For the first time in four years, La Salle -- and its proud basketball program -- is where it believes it belongs: the UAAP Final Four. For the first time since 2018, Justine Baltazar will showcase his skills on the biggest stage, under the brightest lights.
The Green Archers' graduating big has been to the playoffs, of course. In fact, he was already in Taft Ave. when Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng delivered a dominant championship in Season 79. In his first two years in green and white, however, he had more minutes on the bench than on the court itself. Once Mbala left, many of his minutes went to his 6-foot-7 former backup, who then wasted no time proving capable and confident at carrying the heavier burden.
The only problem was, La Salle failed to advance past the elimination round in Seasons 81 and 82. Tack on two more years lost due to the pandemic and Baltazar's last bite at the big-time was back in 2015, when he was still leading National U to the championship in the high school ranks.
"Miss na miss ko na ang Final Four," he expressed over the phone just after the Green Archers finally gave him what he wanted, triumphing over Adamson last Thursday to book a playoff trip. "Gustong-gusto kong suklian yung tiwala ng La Salle community sa pagdala sa kanila sa Final Four, tas sana sa finals."
Without a doubt, the 25-year-old wants nothing more than this: still getting to play after 14 games, still having a shot at the championship, still preparing to the utmost especially up against higher-seeded and twice-to-beat UP. He wants nothing more than this -- except for one other thing, that is.
Baltazar and La Salle have been staying inside their in-campus bubble since January. The only times they get to go outside are when they travel to the Mall of Asia Arena to play a game. Right after their assignments, they can go nowhere but back to Taft Avenue.
If only he had his way, though, he will go somewhere else. Of course, he'd still be training with and playing for La Salle. Only, he'd be going home right after, he'd be taking care of his wife who gave birth in 2020, he'd be going to his firstborn who's turning two on May 28.
"Miss na miss ko na sila, yun lang," he shared, his straightforward tone changing at the slightest whenever he mentions wife Rizza and son Zeus Avery. "Bilang tatay, siyempre, gustong-gusto ko sanang makasama ang anak ko. Masakit na 'di ko sila kasama."
As much as he's ready and raring to carry a team as storied as La Salle back to where they believe they belong, Baltazar hopes to be able to carry his firstborn just as much -- if not more. But alas, still-tight restrictions won't let him do both. For now then, there's nothing he and his family can do but to sacrifice.
"Ang focus ko talaga ngayon, UAAP. Gusto kong maganda yung laro ko kasi kung anumang mangyayari sa career ko, nakadepende rito," shared Baltazar, back to his steely self. "Kailangan kong magsakripisyo kasi ginagawa ko 'to para sa future namin. Lahat 'to, para sa amin."
The Green Archers' man in the middle is very much on track to a top three, if not top overall, selection in the upcoming PBA Draft. With per game counts of 12.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists, in 31.6 minutes, he's the most polished young big today. Even more, interest from abroad remains and there's a good chance that he'd still get to join in on the fun of new-age Filipino players putting their talent on display in Japan, Taiwan, or even Korea.
While the future is indeed bright and he's well on his way in becoming a household name, Baltazar still can't help but wonder if his own son knows him, or even recognizes him. This, even though he makes it a point to go on video calls with his family whenever his schedule permits. This, even though Zeus Avery apparently has a habit of shouting "Go, daddy!" whenever he sees a round object akin to the basketball that represents his and his father's future.
"Minsan, sa video call, 'di niya ako pinapansin. Siyempre, mas close siya sa nanay niya tas may times talagang parang 'di niya ako kilala," he shared. "Masakit, siyempre, pero alam ko namang mangyayari yun dahil sa desisyon ko. Kailangan na lang magtiis lalo."
Father to a son in Apalit town in Pampanga province. Big brother and team captain to La Salle's playoff team in Taft Avenue. Baltazar hopes he can just be in two places at the same time. It doesn't work that way, though, and for now at least, he just has to take care of business.
Whatever happens in the UAAP in the coming week, a May 7 decision looms large over Baltazar's head, as that's the deadline of application for the 2022 PBA Draft. Hearing his name called by the commissioner on draft day would be a dream come true, but hearing cheers from foreign fans remains a viable avenue as well. Whatever his final decision will be, one thing's for sure: it will be all for the future of his family.
"Ang dream ko talaga is makalaro sa PBA. Yun ang pinagtatrabahuan ko mula nang pumunta akong Manila," he shared. "Pagpro na ako, mag-iipon ako para mabigyan yung anak ko ng mas magandang buhay kaysa sa akin."
Actually, Baltazar wasn't necessarily telling the truth when he was talking about his ultimate dream. Yes, playing in the PBA is a most definite dream. However, his ultimate hope is to build a home for his family, because right now, his wife and son are still living with his in-laws.
"Wala pa kaming bahay. Nahihiya na nga ako sa biyenan ko kaya gustong-gusto ko na talagang mag-ipon," he shared. "Ang pinakagusto kong mangyari ngayon, mag-ipon at kung sapat na, bubukod na kami. Ang pinakapangarap ko para sa amin, magkaroon ng sariling bahay."
Sooner than later, Justine Baltazar is certainly coming home to his wife and son, coming home to his family. And all his time away? That was all about building them their future home.