NEW YORK — Renaldo Balkman loosened his green silk tie as he climbed into the back seat of his 2007 BMW 750 sedan. His night of work complete following another New York Knicks loss, Balkman and his entourage pulled away from Madison Square Garden and into the New York City night.
Balkman and his posse were not headed to any of New York City’s famous nightclubs. Instead, they drove 45 minutes north of the city to Balkman’s in-season home in Westchester County for an evening of video games and billiards.
Life for the 23-year-old former South Carolina player over the past five years has gone from abject poverty to inordinate wealth. Yet his is not a life of bright lights in the big city, but one of your typical NBA player trying to handle new-found fame within an inner circle of friends and business associates.
“They say this city never sleeps,” Balkman said before a recent Knicks game at the Garden. “Well, I like to sleep.”
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To understand Balkman’s life, one needs to meet those who surround him. There are his parents and two sisters, who have been removed by Balkman from the Tampa, Fla., neighborhood that he escaped thanks to his immense basketball skills. He purchased his mother what he calls “a modest home” — although five bedrooms seems more than modest — in Tampa shortly after signing a rookie contract with the Knicks in 2007 that paid him $1.3 million.
Balkman also cares for his 19-month old child, Michael, and the mother of that child, both of whom live in Columbia. That brings the number of family members under Balkman’s personal and financial umbrella to six.
Every professional athlete also needs an agent, and through the advice of former USC coach Dave Odom, Balkman hooked on with Andre Buck, who is based in Philadelphia and also has represented such NBA stars as Allen Iverson and LeBron James.
Buck is charged with handling Balkman’s investments, which in addition to his mother’s house include several vintage cars of which Balkman could recall neither the makes nor models. Balkman is in the market to purchase a home of his own in Florida.
Buck negotiated a deal for Balkman two years ago that pays him $1.4 million for this season, $2.1 million for the 2008-09 season and $3 million for the 2009-10 season. That money is guaranteed, and if Balkman invests well, he could retire when his current contract expires and never work another day of his life.
Balkman receives an allowance from his agent, and that’s where his expenditures get a little murky. We will refrain from calling certain folks “hangers-on” because they offer services necessary to Balkman, whether it be paying his bills or providing friendship to someone living what could be a lonely life.
These folks comprise Balkman’s posse, and before you snicker, understand that nearly every unmarried professional athlete in the three major sports has one. The more established and wealthier the athlete, the bigger the posse. ESPN The Magazine recently detailed the posse of Major League Baseball player Jimmy Rollins and found that he doles out $90,000 annually for a hair stylist and another $90,000 for a personal chef.
Balkman is not to that level yet. His posse consists of two men. Terrise Sharpe is a stocky black man who will not reveal his age but appears to be in his late 20s and is most noticeable because of the gold cross that hangs from his neck. Balkman pays Sharpe for his services.
Seated next to Sharpe for Knicks home games, directly across from the New York bench and four rows deep, is Lee Johnson, a 22-year-old white man whose diamond earrings sparkle in the courtside light of the Garden. Johnson is not paid by Balkman, who does pay his friend’s living expenses.
Sharpe said he does not talk to reporters, but he did offer a couple of comments.
When asked about being the “personal manager” to an NBA player, Sharpe replied: “I don’t think much of it. It’s what another man would do for another man.”
Then, when asked what qualifications he brings to the job, Sharpe replied: “I’ve been through a lot of stuff he’s going through now.”
An Internet search found a Terrise Sharpe who played one season as a defensive lineman for Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Benton, Texas. In his seven games for Mary Hardin-Baylor, Sharpe made 20 tackles.
Otherwise, we only know, through Johnson, that Sharpe pays Renaldo’s bills, occasionally drives the three to and from Madison Square Garden, specializes in whipping up a meal of baked chicken with rice and string beans, and handles Balkman’s complementary pass list for Knicks home games.
Johnson, who since has returned to live with his family in Myrtle Beach, is more willing to talk. He was a student manager for the USC basketball team during Balkman’s junior season. He is a Florence native whose father, Tommy, is the boys basketball coach at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach.
Balkman and Johnson immediately hit it off during the 2005-06 season at USC. Johnson suggested Balkman use a moped to get around campus, and Johnson retains possession of the bike today.
Johnson remained at USC for one season after Balkman departed early for the NBA. Following Balkman’s first season with the Knicks, he coaxed Johnson into dropping out of school and providing companionship throughout the season, which concludes this week.
What Johnson found was that there is not much down time for NBA players. On days of games, the Knicks conduct morning shootarounds at their practice complex in White Plains, N.Y., not far from Balkman’s home. A practice is scheduled every off day.
Balkman’s idea of fun on an off day might be going to lunch at a Manhattan restaurant with Sharpe and Johnson, but for the most part it centers on playing the video game Madden ‘08 or watching a movie at home. Seldom does the trio venture out at night in New York City.
“That’s not a big thing for us,” Johnson said. “That’s not a necessity for us. The big city? That’s not a big thing.”
Balkman said he has encouraged Johnson to return and earn his undergraduate degree, either from USC or Coastal Carolina, as Balkman said he will do when his pro basketball career is completed. Johnson is more than one year short of a degree, and Balkman is at least one year shy.
Johnson is unsure whether he will return to be with Balkman next season. If not, at least one person with great influence on Balkman believes it is important someone fill Johnson’s role.
“If you’re alone, you’re away from your family; you’ve got to have somebody to talk to because you’re always on the go,” said George Glymph, the longtime and highly successful coach at Eau Claire High School and a New York Knicks assistant coach. “You need not only somebody you can talk to, but somebody you can really trust.”
Glymph knows all about the NBA posse business. Glymph was hired away from Eau Claire in 1997 by the Portland Trail Blazers. His job was to teach shooting, but more importantly to help one of his former players at Eau Claire, Jermaine O’Neal, make a smooth transition from high school to the NBA.
Glymph took it upon himself to serve in the same capacity when Balkman was a first-round pick of the Knicks in 2007. Glymph, 64, said he is somewhat of a father figure to Balkman, who concurred.
Everything Glymph saw in Balkman when he arrived in New York he had seen in dealing with O’Neal, first in Portland and then with the Indiana Pacers.
“No matter how much you want them to try to live a normal life, take the money and invest it and put some away, the moment they get that money, the first thing they’re going to do is buy a car,” Glymph said. “Number two, the bling-bling, the jewelry. Number three, they might get clothes. Number four, then they might start thinking (about investments).”
Glymph said Balkman fell in line with that spending pattern. He bought the BMW. When he traveled with the team, but did not play because of an injury, for an exhibition game in Columbia, Balkman sported a diamond earring with the interlocking “NY” logo of the Knicks.
Then Glymph said he lined up Balkman with a tailor. Since the Knicks require jackets and ties for all games, Balkman needed a set of suits. Before one recent game, Balkman arrived at Madison Square Garden nattily attired in a tan suit offset by a light green silk shirt with cufflinks and a matching green silk tie.
One area in which Balkman needed no direction was in winning the favor of Knicks fans. Considered among the harshest in the NBA, New York fans nonetheless will align themselves with a player who exerts maximum effort at all times. Balkman is that guy.
He was a fan favorite from the first time he ripped a rebound off the defensive goal, led a one-man fast break on the dribble and found an open teammate for a layup. His defensive skills are rated among the best in the league, and he is a tireless worker for rebounds and loose balls.
But as Odom told the Knicks when they drafted Balkman, he is raw, and natural ability and instincts take a player only so far in the NBA.
“I told him, you work hard on your jumper,” Glymph said. “You start making that mid-range jump shot, your value will go through the roof, because once you can score in this league — if you can put up 10 or 12 points — and play the kind of defense he plays, they will pay you well.”
The way Glymph sees it, Balkman can continue to be a role player the next two years of his contract. But if he does not develop a mid-range jump shot, he likely will end up playing in Europe. With a jump shot, Balkman could begin to see the money available to the top players in the league, in the $10 million-a-year range.
Balkman need only look beside him on the New York Knicks bench to see the best example of that type of transformation. David Lee arrived in New York three seasons ago as a first-round pick out of Florida with virtually no shooting skills. He has worked tirelessly at improving his shooting, and his scoring average has gone from 5.1 points to 10.7 to 10.7 in three seasons.
Over the first 132 games of his NBA career, Balkman has averaged 4.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 15 minutes of action. His 49.2 percent free-throw shooting must improve. He shoots 49.7 percent from the field but must extend his game to between 12 and 15 feet from the basket.
To that end, Balkman worked hard following his first season in the league during the summer in Tampa. He returned this season willing to work harder. Glymph puts Balkman through shooting sessions following every practice and before every game.
It is somewhat surprising that in those sessions, Balkman catches the ball, dribbles once and shoots. Advanced shooters learn to catch and shoot, sans the dribble. But Glymph says Balkman still is attempting to consistently repeat the same motion with the same release point on every shot, and the dribble gives him some balance before shooting.
Until his shooting improves, Balkman will continue to play a wide-open game on the court and entertain his fans off the court and on the sideline. Balkman is first among the Knicks to volunteer for events around New York. He said he enjoys visiting area hospitals because of the “joy it can bring” to patients, and he is heavily involved in the Garden of Dreams campaign for needy New York City children.
His energy level — off and on the court — never seems to dissipate. One can get tired simply watching Balkman before a game. He is constantly in motion, shaking hands one evening with every member of a New York City Boys and Girls Club. Then he invited what looked to be an 8-year-old on the sideline to feed him passes as he practiced his jump shot.
During pregame introduction of the Detroit Pistons, Balkman did pull-ups on the Knicks’ rim. Then, as the Knicks were introduced, he sat in the front row of seats across from the New York bench — a few seats down from Spike Lee — and sprinted to the free-throw line to greet each starter.
Finally, just before tip-off, Balkman began at the scorer’s table and shook the hand of the public-address announcer, the timekeeper, the official scorer, a couple of ushers, every New York coach, every player, and even the ball boys at the end of the bench.
He entered the game against Detroit two minutes into the second quarter and immediately blocked a shot, led a fast break and finished it with a one-hand slam dunk. All season he has represented what little life remains for a team that fell just short of a franchise-record 60 losses this season.
It is why Balkman is not likely to be among those shipped off when new Knicks president Donnie Walsh begins purging the roster of the unwanted. There is something to be said for a player who offers energy, and who is rewarded for that effort by being a fan favorite.
Following nearly every home game, a crowd gathers at the back side of Madison Square Garden where players drive their cars out from beneath the famous arena. Invariably, that crowd begins chanting “Balkman! Balkman! Balkman!” when his BMW emerges.
Balkman and his posse are off into the New York City night and beyond, off to a quiet night of video games and billiards.