In the Ish: First Rule of Fight Club

This article appears in SLAM #216, available now in Titan outlets and major bookstores

Talk about it. Talk about how Christian Standhardinger, among many others, find the answers they seek, flying around Southeast Asia, changing the way we know and understand basketball, one ASEAN season at a time.

By Paolo del Rosario

In the heart of a private subdivision in Metro Manila, the San Miguel Beermen were being put through their paces after what had been an underwhelming start to the PBA mid-season conference.

The defending champions are off to an 0-3 start in the Commissioner’s Cup, and worked hard on integrating Filipino-German standout Christian Standhardinger and returning import Renaldo Balkman into their war machine.

Despite the slow start from Standhardinger and the inability of Balkman to help secure a victory for the Beermen upon his return, there is no questioning their pedigree.

If anybody wants to doubt their value, they should take a quick look at the damage they caused in the recently-concluded ABL season.

Some might brush off their time in the ABL as a footnote in Standhardinger and Balkman’s careers, but to them it was a proving ground to show that they deserve all the plaudits sent their way.

Standhardinger was drafted as the top pick of the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft by San Miguel, but suited up for the Hong Kong Eastern Sports Club in the ABL first.

For the Hong Kong-based outfit, Standhardinger put up per game numbers of 22.5 points and 11.8 rebounds. Unfortunately for the Filipino-German big man, his team fell to Alab Pilipinas in the semifinals of the tournament.

Despite falling short, Standhardinger had nothing but the highest praises to say about his first foray into professional basketball in Asia.

“It was great, it was the first experience I had playing in Asia,” Standhardinger said. “I think I can use some of that experience to improve my game.”

But Standhardinger, who likened the ABL style of play to that of the European basketball he has grown accustomed to, has a lot to get used to.

Standhardinger, as he expresses his love for the ABL-style, admits that he is still adjusting to the PBA game, calling the Filipino league’s brand of basketball physical and tough to play in.

“Similarities (between the PBA and European basketball) is that you have a basketball and that you try to get it to the rim,” Standhardinger said. “How you play in Europe, how you play in the PBA is like two different sports. It’s like street ball and normal basketball.”

Talking about the ABL, Standhardinger says the ASEAN league is a great venue for players to show that they can play professional basketball at a high level.

“I think it is a good platform to showcase your talent,” Standhardinger said. “It’s good to show the teams, ‘Hey, I am here, I am a good basketball player. Take a look at me!’”

Fans and teams all around the region definitely took notice of Standhardinger when he hit his season high 40 points and gobbled up 17 rebounds for Eastern Sports Club against Mono Vampire in December.

Standhardinger’s point of the ABL being a place to showcase talent is personified by the rise of Paul Zamar.

Zamar signed with the Blackwater Elite in the PBA after a productive showing with ABL finalists Mono Vampire, where he logged in 16.2 points through 45 percent shooting in 29 games.

That was enough to propel the former UE Red Warrior to take the leap he had been waiting years to make.

Zamar made his debut in the PBA soon after the conclusion of the ABL season, six years after he was left unsigned in the 2012 PBA Draft.

No way would that have happened without the ABL.

Meanwhile, for players like Balkman, his time in the ABL wasn’t just about showing the world what he can do.

The Puerto Rican swingman knows he is talented, and his stint with Alab Pilpinas in the ABL gave him the answers that he had been searching for in what was a tough 2017 for himself.

“I think people don’t realize or understand is that 2017 was one of the worst years of my life,” Balkman bared. “The reason I say that is because I had a knee injury. A lot of people didn’t know that I had surgery on my left knee, and it took me 10 to 11 months to get back on the court.”

The former NBA vet revealed that he is recovering from surgery on his left patella, and displayed the scar as a result of the operation.

Despite the injury, Balkman shined for Alab Pilipinas, posting gaudy numbers of 24.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 blocks per contest on the way to a championship.

Not bad for a return to professional basketball after almost a year away from the game.

“People that knew me, people that were around me, people that knew I had the injury would be like “Yo, he is never going to be the same,” Balkman said. “But I worked my ass off to be on the court.”

Balkman shared that he had a long conversation with his doctor before getting the go signal to play professionally once again.

The former New York Knick could have played in his native Puerto Rico, but opted to play in South East Asia instead.

“When I took that job in the ABL, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Balkman admitted. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I just trusted God and went out there and played every game.”

If the ABL was a place for others to show the world what they can do on the court, for Balkman it was a place to prove to himself that he still had it.

“I didn’t care about everybody else,” Balkman shared. “Because when you got an injury like that it’s either you come back strong and better, or you come back worse and you fell off.”

“Balkman, is he still that guy that can play high intensity basketball? I didn’t know that,” he added.

After finding his rhythm with Alab Pilipinas, Balkman believes that he has found that confidence that made him the player he once was again.

The ABL represented a journey of rediscovery for Balkman, who came out of it with renewed vigor and a deeper respect and appreciation for the game itself.

“I can go out there and I know I can play high intensity basketball, but my whole thing was, when I came back to the game after my injury was that I am going to be a different player than I was before,” Balkman said. “Right now I am showing that on the court.”

Summarizing his time in the ABL, Balkman said he enjoyed his time there and jokingly called out league COO Jericho Ilagan for allegedly stealing a couple of individual awards from him.

“Hey Jericho, this is for you! You robbed me for a couple trophies man, but it’s all good!” Balkman said with a mischievous grin.

Balkman scored 30 points per game in the Finals series against Mono Vampire, going off for 32 markers and nine rebounds in the series clinching Game 5. Safe to say, he still has it.

He had his questions, about him, about his career. And the answers, he found them in Southeast Asian Basketball.

Standhardinger and Balkman clearly had different motivations in taking their talents around the ASEAN region. What is clear though is that the ABL has become a standard, a bar upon which to measure one’s self, a way to find out whether or not a player can truly play with some of the best in world.

For the former NBA player, the ABL gave him the confidence to continue playing the game at the highest level.

For the Gilas Pilipinas big man, it gave him a place to put his ability to dominate on display.

For the once-forgotten former college standout, it gave him a second chance, the break every great movie athlete gets.

Different routes, different intentions, but the paths merge and lead to the future. It is a future that is determined only by what you invest, what you give back to the game, what you surrender to the craft.

The ABL, whether it’s your first or final stop in your career, proves one thing: the answers you seek, are there.