IN his first real test as PBA commissioner, Willie Marcial failed.
Left to decide whether to reinstate Renaldo Balkman who, in a fit of madness five years ago, choked Petron (now San Miguel Beer) teammate Arwind Santos and was then banned for life, Marcial took the path of least resistance — and lifted the ban.
Balkman, 33, got his lifetime ban reversed by simply swearing to Marcial that he is now a changed man. I guess he must’ve promised the new commissioner he would never again choke teammates trying to calm him down when he’s going ballistic at referees. Which, if you remember, is exactly what Santos, several teammates, and coaches tried to do during that fateful game against Alaska at the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup.
Balkman could not have found more fallow ground to spill his remorse on. Marcial is known as a man who does not like to hurt feelings, does not bear grudges, has a forgiving heart, and follows the dictum that every human being deserves a second chance.
“He begged that he be allowed to play again,” Marcial explained his pardon of Balkman, adding that the import apologized profusely for his past behavior and appeared quite sincere.
Marcial added that he arrived at the decision after consulting several persons, including past commissioner Chito Salud, the man who banned Balkman for life and levied a P250,000 fine on the import for disrespecting the league.
The new commissioner said he also consulted Arwind Santos, which is a bit of a puzzle. Because, even if Santos had given a loud NO, it's doubtful that his opinion could carry weight. It is even more doubtful that Santos would say NO at all because his own team, San Miguel, is in hot pursuit of the flammable Balkman, who recently powered Alab, another San Miguel-backed team, to the Asean Basketball League (ABL) championship.
So, even if Marcial announced that his decision was influenced by humanitarian considerations, there is the lingering perception that his decision benefits San Miguel.
San Miguel is 0-2 in the current Commissioner’s Cup, and its import, Troy Gillenwater, does not quite suit SMB’s chief objective, which is to capture a PBA grand slam this year. SMB has already won the Philippine Cup and needs just two more titles — the current Commissioner's Cup and the coming Governors' Cup — to complete the feat.
While it is the right of every PBA team to change imports at any time, it is intriguing that San Miguel, despite the possibility there could be a backlash, has cast its lot with Balkman again, the very same player that had given the team a black eye, and the league, a source of huge embarrassment.
Marcial could have taken the high road.
He could have advised SMB to look elsewhere for a replacement. Basketball imports, after all, are a dime a dozen, and San Miguel, with its unarguably vast resources, could easily have taken in someone with less baggage and more talent.
But, there it is again. For some reason, San Miguel can make PBA commissioners buckle, and, on occasion, actually make them turn a blind eye on issues that have ramifications on the very future of the league.
Take the case of Christian Standhardinger. The Fil-German hotshot was clearly the best player to join the PBA draft in more than a decade. He was the overwhelming favorite to be the first overall pick, a pick that belonged to Kia (now known as Columbia Dyip).
Kia, one of the league’s perennial bottom dwellers, could have gotten itself out of that bottom rung and become a respectable contender had it taken Standhardinger. But, very strangely, Kia traded this throbbing first pick to San Miguel, a team already in possession of the league’s most potent lineup.
Even more shocking, Kia got three benchwarmers in return for the pick! And just as stunning, then commissioner Chito Narvasa approved the trade despite the glaring inequality of the entire exchange.
Well, we all know what happened next. Narvasa was forced to resign after the trade divided the PBA into two factions and pushed the league to the brink of extinction. It is believed the cracks created by that trade remain large, if unspoken, to this day.
Marcial, affable and universally liked, could have been the conscience of the PBA — the long-lost, sane voice in a league wracked by fierce, partisan, and self-serving interests.
Instead, that role seems to have fallen on Alaska team owner Wilfred Uytengsu, the only one among league stakeholders who was heard raising a voice on the Balkman issue.
Uytengsu, who also led the revolt against the onerous Standhardinger trade, called Balkman’s reinstatement “ridiculous.”
He questioned its propriety, asking: “What good are sentences if they are simply overturned because the erring party apologized?”
Indeed, Marcial can hide behind Christian jargon about forgiveness and second chances, but if the occasion is still perceived, with reason, as capitulation to powerful forces in the league, then Marcial, dubbed the “healing commissioner,” has simply reopened old wounds.