Renaldo Balkman didn't think he would ever return to the country that banished him.
His mistake that happened on a quiet night in March 2013 during the PBA Commissioner's Cup has lived in infamy and regret. It has shaped the last five years of his life and it will forever be intertwined with him for the rest of his career.
Balkman thought he would never have a chance to redeem himself. Filipino fans likewise assumed it was the last that we would see of him.
But the past five months since Balkman's triumphant return to Philippine basketball as part of San Miguel Alab Pilipinas in the ASEAN Basketball League has proven to be a story of redemption, perseverance, and fate. It was as if the stars aligned for one man and his journey back to the Philippines.
It all started in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Jimmy Alapag, then captain of Gilas Pilipinas, was approached by Balkman.
"Hey man, if you ever get into this coaching thing, you have my number," Balkman said to Alapag.
Alapag, who hadn't retired at that time, took those words to heart and never forgot that conversation.
Fast-forward four years later and Alapag was the head coach of Alab Pilipinas. The team was down in a rut and looking for answers.
"We were sitting at 1-4 I think at the time. We felt like we needed to make a change," recalled Alapag.
The team first replaced Reggie Okosa with Barangay Ginebra favorite Justin Brownlee. So Alab thought they'd have Brownlee paired with Ivan Johnson, who was their other World Import then. The team was thrilled to have the two high-caliber players. Unfortunately, it was discovered by the coaching staff that Johnson had to miss an extended period of time, leaving Alapag searching for a replacement.
"We probably stayed at Capitol Commons till about 3:00AM, scrambling, trying to find anybody really, that can come and try to help us," shared Alapag, almost chuckling in disbelief. "Because we were really at a desperate time, we were already dead last, we couldn't go any further."
Again, fate intervened, and this time it was in the form of assistant Danny Seigle.
"What's Renaldo Balkman doing right now?" Seigle asked during their meeting.
The innocent question turned out to be the light bulb moment of Alab's coaching staff. "That's the best idea we thought of all night!" Alapag exclaimed.
The rookie coach first called Sheryl Reyes, the agent of Balkman, then reached out to the big man himself.
"I was still contemplating on my career. I got a phone call one day, and it was Jimmy. Out of the blue," Balkman shared. "He's like, 'Come play, man.' I'm like, 'I'm on my way.'"
At that time, Balkman already made a name for himself overseas playing in various countries and leagues. He was a proven champion and winner. Even though he had trouble getting a job in Asia because of the incident, he was still a world-class athlete who had a penchant for success. By the time Alapag reached out to him, Balkman was actually recovering from an injury, which meant he was still available and he wasn't signed to another team.
"It just so happened that he was in the States, he was available, and he was excited to come back in the Philippines," mentioned Alapag.
One thing led to another and Alab Pilipinas got Renaldo Balkman for the rest of the season. From a 1-4 record, they catapulted themselves into the finals. Throughout the regular season and playoffs, Balkman recaptured the hearts of the fans not just at home, but also in away venues wherein Filipinos filled up the seats. Every time he stepped out on the court, he was met with cheers and applause.
"I knew what happened was just really an isolated incident. I think he's shown during this stint, his true character," shared Alapag who had no hesitation in reaching out to Balkman five months ago. "And really not just his ability on the court, but I think his love, his passion for the game, just like us Filipinos have. I think that's something we share."
Balkman's redemption story is a web of seemingly predestined events that eventually led him back to the Philippines. Each circumstance was a byproduct of another moment and another chance.
What if Alapag and Balkman never had that conversation in Spain? What if Ivan Johnson never got injured and he was paired up with Justin Brownlee? What if Danny Seigle never had that eureka moment? What if Balkman was signed to a different ball club when Alapag called him?
Balkman's past will always be a part of him. But now, the Philippines won't be just a bad, sad, old memory for him. Now it will be about something else.
"It's been five years since I last played here. I didn't think I was coming back," Balkman said after Alab won. "Past is past with me. We won a championship today, let it be known."
Indeed, the cherry on top of Balkman's gallant homecoming is that he won the ABL championship in front of adoring Filipino fans inside the Sta. Rosa Multi Purpose Complex in Laguna. In the closing moments of the game, he went over to the sidelines and motioned the crowd to get loud. The fans stood up in response and he was met with a sea of applause and cheers.
At that moment, Balkman didn't look like a man trapped by his mistake, not bound by the past. Instead, he looked at peace. He looked like he belonged. He looked like he was finally home.