It had been nearly three years since I last watched Jio Fontan suit up for a college basketball game. Tuesday's game was 2,800 miles and three long seasons away from the 17 point performance I saw Fontan put up in one of the few wins during his brief but torturous stint as the point guard at Fordham University. Just 10 days later, he would lace up his sneakers for the final time as a Ram, announcing his intention to transfer following a 24-point drubbing at the hands of Cross-Bronx rival Manhattan College. That game would prove to be the end of coach Derek Whittenburg's disastrous tenure at the helm of the Fordham program as well. Good riddance to the both of them, it was thought.
Game #9-041: Long Beach State at Southern California TrojansNovember 13, 2012 9:30 pm
L.A. Sports Arena
Three years, a knee surgery that forced him to sit out all of the 2011-12 season, and a continent away, Tuesday night's contest between Southern Cal and Long Beach State was my personal time warp. I watched the schools play not as the teams they were that night, but rather as a gauge of the Trojan point guard's maturation. This game wasn't so much about the teams on the floor in front the sparse crowd at the Galen Center as it was a chance for me to wonder what could have been, an opportunity for me to judge the young man who had once been my classmate based upon my dashed and one-time unrealistic expectations.
For his part, Fontan outplayed the meager idea I had built in my head. Largely gone from his game were the repeated isolation plays that led to contested jumpers and drives into a crowded lane. He occasionally showed flashes of the poor decisions that had helped to shape my notion of him as a player and he was still clearly finding his game after missing last season, but it was obvious that his new role suited him. He looked every part the classic point guard, deferring to teammates for the most part on the offensive end and stopping the ball when Long Beach feebly attempted to set up something resembling a half-court offense.
My recollection of Jio the ballhog, a poor decision maker who played with little effort, proved largely inaccurate. As is generally the case in any facet of life, the hardened resentments of the past were colored much more by base and obnoxious emotion as opposed to any sort of logical assessment of genuine experience. Three years of recollections, tainted by disappointed fanhood, had turned the mistakes of a young point guard into evidence of a flawed character that would never amount to a truly great player. And while greatness may not be the word to describe the player I saw that night, he proved it certainly closer to reality than the image that had fomented in my memory. This reality fit the game I saw. The point guard for a team situated comfortably above the Red Line led a largely subdued effort as eleven Trojan players saw at least six minutes on the floor.
Despite a healthy contingent that had come north to show support, Long Beach never managed to look comfortable. A first half that featured continuous turnovers from Dan Monson's 49ers rarely seemed to faze the coach or his squad. They chucked threes with little conscience, seemingly pleased to be in the same gym as the men of Troy. Despite a meager five point spread at the break, it appeared to be only a matter of time before Kevin O'Neill's team caught up with his frantic pacing on the sidelines and the geriatrics that filled the courtside seats would be free to continue their business with only a passing glance at the game.
The second half bore this out, and the fewer than 4,000 Trojan faithful were pleased if not overly enthused. Players cycled off the bench and provided energy to a game that had been plodding along. After a brief flurry from the 49ers had managed to knot the score shortly after half, the host of Trojan reserves augmented the pace and their point totals in the process. The full yellow bodysuited man (at least what I believed to be a man) with contrasting black Speedo who had been leading the contingent from The Beach settled into his seat, and the only noise left in the building were the shouts and occasional offhand comments from PA Announcer Petros Papadakis. The trappings of the major conference life remained long after any other type of energy had drained from the building. The final seconds ticked away as the already thin crowd had largely filed out of the Galen Center. I sat, pleased by what I had seen. Long Beach had proven to be every bit the sacrificial lamb the crowd had expected, and for a night, the Red Line was anything but invisible. The major conference team did what they needed to for the win, and little else. But it wasn't just between the teams that the difference could be seen. In the former Fordham phenom, the difference was evident. The move from small gyms and lowly teammates in the to the trimmings of support and highly skilled teammates that came along with the big time suited Jio Fontan. His mistakes no longer seemed so glaring, his role no longer to do everything but simply to do enough. It was a luxury his new program's status afforded him, one that proved he was the player I'd expected him to be.
at SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 62, LONG BEACH STATE 44
LONG BEACH STATE 1-1 (0-0) -- M. Caffey 4-14 7-9 17; K. Gulley 2-4 0-0 6; J. Ennis 4-11 3-4 13; D. Jennings 1-4 3-8 5; N. Shepherd 0-0 0-0 0; K. Richardson 0-3 0-0 0; P. Pappageorge 1-4 0-0 3; D. Deng 0-2 0-0 0; G. Djuma 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-42 13-21 44.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 2-0 (0-0) -- E. Wise 4-10 2-3 10; J. Terrell 3-11 2-4 10; J. Fontan 1-7 2-2 5; O. Oraby 2-3 1-2 5; B. Wesley 3-4 0-0 6; D. Dedmon 4-6 0-0 8; A. Stewart 4-8 0-0 10; C. Bryan 2-2 0-0 4; G. Allen 0-2 0-0 0; A. Fuller 1-1 0-1 2; R. Woolridge 1-2 0-0 2; J. Blasczyk 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 7-12 62.
Three-point goals: LBSU 7-20 (P. Pappageorge 1-2; M. Caffey 2-7; J. Ennis 2-6; K. Gulley 2-4; D. Deng 0-1), USC 5-16 (J. Fontan 1-3; R. Woolridge 0-1; A. Stewart 2-4; J. Terrell 2-6; G. Allen 0-2); Rebounds: LBSU 29 (D. Jennings 9), USC 34 (E. Wise 12); Assists: LBSU 5 (M. Caffey 3), USC 16 (J. Fontan 4); Total Fouls -- LBSU 16, USC 18; Fouled Out: LBSU-None; USC-None.