MANILA, Philippines – Almost a year since undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, Colegio de San Juan de Letran captain Jerrick Balanza still gets chills when recalling what he went through and his long road to recovery.
Balanza's campaign in the NCAA Season 94 men's basketball tournament was cut short in September 2018, when he was diagnosed with a tumor in his brain that stemmed from an ear infection. The operation to remove the mass was successful – until now he sings praises of Dr. Manuel Mariano, a fellow Letranite who performed the surgery – but he missed the rest of the season.
He wouldn't return until March, when he and the Knights played in the PBA D-League.
"Kinikilabutan ako," Balanza said in an interview Monday, as he remembered how fervently he prayed after his diagnosis.
"'Yun din 'yung pinagdadasal ko. Kasi sabi ko sa Kanya na, 'di mo naman ibibigay sa akin to God kung 'di ko to kaya eh," he said. "Sabi ko, bigyan Niyo lang ako ng lakas, lakas ng loob, and guide, tsaka mga sign kung anong dapat kong gawin."
"Alam ko na 'di Niya ako pababayaan. Ayun, nakabalik ako. Masaya ako andito ulit ako sa NCAA," he beamed.
Balanza can smile about his ordeal now, as it is fully behind him and he is 100% healthy. The doctors declared him fit to play, and throughout the preseason he has been working to regain his rhythm inside the court.
But this wasn't always the case for the young Knight.
Doubts and fears
Balanza was in the midst of a solid campaign for the Knights when he was diagnosed with the tumor. He was averaging 7.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game for a Letran team that was bound for the Final 4, serving as one of their anchors along with veterans Bong Quinto and JP Calvo.
To suddenly fall ill, right in the middle of the season, was a shocking blow to the combo guard.
"Sobrang down ko talaga noon, kasi andito na ako sa pangarap ko na mag-basketball ko eh," he admitted.
"May family ako, may dalawang anak ako eh, na kung sakali man, hindi pinahintulutan ng Panginoon na mangyari na mawala ako, 'di ba. Siyempre ayaw ko maiwan 'yun, gusto ko pa rin siyempre masubaybayan yung paglaki nilang dalawa," he added.
Given the gravity of the situation, returning to basketball was not the foremost matter on Balanza's mind. He just wanted to live, to see his kids grow up. Yet he also knew that anything can happen during the over four-hour operation that removed the tumor in his brain.
"Nag-doubt talaga ako," he recalled. "Ang nasa isip ko na lang is... Kasi hindi ko alam kung ano pwede mangyari sa akin eh. Pwede mabaldado ako or what, ma-disable ako eh kasi sa utak ko ang tatamaan."
"Siyempre, ang galing din ng doctor ko, shout out kay Doc Mariano na Letranista," he quickly added with a big smile. "Ang galing niya, wala siyang tinamaan."
Turning serious again, he continued: "Pero 'yun nga, sa time na 'yun, ang sa akin na lang is mabuhay ako, makita ko na lumaki 'yung anak ko, makasami ko pa 'yung pamilya ko. Kahit hindi na ako mag-basketball basta nabubuhay ako, nakikita ko sila," says Balanza.
Not only was the surgery successful, but Balanza made a fantastic recovery. He returned to the court on March 5, playing for Letran in the PBA D-League where he scored 6 points in a 96-94 loss to Che'Lu Bar&Grill.
That he is back to playing the game he loves has Balanza shaking his head in amazement.
"Sobrang blessed talaga ako," he says.
Balanza has plenty of people to thank for helping him in his recovery. The Letran community came together to raise funds for him, as did the basketball community as a whole. Former players of their greatest rivals, the San Beda University Red Lions, chipped in to help in a touching gesture.
"Ano ba naman 'yung ganoon na, lalaban ka sa ganoong sitwasyon, tapos 'yung mga nakakalaban mo sa court, nagiging kakampi mo, di ba," he said.
The ordeal also drew his family closer, said Balanza, and brought them closer to God.
"Na-realize ko talaga na totoo ang Panginoon natin, ganoon. Kasi dati talaga, lumayo ako, hindi na ako nagdadasala, nakakalimot ako," he revealed.
"Simula noong nangyari sa akin yun, maski 'yung family ko, tumibay ang pananampalataya namin, naging together kami lalo, kahit ang mga nasa malayo kong pamilya. Sobrang laking bagay talaga," he added.
He still has to go to monthly check-ups with a specialist, and will consult with his doctor again in September. For now, however, Balanza can focus on what he left behind last year – basketball.
Losing Balanza last year was a blow to the Knights. He had served as their secondary playmaker after Calvo, and a plus-shooter who helped space the floor for Quinto and big man Larry Muyang. The guard had to watch from the sidelines as the Knights fell to the Lyceum Pirates in the Final 4.
He returns to a Letran team that has gone through plenty of changes. Quinto and Calvo are now plying their trade in the PBA; Napa left the team abruptly, and was replaced by Bonnie Tan. Balanza is now the team captain, the leader of a squad that has high expectations for the upcoming NCAA Season 95 men's basketball tournament.
"Matrabaho ang gagawin ko ngayon. Buti nga maaga pa lang, nakabalik na ako agad, para makilala ko rin yung mga teammate ko, kung paano ang laro nila," he said.
"'Yung sistema ni Coach Bonnie, alam ko na din kasi at least nakabalik ako kaagad sa kanya, nakapag-ensayo ako sa kanya. Hindi rin naman mahirap pakisamahan si Coach Bonnie kasi last year nasa team na din siya talaga eh," he added.
When asked what he hopes from his team in Season 95, Balanza doesn't hesitate.
"Ang goal namin, hindi lang kami pang-Final 4," he declares. "Pang-finals talaga kami."
He has reason to be optimistic. While they lost two crucial veterans in Quinto and Calvo, they still have a deep line-up that features Muyang, Jeo Ambohot, and Bonbon Batiller. The presence of Batiller, in particular, is a big deal for Balanza.
"Kasi si Batiller, last year, 'di talaga siya healthy naglalaro eh, nakakaawa rin talaga siya. Eh ngayon na-operahan na siya. Healthy na siya so talagang matibay ang team namin ngayon," he says.
As for himself? Balanza said he just wants to keep doing his best for Letran, now that he has been given another chance to play for the team that has embraced him since high school.
"Binigyan ako ng chance ni Lord na makabalik. Lahat nang alam ko na tama at makakatulong sa team namin, lalo na andyan ang mga coach namin, with Coach LA (Tenorio), talagang siya 'yung nagsasabi sa akin kung paano ako makakatulong," he said.
"'Yun na lang siguro, the rest tingnan natin kung ano mangyayari," he added.
What's certain for Balanza is that once he steps onto the court, the fears and doubts that clouded his mind during the most challenging time of his life are gone.
"Naubos na siguro ang takot ko eh," he said, again smiling. "Natatakot lang ako 'pag napupunta ako sa ospital, ganoon. Doon bumabalik lahat, naalala ko pag pumupunta ako sa ospital."
"Pero 'pag nasa labas naman ako, sa court, ganoon, wala na naman."
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