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After disaster early in life, Justine Baltazar is gearing towards a brighter future

by Jim Lemuel Wilson, September 25, 2019 8:37pm

Everyone goes through the death of their loved ones. While some people get to take care of their aging parents before their time comes, some parents lose newborn children. And some lose their parents at a very young age, just like how it happened for Justine Baltazar.

Baltazar was just seven years old when his mother died. He was eight when his father passed on. And he lost both his parents in separate accidents.

“Accident po. Nasagasaan po yung mama ko, tapos yung papa ko po nakagat ng aso, na-rabbies,” said the De La Salle University big man in a phone interview with Courtside Philippines.

As is human nature, Justine went through some grieving. And in those lowest of times, he found himself starting to develop a liking for the sport of basketball.

“Nag-start po ako maglaro mga eight or nine, pero naglaro na po ako ng liga mga 12 or 13 years old sa Dau,” the Pampanga native said. And it didn’t take long for a coach to notice the towering presence or Justine.

“Yung coach ko po sa Mabalacat (Pampanga), yun yung nakakita ng potential ko po. Naglalaro lang po ako sa court. Lumipat po kasi kami ng bahay sa Mabalacat e, nakita po ako na matangkad po ako. So nilapitan niya po ako, tinanong niya ako kung gusto kong maglaro ng basketball sa Manila,” said Justine, who stood at 6' 2" when he came to Manila.

At age 17—10 years after his mother’s death—Baltazar started playing basketball at the Nazareth School of National University in Manila.

Adjustment to better competition
While Justine was able to get by with just his height and his shooting when he was playing in Pampanga, he had to adjust to much better competition when he got to NU.

“Nung pumunta po ako ng Manila, dun ko na nakita yung mga kaparehas kong player na matatangkad din. Kasi dito po sa Pampanga, parang ako ng yung pinaka malaki. Pero pagdating sa Manila, makakatapat ako ng mga kasing laki ko, may mga mas matatangkad pa sa akin,” Justine said.

“Nung una po, wala pa talaga akong kagalaw-galaw, puro tira lang ako sa labas,” he admitted.

Good thing was he was quick to pick up what NU Bullpups coach Jeff Napa was teaching him.

“Nung nag-tryout po ako kay coach Jeff Napa, nasusunod ko naman yung mga utos ni coach Jeff, so parang nagustuhan niya na marunong ako pumick up. Sabi po sa akin nin coach Jeff, pwede ko na daw dalhin yung gamit ko, dun na daw po ako maglaro [sa NU].”

And while his game continued to grow, he also struggled with homesickness, just like how a lot of athletes from the province do when they come to Manila. But his desire to improve his game simply fired him up.

“Talagang gusto ko pong matuto ng basketball kasi nandun na po lahat e. Nandun na po yung pag-aaral ko, may mga allowance naman po. Tapos tinutukan po ako ni coach Jeff. Lahat ng tinuturo niya, inaapply ko sa training, sa laro,” he said, admitting that he didn’t know much about basketball before coming to NU. And just a couple of years later, he became the Finals MVP while leading the Bullpups to the crown in UAAP Season 78.

“Nandun na din po kasi ako sa nag-eextra work po ako, so talagang gusto kong magpimprove. Kasi galing po kami sa championship series, talo po kami sa Ateneo po [the previous season]. Rookie po ako non. So sabi sakin ni coach, kung saan ako mahina, kasi sobrang payat ko po non e, nabibitawan ko palagi yung bola, madaling maagaw sa akin. So parang pinush po talaga ako ni coach Jeff, kaya malaki po talaga yung tulong na binigay niya sa akin.

Playing behind Ben MBala
It took some time before Justine committed to any college program, but he ended up playing for De La Salle nonetheless. When he came in, however, the former Finals MVP had to be a backup big man, especially with Ben MBala manning the middle for the Green Archers.

“Hindi po nawalan ng pag-asa non e. Siyempre po, MBala muna yung focus nila, parang nakakasabayan ko po siya sa training, kung pano ko po siya bantayan. Tinuturuan niya din po ako e, so medyo natuto din po ako sa kanya.”

And when his time to star for La Salle came, Justine didn’t try to fill in on his own the gigantic shoes left by the former La Salle import.

“Inisiip ko po non, hindi ko naman kayang pantayan yung ginawa ni Mbala. Basta, kung anung talent po meron ako, yun yung ipapakita ko. Ibibigay ko yung best ko. Pati kung anuman natutunan ko nung nandun si kuya Ben.”

Future is looking bright
Today, Justine is among the biggest stars in the UAAP as he is able to contribute on both ends of the Green Archers. He was also named in the initial list of eight amateur players who were included in the Gilas Pilipinas pool for the Southeast Asian Games. Things are truly turning brighter for him, but he still has a lot of goals to achieve in his career.

“Gusto ko pong mag-champion yung La Salle. Kasi kung Mythical Five po, para sa sarili ko lang yung e. Mas maganda po kung champion para lahat po ng teammate ko masaya. Pati po mga alumni, La Salle community. Kung papalarin naman sa Mythical Five, bakit hindi. Magpapasalamat na din kay God po.”

He also wants to play in the PBA, and he has eyes set on a championship and helping out his family.

“Siguro kung saan man ako mapunta [sa PBA], mapag-champion ko po sana yung team. At matulungan ko po sana sa buhay yung mga kapatid ko.”

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