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Jio Fontan to make his USC debut versus Kansas

USC BASKETBALL

The junior guard had to sit out a year after transferring from Fordham. Regarded by Coach Kevin O'Neill as the Trojans' best player, Fontan is a tenacious defender and a leader.

December 17, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

Reporting from Lawrence, Kan. — That familiar face. The one in a class. The USC student swore he'd seen it before.

"You're Jio Fontan, from Fordham?" he asked.

Why yes, the USC junior guard thought. Always nice to meet a basketball fan. Only Fontan soon learned he'd met a fan from the movie he was in, not from the game he plays.

Figures, Fontan thought. It's L.A. "Everybody's a star out here," he said, laughing.

He'd rather be known for hoops, not the PBS documentary about his New Jersey high school. He just hasn't had a chance to make an impression, sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules since transferring to USC in January.

On Saturday he gets his chance when the Trojans play at No. 3 Kansas (9-0) and the newly eligible Fontan will start and play in his first game in more than a year.

And if he lives up to half the hype dished out by USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, Fontan will be known for more than just a movie. O'Neill calls Fontan his best player and leader.

"He's going to lift our team up a couple more levels, just by his presence, his ability, his leadership," O'Neill said.

How timely then that Fontan joins the Trojans (6-4) as they enter Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks have won 64 straight games.

Fontan hears about that streak often from his former high school teammate, Jayhawks junior guard Tyshawn Taylor. Fontan said: "He'll say, 'I hope you play good, but we don't lose at home.'"

But Fontan is just happy to play. He hasn't done so since Nov. 29, 2009. He's so excited, he has barely slept.

To cope, he treated practices like games, going full-bore all the time. "He gets a lot of us ready for the games because we have to go against him," freshman guard Bryce Jones said.

A New Jersey native, Fontan fits the East Coast guard mold: rugged and physical, sharp ball-handling skills, quick with a strong jumper. For all his skills, his coaches and teammates say leadership is his best trait.

"The thing about Jio, everything he says, people listen," senior guard and captain Marcus Simmons said.

Added O'Neill: "I've been coaching basketball for 30 years, and, unless I'm completely out of my mind, he's going to be the best leader I've ever coached."

Fontan developed as a leader in Paterson, N.J., where, in the oft-repeated narrative for those from inner-city ghettos, he learned basketball could help him escape the streets.

"Seeing me grow up" helped Jio, admits his father, Jorge, 36, who was 15 when Jio was born. Jorge twice served prison sentences on drug-related charges.

At St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, under legendary coach Bob Hurley Sr., Jio Fontan's undefeated senior season was the focus of the PBS documentary "The Street Stops Here."

"He was a pleasure to coach, zero maintenance as a player," said Hurley, who added that during the three seasons Fontan started for the Friars they lost only one game. "His life was not easy, but you never saw him complain."

Several colleges recruited Fontan, but he chose nearby Fordham in the Bronx, N.Y.

Fontan had a solid freshman season (15.3 points, 4.7 assists, Atlantic-10 Conference All-Rookie Team honors). But after Fordham's 4-29 record, and a coaching change in fewer than two seasons, he wanted out.

Fontan could have left the college game for good when, the summer before, he received six-figure offers to play abroad while on the Puerto Rico Under-19 National Team. But Fontan turned them down, believing he needed college to mature.

USC, which signed him over Tennessee, Miami and several Pacific 10 Conference schools, including UCLA, needed him even more. Fontan will anchor a young backcourt, especially for freshman point guard Maurice Jones. "It's going to be a lot easier with Jio on the court," Jones said.

The 6-foot, soft-spoken Fontan, can play both guard spots and, O'Neill said, he's the team's best defender.

USC will need every bit of him against Kansas, which Saturday debuts guard Josh Selby, a highly touted freshman who is eligible after an NCAA suspension tied to receiving improper benefits.

O'Neill believes Fontan will spark USC much like Mike Gerrity did last season, when the transfer guard became eligible in December and helped fuel an eight-game winning streak. "Jio eats, sleeps basketball," O'Neill said.

The pair can sit in O'Neill's office and talk basketball for hours. But Fontan has done enough sitting.

Finally, he can play.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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