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Commitment defines Fontan’s trek to USC

first_imgOn the night of April 9, 2007, thousands of fans crammed into the aging bleachers of the Fellowship House gymnasium for what was billed to be the greatest one-act play in the history of the Albert C. Donofrio Basketball Classic.The tournament, which aims to showcase the brightest hardwood talents in the Philadelphia-South New Jersey area, became a one-night spectacle with lines out the door and boisterous crowds unseen in the history of the annual Conshohocken, Pa., event.In what was to be his final exhibition before making a decision as to where he would play at the collegiate level, McDonalds’ All-American Tyreke Evans was scheduled to take the court in the tournament’s matchup of nationally recognized AAU teams, which pitted Team Final against the Playaz.Just hours before tip-off and 100 miles away from the jam-packed arena, the St. Anthony Friars were informally training at an after school open gym session, when future Trojan and then-junior guard Jio Fontan received a call from his club coach presenting him with the rare opportunity to compete against the top-ranked guard in the country, Evans.Without hesitation, Fontan — the MVP of the Playaz’ 2007 Spring Fling tournament title — made the two-hour trek down the I-95 Freeway, understanding that a one-on-one matchup with Evans was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to prove that he was more than just another member of legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley’s latest crop of talent.Growing up as the chubby kid in his neighborhood, Fontan was groomed to play point guard with two pivotal skill sets: defense and ball handling.So as he watched Evans torch him in the first half of their unanticipated showdown, what originally appeared to be the unique privilege of trying to shut down the future NBA first-round draft pick quickly transformed into a two-player, “anything you can do, I can do better” offensive routine.In spite of his inability to contain Evans at the defensive end, Fontan redefined the flow of the game offensively and ultimately won over a startled crowd which largely forgot what it came to see in the first place.The Evans-led Team Final would end up victorious at the conclusion of the fast-paced, affair, 109-102, but the buzz exiting the doors of the gymnasium had little to do with the final outcome or even the 29 points and 12 rebounds Evans poured in.Fontan, despite the six inches and 40 pounds he lacked in comparison with his opposition, had managed to go toe-to-toe with Evans with a rather workman-like style of opposition to the tune of 29 points.“It definitely was one of my biggest performances,” Fontan said. “At the end of the game I just got a lot of publicity for it, and a lot of attention from fans, a lot of feedback from the coaches on the opposite side. It made me feel like I could go out there and compete with anybody.”Still, though that night was more or less the Fontan coming-out party, over the last three years the journeys of the two top-flight prospects have veered in vastly different directions.One week after their night to remember, Evans announced he was taking his talents to the University of Memphis. In 2008, 11 games into his freshman year, Evans became John Calipari’s starting point guard en route to the Tigers’ second-straight perfect season. The Tigers would lose in the Sweet Sixteen, but not before Evans turned heads as a 2009 National Player of the Year candidate.Two weeks later he announced he would forgo his final three years with dreams of the NBA on his mind. The Sacramento Kings granted his lifelong wish four picks into the NBA Draft, and he rewarded them in his rookie season last year averaging 20 points, five assists and five rebounds per game. His prolific first season in the association would be highlighted with the 2009-2010 Rookie of the Year Award.Fontan followed up his newfound success by captaining the 2007-2008 Friars to a perfect 32-0 season, a New Jersey state championship and the overall No. 1 ranking in the USA Today Top 25 poll.But unlike Evans, his high school exploits were not received in the same manner by universities across the country. The No. 7 ranked player in New Jersey was forced to settle on a scholarship offer from the lowly Fordham Rams of the Atlantic-10.As the centerpiece in the program’s rebounding process, Fontan blossomed from the start, leading the abysmal 4-29 team in scoring (15.3 points per game) and in assists (132 on the season) in 2008.Last season, after just six games of futility, Fontan — who was averaging more than 15 points and four assists per game — simply had enough. No longer was being a big fish in a small pond sufficient for the young man.Although Fontan took a backseat as the ball-handler during his days at St. Anthony’s — as he played alongside Pittsburgh’s Travon Woodall and Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor — getting thrust into the limelight as Fordham’s only legitimate playmaker simply wasn’t enough to satiate the competitor inside the Rams’ only silver lining.So he decided to look elsewhere.And much to the delight of Trojan fans, USC was at the top of the 20-year-old’s list last December when it came time to make a decision.But where most impressionable, college-aged males would be impressed by the California girls, sandy beaches and nightlife scene that conveniently plays as a backdrop to USC’s campus, Fontan’s decision was inspired by a much deeper motivation — his family.“Family is the biggest thing to me,” Fontan said. “I think that’s what makes me such a great player — because I play every game with the mentality that I am doing this for my family, my little brother and little sister. I want to give them the life that is as least stressful as possible, a better life than I had.”And while his pursuit of a better life should be received with open arms, if you are expecting a savior by way of transfer, his addition on the court will sadly leave your ill-advised expectations unfulfilled.He doesn’t come from a powerhouse program as senior forward Alex Stepheson did. He doesn’t possess the sheer speed of former point guard Mike Garrity, or the all-around polish of former point guard Gabe Pruitt. But there is one aspect he is far advanced in even before he takes the floor for the first time against the Kansas Jayhawks on Dec. 18 — disciplined strength.It is the type of strength that is not defined by his unimposing frame, but in the fearless yet composed way in which he bodies up on the defensive end or drives to the basket regardless of who intends to impede his progress.It is strength that can be found in the gregarious, unwavering smile with which he cheers on his teammates, despite the impending eight-game hiatus he will be forced to take at the beginning of USC’s season starting next month.And it is this strength that keeps the dream alive — that the whirlwind, cross-country path along which Fontan’s promising career continues to travel will one day end with a fitting rematch against the budding superstar Evans.“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at [email protected]last_img

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