valuable Player, is looking more and more like himself.

“Physically, I can see that he is 100 percent of his old self,” coach Leo Austria told the Inquirer over the phone, minutes after wrapping up practice Tuesday night in Batangas.

Fajardo was out all of last year because of a broken shin, and the Beermen fell in their defense of the Philippine Cup in the Pampanga bubble with Barangay Ginebra winning over TNT in the title series.

With Fajardo back, Austria believes he has the best center in the league once again—and the nucleus that sowed fear on the opposition in the last decade.

“I just feel that he needs to gain [the same] emotional and spiritual state [as the last time he played],” Austria went on. “That’s the only thing that is missing from him right now. In the nine weeks that we have been practicing, I have seen nothing wrong with him physically.”

San Miguel won five straight Philippine Cups with a healthy Fajardo.

Fajardo’s injury became one of the driving narratives of the previous season. Without Fajardo, fans and pundits alike wrote off the Beermen, anointing teams like the start-studded TNT and seasoned Barangay Ginebra squads as successors to San Miguel’s five-year reign in the Philippine Cup.

But even without Fajardo, San Miguel held its ground in last year’s compressed All-Filipino, amassing a 7-4 record playing with ailing stars. The torturous schedule and nagging injuries, however, wore down the team’s core, rendering the squad depleted against a younger and hungrier Meralco side in the playoffs.

Back in May, fans were treated to a clip of Fajardo knocking down shots from the post. No less than Austria was feeding him the ball during the shootaround.

“One thing positive we got from the prolonged lockdowns and restrictions is that players were able to heal properly,” team manager Gee Abanilla said. “I’m happy to note that June Mar [Fajardo], Terrence [Romeo], Mo [Taututaa], Alex [Cabagnot], Chris [Ross], and the rest of the guys are healing very well.”

“Time surely mended our injuries without [us] resorting to any quick-fix [solutions],” said Abanilla. Sure, a healthy roster should lift the spirits within the camp. But Abanilla is also aware that much of that remains to be seen.

One thing Austria is certain of, however, is that after a few games into the season, he will again have the best pure center this league has ever seen.

“Give him a few games into the season and he will be back to his old form,” Austria said. “He’s still the best, most dominant player in the league.”

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