The only thing bigger than 6-foot-7 Francis Fletcher was his heart.
Oh, there were the accolades. All-State championship player. Undersized, but highly effective college pivot. Pro baller. Superb recruiter.
But what former teammates and friends remembered most about Fletcher were memories not so well-known outside his basketball family. The practical jokes. Always a friend in times of need. Equally adept at returning an elbow or a hug, depending on the situation.
The basketball community at Maryknoll, Chaminade and Hawaii Pacific gathered yesterday morning at Maryknoll’s Clarence T.C. Ching Gymnasium to mourn and celebrate the life of Fletcher, a friend, brother and son in spirit.
From his high school coach, Tony Sellitto, to former teammates like Ben Valle and Ricky Leong, there was no getting over the loss of someone so young was barely fathomable for a a friend who was always youthful at heart. Fletcher, 46, died after a fall at home on Nov. 16.
Sellitto was a waterfall of tears often yesterday, talking with former players and friends about Fletcher. He credited Fletcher with landing his key big men as an assistant coach during HPU’s glorious run in the 1990s. Still, he couldn’t help recalling the often hilarious times they shared in a coach-player relationship.
“One day, he came late to practice. I was furious because we were in the state tournament. He said, ‘Coach, I was riding my motorcycle and I had my jersey on the handlebars to dry off, and it flew off and it’s on the side of the highway. “I yelled, Francis, I’m so sick and tired your excuses. So then we get on the bus and go to Farrington’s gym to play, and he says, “Look, look!’ and his shirt is there on the side of the highway.
Every time something happened and he told me an outlandish story, which I didn’t know if was true, he never lied to me. I wish people would understand he was just an outstanding player and a great guy.”
Fletcher and his coach often went to lunch, one or twice a month, to catch up with each other.
“He always took care of me, made sure I was OK. It’s going to be hard without him,” Sellitto said.
Then-Chaminade coach Merv Lopes didn’t give up hope when Fletcher went from Maryknoll to Creighton University. Staying in touch with Fletcher via Sellitto, Lopes was stoked when the big man decided to transfer to back home, landing at Chaminade.
“He was the toughest guy I ever had. By tough, I mean he didn’t say a world. He gave you every little bit he had. He would never do any talking. He just played hard,” Lopes said. “His thing was to get on the board, fight for every rebound and be the best defensive big man we ever had. If I had a chance to talk to him, I’d say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I enjoyed every second I had with him.”
Back then, former KGMB sports anchor Neil Everett was also the sports information director at HPU, eventually working for Sellitto (who became basketball coach and athletic director). When Fletcher returned home to play for CU, Everett was a begrudging observer.
“When he was at Chaminade, I couldn’t stand him because he was so good,” said Everett, who flew in from his job as an ESPN anchor to deliver the eulogy. “He was so ugly being so good. When Tony Sellitto got the Hawaii Pacific job, I was able to get to know Francis and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. A real gentle giant.”
While his older brothers played on Maryknoll’s varsity squad, Fletcher was a ballboy. He wasn’t the tallest kid during those intermediate-school years.
“When I played with Francis, I was taller than he was, then he kept growing and growing and got better and better,” said Howard Komine, who graduated with Fletcher in 1982, not long after the Spartans finished second in the state for a second year in a row. “I remember those elbows. I still got a few dents on my body. Frannie was a good boy. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Up-and-comers like Kelly Grant and Mike Among were two years younger, helping Sellitto capture a state crown in ‘84. Grant went on to coach with Fletcher under Sellitto at HPU before leading Kaimuki to a state championship in 2007. Among, a standout in hoops and volleyball, is now boys volleyball coach at ‘Iolani, and he hasn’t forgotten those physical practices.
“Coach told Dominic Ostrowski and I to just hammer him, jump on his back, knock him down if we could,” Among recalled. “As much as we beat him up, he never once retaliated. Coach said, ‘He won’t hit you back.’ He played right through it. It was a great lesson to me, don’t let things bother you. Frannie was great.”
Ranier Villa was a year younger than Fletcher, who often would lighten the mood in warmups by hoisting Villa up to the rim so the guard could dunk with ease.
“He was a real strong, respectful guy,” Villa said. “There were times when we played OIA schools, they wanted to take out Frannie because he was the big, tall, haole guy. He pretty much stood his ground and never retaliated.
Ricky Leong was a standout guard during the rise of Maryknoll’s program. As a floor leader, he and Fletcher often razzed each other, the sparkplug guard constantly challenging his big man to do more.
“I’d tell him, ‘If I was 6-7, I’d dunk it every single time,’ “ Leong said.
Beyond the on-court competition, Leong had Fletcher’s back, and Fletcher stood by his feisty point guard.
“Now he’s in a good place and I’ve got two brothers up there,” Leong said in the video portion of the memorial service, referring to Fletcher and Blaise Villa, who died in a motorcycle accident three years ago.
Ben Valle, a former standout Spartan player, never lost touch with his roots. He coached along with Fletcher at HPU and is the dean of students at Maryknoll.
“I got to know him coaching the last two years at HPU. That’s been a really special time for me. He was always a practical joker and always acting silly as a big kid, but I never realized how big his heart was. My car stalled, he’d be there. I needed tools, he got me tools. I needed my big-screen TV installed, he came and helped me. He was always giving of his time,” Valle said.
Valle will even miss his old friend’s sneaky sense of humor. When Valle arrived at 6 a.m. to open the gym, he reached for his gym key. His keychain broke and keys went flying everywhere.
“I could see Fran doing something like that to me, just to piss me off,” Valle said, laughing. “I’ll miss him.”
By Paul Honda, firstname.lastname@example.org