From choker to champion: Renaldo Balkman wins back Filipino hearts

MANILA, Philippines – After a long, winding procession, the Asean Basketball League (ABL) title finally came back home.

The San Miguel Alab Pilipinas dropped the tenacious Mono Vampire Basketball Club in 5 grueling games, and deep in the thick of things of that back-and-forth series was former NBA player Renaldo Balkman.

The Puerto Rican big man again led Alab in the do-or-die Game 5 with 32 points and 9 rebounds in more than 38 minutes of action.

All night long, whenever his team would force a timeout from the Thai side due to their unrelenting offense, Balkman took a few seconds to rally the crowd by gesturing to cheer more loudly.

Of course, the crowd that Wednesday night, May 2, at Sta. Rosa, Laguna, didn't even need any prodding. But Balkman hyping up the Filipino fans was a welcome sight.

It’s almost like they have completely forgotten who Renaldo Balkman was, with emphasis on “was.”

If you’re a Philippine basketball fan, chances are you already know where we are going with this.

Back in 2013, for those who don’t know, Balkman got banned from the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) for life after an altercation with Petron Blaze Boosters (now San Miguel Beermen) teammate Arwind Santos where Balkman, shockingly, placed Santos in a chokehold.

Just like that, it was over for Balkman in the PBA.

Fast forward to the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, where Jimmy Alapag, still a point guard for Gilas Pilipinas, and Balkman would meet as adversaries. Alapag shared that Balkman came up to him and said, “If you ever get into this coaching thing, you have my number.”

Sure enough, Alapag got into this coaching thing, but it was far from the smoothest introduction a coach could ask for.

Bannered by imports Ivan Johnson and Reggie Okosa, Alapag’s Alab fell to a 1-4 start, good for a cozy spot in the bottom rung of the ABL standings. He knew they needed to make a change.

So, through player agent Sheryl Reyes, Alab was able to secure the services of Ginebra fan favorite Justin Brownlee. However, they were still one player short. So with team management, Alapag and his coaching staff huddled one night until the wee hours of the morning, “scrambling, trying to find anybody to help us,” Alapag shared.

Then assistant coach Danny Siegle told him, “What’s Renaldo Balkman doing right now?” Alapag beamed, “That’s the best idea we thought of all night!”

So the phone call was made.

As Balkman recounted: “That was like a dream come true for me. It’s been 5 years since I played here and I didn’t think I was coming back. I got a phone call one day, and it was Jimmy.”

“Out of the blue!” he continued. “He said, “Come play, man.” And I was like, “Hey, I’m on my way.”

Finally, Alab had two formidable imports, and they immediately went to work. With the squad bannered by Balkman, Brownlee and reigning local MVP Bobby Ray Parks, Jr., Alab jumped from 1-4 and won 13 of their last 15 contests to finish third at 14-6.

Alab went on to steamroll opponents in the playoffs, sweeping both Saigon Heat and former defending champion Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions in just 4 games total.

For his efforts, Balkman was named the ABL Co-Defensive Player of the Year along with Singapore Slingers big man Christien Charles. Prior to that, he even got his PBA ban lifted after a consultation with former league commissioner Chito Salud.

The 6-foot-8 center, however, still had the challenge of a lifetime in the finals, as he was given the tall task, pun definitely intended, of guarding 7-foot-5 Italian monster Sam Deguara.

“I’m gonna tell y’all how I see it,” said Balkman, when asked how it felt guarding a man almost a foot taller than him. “When you chop down a tree, it’s gonna fall sooner or later.”

Amid the laughter of his teammates and coach, he delivered the punchline, “And that’s what happened, it fell down.”

For those who are stuck 5 years in the past and need a refresher, here’s who Renaldo Balkman is today, emphasis on “is.”

He’s an ABL Champion – the people’s champion. Whether or not he returns to the PBA is still up in the air, but what’s certain is that Renaldo Balkman is back here, hoping to win more Filipino hearts. – Rappler.com