MANILA, Philippines – Though they were teammates for less than two months, Renaldo Balkman and Arwind Santos will be forever linked by the shocking incident that led to the import's banishment from the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
Balkman was a high-profile signing for Petron Blaze in January 2013, as the team relied on the former New York Knick to lead them in the Commissioner's Cup. He delivered on the court, averaging 25 points and over 13 rebounds per game for the Blaze Boosters.
But Filipino fans are more likely to remember Balkman not for his on-court production but for his incredible meltdown in a March 8, 2013 game against Alaska. On that fateful night, Balkman lost his cool, arguing with referees, assistant coaches, and teammates. His meltdown culminated when he tried to choke Santos.
The backlash was swift: Balkman was fined P250,000 and banned from the PBA. He would not make it back to the Philippines until nearly five years later, when he signed with Alab Pilipinas as one of its world imports in the ASEAN Basketball League.
So far, Balkman has been keeping his cool and producing at a high level for Alab Pilipinas. He has teamed up with Justin Brownlee – Ginebra's much-loved import – to lead Alab to two victories, and is averaging 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, four steals, and two blocks per game.
For Santos, it is no surprise that the 33-year-old Balkman has lived up to his billing while in Alab Pilipinas.
"Maganda naman ang nilalaro," said Santos. "Alam naman natin na si Balkman, magaling talaga eh. Kahit ako, wala akong masasabi doon."
The 2013 PBA Most Valuable Player has absolutely no problems that Balkman has found his way back in the Philippines, as he believes that the import deserves a second chance like anybody else.
"Lahat naman ng tao, deserve naman to get a second chance, 'di ba?" he said after San Miguel Beer's practice on Tuesday afternoon. "At saka third chance, pwede naman 'yun. Hindi naman dahil nagkamali siya dati, pwede niyang ulitin ulit."
"(Pero) kung uulitin niya ulit, eh talagang iba na 'yun," he added.
There have been no problems with Balkman, however. Alab Pilipinas coach Jimmy Alapag has repeatedly vouched for the import, believing that his meltdown in March 2013 was an isolated incident. Alapag has urged Filipino fans to move past that and forgive Balkman – a stand that Santos shares.
"Kalimutan na natin 'yung mga ganoong bagay," Santos said when asked what he wants to say to fans who cannot forget or forgive what Balkman did.
"Tao lang din naman si Balkman, pwede rin siya magkamali," he pointed out. "I-compare na lang natin siya sa ibang tao na kriminal, pumapatay, nangre-rape, hindi naman siya ganoon. Ibig sabihin, mabuti pa rin siyang tao."
Santos himself was quick to forgive Balkman for what he did five years ago. Indeed, the forward even supported Balkman in the aftermath of the incident and welcomed him back to the team. However, the PBA cracked down hard on the import and banned him.
"Tapos na 'yun," Santos said. "Wala na, wala na 'yun."
"Noong time pa lang na 'yun, tapos na 'yun. Kasi hindi dapat nagtatanim ng galit ang tao, masama 'yan," he added.
He is even willing to welcome Balkman back to the PBA – provided that he plays for San Miguel and not any other team.
"Ako, okay lang sa akin makabalik siya. Pero sana, sa amin lalaro. Pero kung sa iba, huwag na, 'di ba? Kasi magaling talaga eh, mapapakinabangan mo talaga si Balkman," he said.
Santos and Balkman have yet to meet again since the import returned to the Philippines, but the SMB captain anticipates that it will be a cordial reunion.
"Sasabihin ko lang na Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, how are you, nice to see you again. 'Yun lang naman," he said.
For now, Santos is looking forward to seeing what Balkman can do for Alab Pilipinas, as the import has promised to help the team win the ABL title.
"Si Balkman, NBA caliber na 'yan eh, kumbaga experienced na rin, matagal na ring naglalaro, marami na ring nilaruan na national team. Tingin ko, malaki ang matutulong niya (sa Alab)," Santos predicted.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)