Renaldo Balkman Q+A
“We have a great future…We’re crawling right now, and then we’re going to start walking.”
by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7
When the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets agreed to the blockbuster trade on February 22nd, Carmelo Anthony wasn’t the only one returning to play for his birthplace. Renaldo Balkman, a Staten Island-native, was also coming home. The 6-8 forward began his professional career at the World’s Most Famous Arena, where he became a fan favorite during his two seasons in a Knicks uniform for his relentless effort on both ends of the floor. As was the same with David Lee and any other players that have shown the effort and desire to win, New York fans have always embraced those who have left it all out on the floor. From diving for loose balls, to doing some of the things that may not show up on the stat sheet, Balkman won the fans over by doing what many Knicks players just simply weren’t doing at the time. Although Balkman only spent a few months in New York City after being born before moving to Tampa, Florida, he’s always been a Knicks fan and remembers watching those classic games against the Miami Heat in the 1990s.
As has become a tradition on Draft night, Knicks fans didn’t seem too thrill with their team’s selection and booed after hearing Commissioner David Stern call Balkman’s name with the 20th pick in the 2006 NBA Draft – especially considering that NBA All-Star Rajon Rondo was still available at the time. But hey, Knicks fans also booed David Lee, Danilo Gallinari and Landry Fields on Draft night.
It didn’t take long before the City to embrace one of their own. A 10-point and 13 rebounds performance during November of that year against the Chicago Bulls exhibited glimpses of what this defensive specialist was capable of. By mid-season, Balkman was known for his non-stop hustle and willingness to scrap for the ball. In March, the South Carolina Gamecocks-standout saw his performance reach new levels and began to see double-doubles a little more consistently, after putting up 12 points and 13 rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks and then 15 points and 12 rebounds against the Toronto Raptors a couple of weeks later. His best overall performance would come in April when he finished with 17 points, 16 rebounds and three steals at MSG in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
And although the next four years have been a roller coaster, Balkman finds himself once again where it all began for him as a pro – this time with a chance to be part of something special.
We caught up with Balkman, as he looks to establish his role in the team’s rotation.
SLAM: I’ve read you’re part of the Puerto Rican National team. With Louisville’s Rick Pitino now at the helm, how do you feel about playing with them?
Renaldo Balkman: Yeah. This will be my second year playing with them. He’s a good coach. Last year was basically all new for me. This year will be all new for me again. New coach, new everything.
SLAM: How does the roster look from your view?
RB: I think we have a pretty decent roster. Some of the guys that played last year weren’t the ones that played in the team the previous years. But this year we have a pretty good roster.
SLAM: Are you Puerto Rican from your mom or dad side?
RB: I’m Puerto Rican from my mom’s side and grandma.
SLAM: Can you speak Spanish?
RB: I can speak it a little bit but I can understand a conversation more than I can speak it.
SLAM: You became a fan favorite within the first year as a Knick after getting drafted due to your relentless hustle style of play and then you were traded away to Denver. How was it dealing with that?
RB: I mean, it was hard. I felt like it was a better fit for me in Denver. I went to Denver practicing hard and playing hard. I really thought it was a better fit for me than New York because we were losing and they were winning games and going to the Playoffs. Like I said, it was pretty good. But then I wasn’t playing anymore after that. And so now I’m back to New York.
SLAM: How was the feeling when you returned to MSG but in a Nuggets uniform, considering the strong fan base you had built?
RB: Playing in New York my first couple of years, I became a fan favorite. And as they say, one you’re a Knick, you’re always a Knick. Now I’m back at the Garden and I was like, ‘I wonder how the fans are’ – because, you know, the fans are watching but all are not hard Knicks fans. They can boo and cheer for you. And then, I checked in the game for the first time playing for another team, and they cheered me on like I was still a Knicks player. And that meant a lot to me. The fact that I wasn’t playing that much, and then I checked in the game and they still know me and encouraged me on – and also on the social networks like Twitter and Facebook, it meant a lot to me.
SLAM: So it must have been bittersweet returning to New York City. How was the feeling when you heard you were returning?
RB: Playing in the greatest arena in the world is always a great feeling. I’m kind of used to it because I played a lot of games at the Garden my first year. As a child growing up, it was my dream to play at the Garden. I mean, I had a couple of butterflies of playing at the Garden again but you get used to it over the years.
SLAM: How would you compare this Knicks team to the ones that you were a part of a back in 2006 and 2007?
RB: It’s a totally different team. Back then – we had a lot of old guys on our team. Of course, they were nice guys and knew basketball. I don’t think we were taking it too much seriously, to be honest. Now is a new team, with new Knicks. Everybody is different, organization-wise and coaching-wise. We’re taking it seriously. We’re trying to get to the playoffs and win, and make something big out of this.
SLAM: Did you see getting traded by Denver coming or was this unexpected?
RB: It actually came out of nowhere. As far as me, I thought I was going to be with the Denver Nuggets for next season. I mean, my name was coming up in trade rumors but, you know, they’re just rumors. You don’t believe it until it happens. And that day came, and they told me that I got traded. Everything happens for a reason. It’s for the better or for the worst. And I feel like in my situation, coming from Denver, it was a better situation for me because I wasn’t playing. Now I get a little bit of playing time. I could still play basketball and not just be somebody on the bench.
SLAM: What’s the role you’ve been given with this Knicks team?
RB: My role with the team now when I’m in the game is to play defense, try to stop my man and try to help others. And maybe help with other defensive roles also. Sometimes it’s about defensive schemes and what to know, and if they don’t know, they can ask me because I grew up playing defense. That’s all I know. I’ll teach and tell you how to play it because, you know, after being in the League for so long, you would know those players. This is my fifth year in the league, so I played with a lot of the guys over time. If they want to go left or they want to go right, or the step-back or the spin, you gotta’ know your players. So if you ask me, it is probably defense.
SLAM: Expectations have skyrocketed for this Knicks team after the Carmelo trade. How would you forecast the team’s future?
RB: We have a great future. This year, we’re going to be in the Playoffs for the first time in a long time. We’re heading towards success. It’s about crawling before you walk. We’re crawling right now, and then we’re going to start walking. We’ll make it to the Playoffs our first year and then the following year it will be another step forward for us. We’re pushing and striding for the Finals every year. But most of the guys haven’t been there before, and it is an experience that they haven’t seen yet. That’s what we’re pushing for.
SLAM: As far as your individual game, what do you feel you need to improve to take your game to that next level?
RB: For me personally, it’s probably confidence in my jump shot. Having confidence in making shots instead of worrying about the miss. That’s just my game. People think I can’t shoot but if you see me shoot, I have great fundamentals of shooting the basketball and a great form. It’s just that I don’t shoot in the game because I always was told to get rebounds, run the floor and play defense. I’ve never been shooting the ball. So now I gotta’ get confidence and work on my shot every single day.
SLAM: Do you think Mike D’Antoni’s system is the right one for you?
RB: I think so. I really think so. I think it will be the best thing for me. After I start getting in the rotation and back in the swing of things.
SLAM: As a team, what do you feel you guys need to master in order to make the team into a championship contender?
RB: As people say now around the League, we need to work on our defense as a team. We have to go out there and stop our man and stop our player, and focus on the team that we’re playing.
SLAM: You weren’t really known that well in high school as far as basketball. You eventually ended up at South Carolina before getting drafted by the Knicks. Did you expect to get this far?
RB: To be honest, I expected college. And then people we’re always telling me what I can do and what I can’t do, but where I came from when people said you can’t do something it usually never happened. I just had to push myself to success. There were a lot of hurdles in my life before I had even made it. There were a lot of times in high school where I would get up and feel like I wouldn’t go and do nothing with my life. And I kept playing basketball and pushing myself to that next level. Growing up I was a nobody, but I felt like the next person after me was getting better and I was always in the gym. When they were taking a day off, I was in the gym working. I was young and now I could say I made it to the best.
SLAM: Word is Isiah Thomas compared your game to that of Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest. Is that an accurate assessment?
RB: People always say they see me as a poor man’s Dennis Rodman. The say that all the time because I pretty much scrap on the floor. I get dirty. I get the little things you need – taking a charge, jumping in the crowd to save the ball, to emerging the team and myself off the crowd. As I was a kid watching the guys play, that’s how they would do it, and so that’s why they say I resemble them.