This article appears in SLAM 214, out now in all Titan outlets and major bookstores.
He’s choking how, everybody’s joking now.
He was told never to come back. Except he is back.
Here we go it’s his shot. Renaldo, fail us not.
By Yoyo Sarmenta
When Renaldo Balkman recalls the incident that robbed him of his Philippine basketball career, he does so with great calm and brutal honesty. It’s been five years since it happened and by now, he’s gotten used to the questions, the skepticism and the judgment. He’s aware that it’s become the elephant in the room wherever he goes. He knows that fans are still curious about it. At times, he can’t help but laugh at the number of times people bring it up.
What happened back then? What went through your head? How did you find yourself back in the Philippines?
These familiar questions were asked as Balkman was cooling down at the indoor basketball gym on the fourth floor of Alphaland City Club in Makati. Practice just ended for the Tanduay Alab Pilipinas of the ASEAN Basketball League and Balkman was simply telling it how it is.
“Man…,” he began with a huge sigh, his voice trailing off.
It was a PBA Commissioner’s Cup game between the Alaska Aces and the Petron Blaze Boosters back in 2013 when Balkman’s career changed forever.
The game was practically decided in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter when Balkman shot an air ball. Looking for a foul on his errant shot, the 6-foot-8 hulking forward then proceeded to hunt down one referee after the other. As he walked around the court trying to find out why no foul was called, he pushed aside assistant coach Biboy Ravanes. By the time Balkman was confronting the third official, teammate Ronald Tubid stood in his way, hoping to stop his import from doing any more damage. Balkman then pushed Tubid aside.
Arwind Santos, the alpha dog of that Petron team, tried to reason with his big man but that only resulted in a pushing contest between the two. When Santos pushed back, all hell broke loose.
Balkman grabbed Santos by the neck and tried to strangle his own teammate. Utter shock and disbelief enveloped the entire arena as well as all the PBA fans glued to their TV sets. It’s absurd to think that someone would try to choke another player in a basketball game, let alone a guy with the same jersey on.
“I know what happened like it was yesterday. I kinda blacked out a little bit,” Balkman admitted. “I watched videos and all that.”
The aftermath of the incident was well-documented by local and international news outlets. After all, Balkman is a former NBA player plus a member of the Puerto Rican national team. He fervently apologized to Santos and the rest of his teammates. He regretted what happened and said all the right things. He even appeared with Santos on live TV a couple of days after the incident to address what happened.
The PBA, however, still decided to put the hammer down on him. On top of paying a hefty fine, Balkman was slapped with a lifetime ban from the league.
What people might not know was how hard it was for Balkman to find a job after what happened.
“That kinda hurt my career a little bit. Playing overseas basketball and basketball up here. People still look at that incident and judge me from what I’ve done in my past,” he relayed, sharing that Alab became his first job in Asia since the incident. “It was a problem getting a job over here again. I couldn’t get [a] job in Asia,”
He bounced around various teams since getting banned from the PBA. He went to Latin America to play in Venezuela and Puerto Rico for a handful of games. He tried going back to the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks before getting waived in less than a month. He also had short stints with Mexico, the NBA D-League, and the Dominican Republic. Since playing in the Philippines for Petron, he went through seven organizations before landing a spot in Alab.
“It was always in the back of my head that I wanna come back over here and play. When? I can’t tell you when but I knew it was gonna be soon,” he went on, “I’m taking full advantage of what’s going on right now that they gave me a second chance.”
And that second chance came in the form of a former opponent and a friend.
“We were getting ready for the (2014) World Cup and some guys were out having dinner,” Alab head coach and former Gilas captain Jimmy Alapag said, referring to the tournament in Spain in 2014. “I happened to run into him. I obviously knew him from his last time in Manila.”
“We played against them actually,” Balkman recalled, who was then representing Puerto Rico. “I think after the game or whatever, we all went out for drinks and food.”
Balkman approached Alapag that night and said, “Look, I wanna come back. Whatever opportunity I get, Imma be back. If you ever get into coaching, and that door opens to come back to the Philippines, I’d love to come back.”
To that, Alapag replied, “If I get a coaching job, I’ll bring you in. That’s my word.”
Balkman hoped that Alapag wouldn’t forget his promise. He hoped that one day, their paths would cross again and that would be his ticket back to the Philippines. Four years since their World Cup encounter, the two are finally together on a team.
“I didn’t forget it. I was hoping he didn’t,” Alapag said eagerly about his promise to Balkman. “He’s a world class import.”
“That’s a man of his word and now I’m here with him. That’s a blessing,” Balkman beamed.
One thing led to another and a couple of phone calls later, Balkman suited up in Alab’s fourth game of the ABL season alongside former Barangay Ginebra import Justin Brownlee. Alapag, who is in his first season as a professional head coach, took the chance to recruit Balkman when the opportunity came. Balkman was tapped to replace Ivan Johnson, who had to deal with an injury.
“Talking to the coaches, we wanted to bring in somebody who had that same versatility both offensively and defensively that Ivan brought. And he was one of the first guys that came to mind,” Alapag explained.
In his first game back in the country, Balkman put up 17 points and 11 rebounds to help Alab end their three-game skid. Since the inclusion of both Balkman and Brownlee, the Philippine team has become a formidable threat to the entire league.
“It’s great, great. It’s been good so far. We’re winning, having a great time. I’m happy to be back in the Philippines,” exclaimed Balkman.
“Actually I was surprised to meet him. It’s different from hearing it and actually living it and seeing it sa kanya,” shared Ray Parks, who has become Balkman’s confidant and close friend in the team. “Sobrang humble. Nagulat ako na ganun pala siyang tao.”
It’s easy to assume now that everything is perfect: player makes colossal mistake, atones for said mistake, makes a career overseas, and receives the opportunity to go back to the place where a professional league banned him. However, to get to this point in his life after five long years has been an arduous journey. The memory of that fateful night has evolved into a scar. It’s a wound fully healed and recovered, but the mark is still there to remind everyone of what happened.
“From that incident, I just said to myself, ‘I gotta make a difference everywhere I go,’” Balkman opened up. “It haunts me all the time but I look at it as growth. I look at it as determination saying, ‘I’m actually gonna be better than I was before.’ So it’s actually my motivation.”
“I think as a player and as a man, you just continue to grow,” Alapag said on how Balkman bounced back. “We all continue to grow as people, as players, as coaches. And no one’s perfect. We try to be the best example and try to live the best way. In those instances, where you make mistakes, you learn from it and you keep moving along. You can’t kill yourself over one mistake.”
That motivation has led him to championships in Puerto Rico and Mexico. That sense of purpose has kept him competitive throughout his professional career. That drive is now what fuels him to be a better teammate to his newfound team.
“He’s very genuine. That’s one thing I can say to him,” shared Parks. “Like he wants you to do better for you and he puts it in a way that’s like a big brother and as a friend, to be honest.”
When Balkman first came to Alab, there was no awkwardness or hesitation, just basketball.
“It was actually normal routine. That’s the thing that I love about coach Jimmy. All the players here are extensions of what he wants, characteristic-wise,” pointed out Parks. “We all come here with a clean slate. You’re not gonna be judged for whatever happened in the past. Whatever you do here is gonna define you each and every day.”
It also helped that Balkman himself is an open book. In an ABL trip in Malaysia, Parks finally heard the full story of what happened back in 2013. Alab was on the road and Parks, Balkman, and teammate Lawrence Domingo were in an Uber ride, simply talking about life.
“It’s crazy that we were on the road when he actually talked about it. He actually brought it up,” Parks recalled. “Basically he just opened up. The conversation flowed and we understood where he was coming from.”
“Later on I started to figure out and understand that we can’t judge from what we just see,” he went on. “There’s probably something that triggered that because Renaldo is a professional and played in different leagues. What took him to tick off like that?”
Parks eventually understood where Balkman was coming from that night. He realized the different factors that had a role in the incident – the issues he encountered even months before he suited up for Petron, what was going on in his life during that time, and how the PBA was like back then. There’s no excuse for what transpired, but there’s always room for understanding.
“It’s just tougher because they take it personally,” he said on imports like Balkman. “They can get sent home any time and this is their livelihood. The pressure on them is higher. What escalated, what went down, is sad. It happened in the past but it doesn’t define this person. He’s such a kindhearted person. He’s been a big brother to me ever since he stepped in.”
Balkman’s willingness to talk about the past with confidence and honesty has made him closer to his teammates. Alapag, Parks, and the rest of Alab Pilipinas, have now gotten a deeper understanding of him.
“I mean, that can happen to me. That can happen to Lo (Domingo). That can happen to each and every one of us,” Parks stressed.
“A lot of these guys, they’re cool like they’re brothers to me now,” Balkman said about his Alab teammates. “When I come to a situation like this, it’s gonna be – are we in it to win it or not? Right now we’re in it to win it.”
He is not a man trapped by the sins of his past, but a man who embraces his wrongdoings with a sense of purpose. He does not live with regret nor does he shy away from what he did. Instead, his mistake has become a guiding force to the way he lives his life today.
“Since that incident, it’s been really motivation for me,” the 33-year-old Balkman said earnestly. “Everybody still can change. And at that time, I was young; I’m a little bit older now.
“After my incident, I never gave up. I kept pushing and that’s what made me stronger as a person because of what I’ve done, what I did before,” he continued to share.
Balkman’s sole focus now is to help Alab win the ABL championship. By winning, it will become the perfect cherry on top of his comeback in the Philippines. Fortunately for him, his entire team is behind him.
“What happened a long time ago isn’t who he is. Was it a mistake? Yes, but it’s something that he learned from. He’s obviously gone on and moved on,” Alapag said.
“He made one mistake in the past. It doesn’t define him talaga. He had one dark moment, we all have our dark moments,” echoed Parks. “The way that he’s been taking on things and how he’s perceived to be has been outstanding to be honest.”
Balkman finally made it back to the Philippines after five years. One way or another, he found his way back. And in the meantime, he plans to continue to enjoy the game that he loves.
“I’ll tell you what keeps me going, man – that basketball,” he said peacefully. “If I could play till I’m 45, 50, I’ll play until 50. But you don’t know when it’s over. I can’t put [a] timetable and say I’ll be done because that’s cutting yourself short in life. Right now, I got a lot of basketball in me.”
What happened in 2013 will probably be intertwined with Balkman for the rest of his career. It will be a reminder that one can make a monumental mistake but it’s never too late to make amends and grow from the experience.
It would be wrong to simply say that the past is behind him. Instead, the past fuels him to cherish the present and look forward to what’s ahead.