Above: Renaissance Academy’s Vince De Guzman, left, and teammate/best friend Troy Fontanilla.
By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
Vince De Guzman spent more time on the court shooting hoops with his father Napoleon than anywhere else.
The senior guard from Renaissance Academy and his father were virtually inseparable.
Then came last June when a special bond was broken.
De Guzman and his father had just finished watching the NBA Finals. Neither of their favorite teams – Vince for the Lakers and Napoleon for the Celtics – made the finals, but it was basketball after all; the only sport that came close to their love for each other.
When the game ended, Napoleon went out to walk the dog. He almost didn’t make it back. Napoleon began feeling ill and was rushed to the hospital by his wife, Carol. De Guzman, the responsible eldest son, stayed back to care for his brothers, Jarod, 14, and Christian, 10.
Napoleon had suffered a heart attack, and a week later, at the young age of 54, Napoleon was dead.
“He was my coach,” De Guzman said. “He helped turn me into the player that I am today.
It’s that memory De Guzman will take with him as he leads top-seeded Renaissance Academy against Cal Lutheran at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the CIF-Southern Section Division 6 championship game at Mater Dei High.
No 17-year-old is ever prepared to lose his father, much less being thrust into the new role as man of the house.
But De Guzman, a 5-foot-9 guard who averages 14.1 points per game, was taught the values of hard work and dedication, and assuming responsibility all but came natural for him. He muscled the courage and strength to carry on; emotionally when channeling for his father’s spirit and physically when he faced opposing players who were as tall as 6-10. He scored 24 points against El Camino, the L.A. City Section Division 2 finalist.
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“I know I can count on him,” Renaissance Academy coach Sid Cooke said. “He does all the intangibles of the little things you want to see done. He just battles because he has a lot of heart.”
De Guzman – who also weathered a storm last year when his grandfather Ignacio underwent open heart surgery – inherited the fighting spirit from his father.
“He prepared me for that,” De Guzman said, his voice cracking and fighting to hold back a flood of tears.
He needs a moment. The memories difficult to bring up knowing he can’t re-live them with his father, if only for mere seconds.
“It’s hard,” said Niko Fontanilla, father of senior guard Troy Fontanilla. “As a parent you prepare your child as best you can. I knew Napoleon really well. He gave everything and made a lot of sacrifices for his son for what he himself didn’t have in his life growing up.”
Napoleon was an accounting manager at Double Tree Inn. He also was the junior varsity coach at Renaissance Academy. The perk of the job? Not the stipend, but valuable time watching his son hit the court.
De Guzman considered himself a gym rat, just one of many undeniable traits he emulated from his father.
De Guzman left Renaissance Academy after his sophomore year. He returned for his senior season after his father passed. What De Guzman longed for was the team unity and friendship he formed starting in the eighth grade with Troy, a senior guard and one of three captains along with De Guzman.
A strong friendship evolved to brotherhood.
“This has definitely brought us closer,” Troy says. “We’ve been hanging out a lot. I’m just trying to be there emotionally for him.”
De Guzman and Troy have now become inseparable, and Niko wouldn’t have it any other way.
When he looks at his boys – yes, his boys – Niko can’t help but think, even thank, Napoleon because in his heart Niko knows Napoleon would have done the same for Troy, who averages six points and four assists.
“I look at him as one of my own,” Niko says. “He’s kind of like my semi-adopted child.”
That the families share the same Filipino culture has helped ease the transition, and now more than ever they embody the Mabuhay Spirit: You give everything and you give it happily.
When De Guzman seeks courage he just has to look in one direction, his mother Carol a pillar of strength through it all.
“She’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever … ” said De Guzman, his voice trailing off before composing himself. “She’s been strong throughout everything.”
Renaissance Academy at 23-6 is considered the heavy favorite to bring home a CIF-SS title and make a deep run in the CIF State playoffs. The Wildcats have recorded some of the most lopsided wins through their run up to the finals.
The season wasn’t the only dedication made in honor of Napoleon.
From every win, every half to every quarter and every huddle:
“Napoleon on three … 1-2-3, Napoleon!”