This article originally appeared in SLAM #167
Playing through all the drama in New York and the Melo-drama in Denver, Renaldo Balkman is damn prepared for just about anything in the PBA
By Robi Raya
With the 20th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks select Renaldo Balkman from the University of South Carolina.”
What followed after David Stern uttered those words was the rudest welcoming to the NBA I have ever seen any player get. A loud sputtering of boo’s rained down on Renaldo Balkman’s dreadlocks. Mad and hysterical Knicks fans chastised the success-famished organization for picking a relative unknown over bigger names that were still on the board (Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, Steve Novak to name a few).
Exactly 2,424 days later, that same dreadlocked man — now inked with more than a hundred new tats all over his body, but more significantly armed with six years of valuable NBA experience — found himself on the losing end of his first ever PBA game. Renaldo Balkman not only went back to his hotel with a 0-1 card, he also brought home a black eye and a cloud of doubt. Not exactly the best of welcomes either.
But as I found out two days later, on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon at the lobby of the freshest five-star hotel in Ortigas, the 6-8 forward is already impervious to fan pressure. He deflects it the way he emphatically changes the trajectories of weak shots thrown his way. Balkman also plans to teach his new teammates a lesson or two on how to be a glue guy. Believe it or not (actually, I still can’t believe it), he learned everything from Stephon Marbury and Carmelo Anthony.
SLAM: That (pointing to his black eye) wasn’t the first tattoo you intended to get here in the Philippines right?
Renaldo Balkman: (Laughs) Yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, I got it in my very first game. But, it’s all good though.
SLAM: Aside from the bruised eye, how’s the country treating you so far?
RB: It’s cool. It’s different. Everybody’s nice. Everybody’s treating me well. I’m in this hotel and I feel like a king. Everything’s just a dial away.
SLAM: Despite playing only in a very small sample of games, what can you say about the physicality and the brand of basketball so far?
RB: It’s physical like nowhere else. But for the most part, it’s basketball. Fouls will be fouls. Refs will be refs. There’s talent here too.
SLAM: You’ve been around the NBA, with the Puerto Rico National Team. How are you taking an opportunity like this of playing in a basketball-crazy country like the PH?
RB: Basketball is basketball. Wherever you play basketball, a lot of fans will come out to see you. I take this opportunity as something I got to do. I’ve been in the League (NBA). I tried to get back in the League. Unfortunately I didn’t get back. It’s my goal to be there and I got to start somewhere and I think the PBA is a good place to do that. Some of my friends told me that the PBA is a physical league and that I’ll like it. So I just wanna come out here and show my skill set to the world. It’s my first time out of the country so I wanna show what I’m made of.
SLAM: How has Coach Olsen defined your role?
RB: My role on the team is energy and defense, and if I can get my teammates going and riled up. For the most part, if they look at me as the guy to lead them to the championship then that’s good. That’s what I’m here for.
SLAM: How do you feel about being the focal point of the offense now from being a defense-first kind of role player?
RB: It’s new to me. But being a pro you have to adjust from one thing to another. They may run the offense thru me but ultimately the play might break down and go to someone else. So my main goal is to just get my teammates going, whether it be blocking shots or dunking. And I know, I’m not known for my offense but I feel like defense creates offense. The number one thing for me is defense first. So if I stop my man and get my teammates running on the break then defense creates offense. That’s what I always tell my teammates in Petron all the time. Before getting the ball and shooting jumpers, let’s play defense first and move from side to side. It works on the court. Defense is key in a basketball game.
SLAM: I’m sure you’ve heard how Petron is the most stacked team in the league in terms of having superstars in one team, and yet the team hasn’t been able to get it together and there’s been a lot of drama surrounding the team. Did you know about all the drama before getting here?
RB: Yeah they told me. And a guy on the plane who’s a friend of Joseph’s (Yeo) told me about it, about the team not getting it together. When I arrived here, I gave everybody my word that I’m just going to play basketball and we gotta do it together.
SLAM: How do you feel about going into a situation like this with Petron?
RB: I feel that we always got to look forward. We can’t look at what we were in the past. They always compare that to somebody else. But why compare. Everybody starts 0-0 and there’s a whole season ahead of us. What I always tell the guys on the team is we may have lost the first one, we may lose more games but don’t let them count us out. And we can’t go into every game looking back at the game before. We gotta think positive. At practice, I say to them, “Forget what everybody’s saying. It comes from inside ourselves first, then outside. We are one. We are Petron.”
SLAM: You’ve been teammates with huge basketball superstars before like Melo and Steph. Now you’re in a situation where you’re the best player but you have to deal with tons of superstar-type players in Petron, how are you with everybody?
RB: I get along with everybody. I joke with everybody. What I did last week was I got everybody together and we all had a meal together that was cooked by a chef that I brought here from the States.
SLAM: Wait. You brought a chef all the way from the States for that?!
RB: Yeah. I wanted to do something for my teammates. I told them, ‘This is what we are. We are one. There can’t be no outsiders (while gesturing a box). We’re in this room and we have to be together. From day 1 to the last day, we will remain friends. I got everybody together and we bonded. I told them that once a week, we need to get together. Whatever it is, shoot pool or go to the club together.
SLAM: How would you compare your situation right now to your experience of being teammates with arguably two of the biggest egos in the NBA in Steph and Carmelo?
RB: Playing with the best guys in the world, it’s about learning from them, being with them, with their families. The bond that we had, like I can make a call right now and ask them what I need to do to be better. Here, that’s what they were teaching me for, to be a leader. Being a leader in the NBA was not me. I was a role player looking up to Steph or Melo. Here, I’m the leader. I was watching them as I grew.
I know about egos and everything, but I don’t look at it that way. I look at it in the positive way. Can’t nobody say bad things about me. I don’t like negativity. My grandma always told me ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’
SLAM: Can you share a specific experience with Steph or Melo?
RB: Ah men. There were a lot of great experiences. But I remember the first time I was drafted by the Knicks and I was with them barely a month. And I’m this kid coming out of college looking at Steph and I’m in his house. We bonded with the team and our friends and families for dinner. That’s why I did the same thing here with the team. I basically told my guys here what they told me that night, “Let’s be different for a change and not believe what everyone is saying. Let’s just get together.”
SLAM: At the time you entered the NBA and joined New York, the Knicks were one of the worst teams and the fans just blasted you guys. How was it playing in front of Knicks fans?
RB: It was kinda easy! Because my role in the team was just play defense and just play. Not score 40 points. So it wasn’t that hard. But every time I get on the court, I play like it’s my last. I was just the average guy and I knew that. I didn’t care about scoring 2 points. All I cared about was winning. I’d do everything to win a game. And that’s why everyone in NYK loved me because of my defense and energy. I laid it all out there. It was about me putting my body in front of Shaq and him running me over. They loved that type of stuff. And that’s why they loved me in NYK.
SLAM: Wait, what?! You took a charge from Shaq? Who in his right mind would do that?!
RB: (Laughs) Yeah! I did a couple of times!
SLAM: Petron fans are generally more levelheaded than the fans of other big clubs in the PBA and compared to the fans in New York. But their patience is wearing thin right now. Do you feel any pressure from them?
RB: Not really. What I told them was be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And believe it or not, it’s not over yet. The fans, they gotta stick with us just like we gotta stick with them. We are family with our Petron fans. So don’t never count us out.
SLAM: Do you feel that you got trained for getting dissed back in NY?
RB: (Laughs) I’m prepared with what they will say here. Because the fans, the media in NYK, they was drillin’ us. Saying we can’t win a game. But in the locker room it’s totally different. Same here, we can’t read the newspapers everyday. We can’t watch it. We can’t read it. Because when you win, everybody speaks highly of you. But when you lose just one game, it’s back to the stuff you didn’t do. That’s what I got from the leaders in the NBA. Don’t read the headlines.
SLAM: George Karl is one of the best leaders/coaches in the NBA, but I’m sure he whipped your ass too. What did you learn from one of the all-time best coaches in the world?
RB: Karl is a great guy. His thing was off and on the court and be a pro about it. Even at practice, he didn’t say nothing about it. He gave us so much crap. Water breaks were nothing. It was like I joined the army. It was hard but it transformed me to being a workhorse.
SLAM: Filipino basketball fans are crazy, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that yet. But tell me how insane Puerto Rico fans are.
RB: Ah men. Puerto Rico fans are crazy! Probably the best fans in the world. They love basketball. They love it. Just like here. In my first week here I was just walking in the mall and I noticed all the people crowded in front of a TV set and I didn’t know what they was doing. It turned out they was watching the PBA Finals. The same in Puerto Rico, they watch it everywhere. They have so much passion and energy when they watch games.
A couple of nights later, the Petron Blaze Boosters displayed passion and energy to blow out the defending Commissioner’s Cup Champions, the San Mig Coffee Mixers, by playing the best D I’ve ever seen them play in more than a year. Everybody was sliding their feet as if Coach Olsen was going to cut their manhoods off if they didn’t. Rotations were so crisp that they reminded me of the 2008 Boston Celtics.
Balkman, for his part, did everything he told me in the interview. He blocked shots. He disrupted passing lanes like Kanye disrupts speeches. He grabbed 15 rebounds that ignited tons of fastbreak opportunities. He spun his way around the helpless SMC Mixers import for 28 big points.
Most refreshingly, it seemed that Balkman and his Petron teammates liked playing with each other. It really looked like they were Petron. It really looked like they were one.