Renaldo Balkman at Home on Puerto Rico's National Team
Renaldo Balkman's grandmother was born in Puerto Rico, which makes the Denver Nuggets forward eligible for the national team. But this fact wasn't too well known during much of Balkman's first four years in the NBA.
"I just never told anybody,'' Balkman said earlier this week about his Puerto Rican heritage. "If you had asked me, I would have told you. Now, everybody knows. But before they never asked me.''
Well, Puerto Rican officials did their research and finally got around to asking Balkman earlier this year if he wanted to play in the World Championship. He said yes. So Balkman is here representing the national team even though he never had set foot in his life in Puerto Rico until late last spring.
"My mom always told me I should go visit, and I finally did,'' Balkman said of going to the U.S. territory that plays under its own flag in international competitions. "And look at the outcome. I'm on the Puerto Rico team. ... When I went there the first time, it was a little different. Now, it's for our country, for our pride. But it was different at first.''
It took some time for Balkman to adjust to international play. He didn't score a point in the first two games of the tournament, and bolted from the locker room in frustration early following Puerto Rico's 83-80 loss Sunday to Greece, which dropped the team to 0-2.
Balkman came up big Tuesday against China, scoring 10 points and grabbing 13 rebounds as Puerto Rico won 84-76. But after losses 79-77 Wednesday to Group C winner Turkey and a stunning 88-79 defeat Thursday to previously winless Ivory Coast, Puerto Rico went 1-4 in group play and was eliminated from advancing to the knockout round.
"He's a great athlete,'' Puerto Rico coach Manolo Cintron said earlier this week about Balkman, who had seven points and 10 rebounds off the bench against the Ivory Coast to finish with tournament averages to 5.2 points and 6.0 rebounds. "He's a good player for us. We are very happy to have him. We have a bench now.''
Cintron was less happy after the loss to Greece. After Balkman had no points and two rebounds in four minutes, he left the locker room in frustration.
"He didn't play a lot of minutes,'' Cintron said. "That was due to Nathan Peavy and Ricky Sanchez and other players before him were having great games. Balkman didn't fit into the plans for that game.''
But Cintron held no grudge. He used Balkman for 34 minutes against China, and Chinese coach Bob Donewald Jr. called his 13 rebounds the key to the game.
"I had a bad first two games,'' Balkman said. "I had to get used to international ball. It's different from the NBA. ... When I walked out of the locker room (after the game against Greece), I was kind of upset. ... But I didn't go nowhere but to the bus.''
It hardly was the first time Balkman didn't play much in a game. With the Nuggets last season, he got into a meager 13 games and often wasn't activated.
But the Nuggets are pretty much stuck with Balkman, who has a three-year, $5 million contract extension that starts next season. With that many years left on his deal, he's hard to trade and he's hardly a favorite of Nuggets coach George Karl, who hasn't been enamored with Balkman's work ethic and his inability sometimes to remember plays.
But Balkman remains optimistic about getting some playing time next season, especially with forwards Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen coming off recent knee surgeries. He hopes his summer experience in Turkey can serve as a springboard.
"I think it will help me a lot for next season,'' Balkman said.
If he can't get time for an American team, there's still Puerto Rico. Balkman said he would love to play for the team if it qualifies for the 2012 Olympics.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson