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 overseas. 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 University 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 a friend who was always youthful at heart. Fletcher, 46, died Nov. 16 after a fall at home.
Sellitto was a waterfall of tears 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 could not 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 of 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."
Fletcher and his coach often went to lunch, once 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 did not give up hope when Fletcher went from Maryknoll to Creighton University. Staying in touch with Fletcher via Sellitto, Lopes was pleased when the big man decided to transfer back to Chaminade.
"He was the toughest guy I ever had. By tough, I mean he didn’t say a word. 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 sportscaster 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 Chaminade, 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 anchorman 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 ball boy. He was not 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 has not 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 warm-ups 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 spark plug 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 three years ago in a motorcycle accident.
Ben Valle, a former standout Spartan player, 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. Once when Valle arrived at 6 a.m. to open the gym, he reached for his gym key. His key chain broke and keys went flying everywhere.
"I could see Fran doing something like that to me, just to (anger me)," Valle said, laughing. "I’ll miss him."