Back in 2016, Justine Baltazar was, bar none, the best big man coming out of high school.
A two-way force for then champion Nazareth School of National University, Baltazar committed to De La Salle University for college.
Once he was there, however, a big obstacle was in front of him in the depth chart – a big obstacle by the name of Ben Mbala.
Being arguably the best foreign student-athlete in collegiate basketball, of course, Mbala gobbled up all the numbers and all the minutes.
And that was why, in his first two seasons in the Seniors, Baltazar, the once blue-chip recruit, only averaged 3.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 9.4 minutes.
Off the court, however, he was actually getting better and better thanks to all the time matching up against the two-time MVP during La Salle practices.
Mbala himself seems to think so. “I won’t lie to you, I used to (overpower) him during practice. Not in the wrong way,” he narrated.
He then continued, “But I was really pushing him hard.”
For his part, Baltazar only acknowledged that he did get pushed by the Cameroonian powerhouse – pushed to be better. “Si Mbala kasi, ang lakas ng katawan e. Natitibag niya talaga ako, lalo na nung una, kasi nung rookie ako, ang payat ko talaga,” he said.
He then continued, “Kaya nabigyan talaga niya ako ng motivation para mag-improve.”
Little by little, the 6-foot-7 native of Pampanga did just that – with a little help from then big man coach Glenn Capacio and Mbala himself, of course. “Yung post moves tsaka rebounding, yun talaga tinuro ni Mbala sa akin. Sabi rin niya, dapat mas matapang pa ako sa depensa,” he said.
He then continued, “Malaking tulong si Mbala, pero pati rin si coach Glenn kasi siya talaga tumutok sa akin.”
Once “Big Ben” graduated, Baltazar wasted no time in establishing himself as the Green Archers’ new paint presence – and with per game counts of 13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 1.3 assists in 27.6 minutes, muscled his way into the Season 81 Mythical Team. “Ito yung pinagpaguran ko. Pinakita ko talagang deserve ko yung mga binigay sa akin ngayong taon,” he said.
For that, Mbala is nothing but happy for his former sparring partner. “I can only be happy for him because he was patient and trusted the process. He kept working and now, it’s his time to shine and show what he can do,” he said.
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