MANILA, Philippines — All eyes will be on Renaldo Balkman when the new import debuts for the San Miguel Beermen in the 2018 PBA Commissioner’s Cup on Saturday in Dumaguete.
The Beermen will try to get their first win of the conference against the streaking Alaska Aces, with Balkman suiting up for the defending champions after he was tapped by San Miguel to replace the unimpressive Troy Gillenwater.
It is the completion of a remarkable journey for Balkman, who was notoriously banned by then-PBA commissioner Chito Narvasa after he choked teammate Arwind Santos during a game against Alaska in 2013.
It was not until March 2018 that the ban was lifted, paving the way for Balkman’s return.
“It’s great to be back in the PBA. It took a long time, but I’m here,” said Balkman, who helped Alab Pilipinas win a title in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) before eventually being hired by San Miguel.
The 33-year-old Balkman practiced with the Beermen for the first time on Wednesday morning at the Acropolis Gym, where he shared the court not just with Santos, but also with four-time MVP June Mar Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter and Alex Cabagnot -- all of whom were his teammates as well in 2013, when he suffered the shocking meltdown that led to his banishment.
But Balkman has always insisted that he has long put behind him the memories of that controversial night. Instead, he made it clear that he is heading into his second stint with San Miguel with nothing but positive thoughts.
"I mean, there’s a lot of people saying what they want to say," the import said after practice. "There's gonna be a lot of negativity, but I'm all positive right now. It's all positive vibes for myself, me and my teammates."
It is not just Balkman who has put the choking incident behind him. Santos has long forgiven the import and welcomed him with open arms when he joined San Miguel Beer.
"Everybody deserves a second chance," said Santos. "Wala na, hindi ako nagtatanim ng galit."
"Siguro magkakailangan lang ng una, kasi parang, alam mo 'yun, parang mga babaeng maaarte ng naghihintayan kung sino mauuna. Pero okay na okay na kami," he added.
Instead of dwelling on the past, Balkman is focused on the job that he needs to do for San Miguel. The Beermen are currently at 0-2 in the conference, and while they are not in panic mode, they feel a certain urgency to rebound and return to their winning ways.
Balkman, whose infectious energy and intensity helped Alab Pilipinas rule the ABL, shares the same feeling and cannot wait to go to work.
"I just want to go out there and start winning games," said the well-traveled import. "I take every game one by one."
"The main goal here is for us to win another championship," he also said. "That's what I'm here for. They've seen something in me that was positive, and they picked me."
Game 1 of the Balkman Experience is on Saturday, against an Alaska team that has won three contests in a row. It is almost poetic that Balkman's debut will be against the same PBA squad that witnessed his epic collapse five years ago.
This narrative, however, is not on Balkman's mind.
"Whatever I can do for the team and myself, that's just what I wanna do right now," he says. "We got a game on Saturday, and I'm gonna give you guys another show."
"Like I told you all before: It's showtime for me."
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