The way events have turned out, it might be appropriate if I said that the day I met now-former Petron import Renaldo Balkman, the clouds converged over the Smart-Araneta Coliseum as ravens cawed from leafless treetops and thunder boomed in the distance.
But it was a normal afternoon. He was a well-regarded import. I was, in fact, excited to meet him.
In the locker room, my first words to him after our introduction were, “Are those tattoos on your eyelids?” He closed his eyes and I saw “HUSTLE” on one and “HARDER” on the other. Damn, I thought. That’s gangsta.
I thought he’d bust out some rhymes Lil Wayne style, but he was professional. Confident. He knew his teammates respected his talent and experience. He seemed happy to bring energy, a vocal leadership, and wins to a team that needed it. Hopes were high.
Sure, he was rough around the edges, with those crazy dreadlocks and tattoos up to his ears (seriously, there was ink on his ears). But we all like a good character. Rey Balkman was a guy we wanted to talk about. Rumors crept in about his actions in South America, but we could forgive those if he made the PBA more exciting by giving San Miguel fans hope for a championship again.
Then The Incident occurred, and that hope disappeared faster than you can spell “choke.” When the video of Balkman’s hands around Arwind Santos’ neck hit the web, the backlash was worldwide.
But when PBA commissioner Chito Salud’s lifetime ban and P250,000 fine on Balkman went public, there was a second upheaval of at least equal magnitude.
What Balkman did was unprecedented and, despite the memes and jokes that spread online, an utterly serious matter. But a ban for life? Did the commissioner go too far?
I thought about my interview with Commissioner Salud the day before his decision. While he was vague about sanctions, he made it clear that Balkman’s actions were unacceptable. His words: “My audience is far broader than just the teammates of Mr. Balkman. As always, it is my responsibility to protect the interest of the league and shield it from violence and belligerent behavior.”
Commissioner Salud had to show everyone that he and the league mean business. In this day and age, “everyone” means the whole world—every sports writer, player, official, and fan from Manila to L.A. who saw that video was waiting to see what the PBA would do. If this had happened pre-YouTube, he might have had room for leniency. Unfortunately for Petron, the commissioner decided to make an example of Balkman. He decided to send a message: Nobody, not even an NBA veteran, disrespects players and officials on his turf and gets away with it.
It’s like The Walking Dead. Balkman’s meltdown is the equivalent of getting bitten by a walker. The commissioner/Rick Grimes has to choose: does he cut off Balkman’s leg and risk him turning and eating everyone else, or does he shoot him? Not a fun choice to make, but the commissioner aimed, and the commissioner fired. And while members of his group would have protested to the high heavens, Officer Rick would have done the same thing (and did precisely that in the finale of season two… but I won’t be a spoiler).
Point is, like any decision made about a record event, this one will be debated about and criticized. And because we can’t have everyone agreeing on the definition of fairness and justice, I’d rather have an official who was maybe too harsh but whose motives I understand. The alternative is one who is maybe too soft and risks setting a precedent of indulgence.
Still, I described Balkman as I met him to stress the tragedy of this event. He was an exciting import, a talented player, and what seemed like a decent guy. But he crossed a line and there was no going back. His actions will continue to spur discussions that begin with, “Where were you when Balkman strangled Arwind?” And more than it makes me angry or horrified or shocked, that fact just makes me sad.
I feel for Balkman. I feel for his teammates, who, despite being the targets of his public display of animosity, seemed to have his back. I feel for the fans. Those thunderheads I mentioned earlier seem to have found their way to them, as well as to the San Miguel Corporation.
The question that remains is, “What now?” Will there be a season three to Petronovela after so shocking a turn of events?
I know only as much as you do. I suggest we stay tuned.