Taking the bad with the good
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
Petras Balocka is a man of the world.
He's got the languages — and personalities — to prove it.
The 6-foot-8, 265-pound senior forward may just be the player who epitomizes the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team this season.
One game, outstanding. Next game, outlandish.
"I think my emotions get the best out of me a lot of times, and that's the bad Petras," Balocka said. "And the good Petras is when he plays with less emotion and more focus."
His inconsistencies are mirrored by the team.
The Rainbow Warriors are 9-17 overall after — what else? — an inconsistent performance in a 102-89 non-conference home loss to Cal Poly on Saturday. It was the latest in an eight-game losing streak.
Balocka and the 'Bows now have just four games remaining to salvage the regular season and sneak into the Western Athletic Conference Tournament. Hawai'i is currently tied with Boise State at the bottom of the WAC standings at 2-10.
The last-place team at the end of the regular season will not qualify for the WAC Tournament.
This is senior week for the 'Bows, the final two home games for Balocka and four other seniors.
"Right now, I just want to make it to the WAC Tournament because anything is possible there," Balocka said.
If so, much will depend on Balocka.
"His abilities are what we need nightly to have a chance," Hawai'i head coach Bob Nash said. "He has a unique ability to facilitate plays, he makes his teammates better with his passing, and he's a strong rebounder. But on the nights when he doesn't have it, we struggle as a team."
MEET GOOD PETRAS
Think of all the great big men in Hawai'i basketball history. Bob Nash, Tommy Barker, Reggie Cross, Tony Maroney, Marquette Alexander, Haim Shimonovich, Ahmet Gueye ...
Balocka is in the record books with the best.
Earlier this season, he became just the third player in Hawai'i basketball history to record at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same game. The only other 'Bows to do it were Nash and Melton Werts.
Balocka nearly did it again on Saturday, finishing with 23 points and 16 rebounds in the loss to Cal Poly.
"I just do what ever I can to help the team," he said.
Balocka does it with strength and smarts.
"He's not going to out-jump anybody for a rebound," Nash said. "But he knows how to use his body to get in position and hold guys off to get that rebound and get his shot off."
Hawai'i forward Bill Amis led the team in rebounding last season, but is sitting out this season due to a foot injury. He saw the double-double potential in Balocka last season.
"With his strength and speed, he's a tough matchup for a lot of guys," Amis said. "In practice, I think he knew he could get what ever he wanted against me just because he was so much stronger."
Problem is, there have not been enough sightings of this "good Petras."
MEET BAD PETRAS
As impressive as the 20-20 performance was, there have been many more unimpressive outings for Balocka and the 'Bows.
There was even a shocking 0-0 game — he didn't score a single point or grab a rebound in six minutes of a loss at New Mexico State.
Part of it has to do with a sprained shoulder that has bothered him for the past two months.
"I feel like the shoulder injury got me out of sync real bad, it got me out of my comfort zone," Balocka said. "(Doctors) told me I won't be able to lift heavy weights ... the shoulder is always going to be weak."
There's also that emotional thing.
Balocka has become renowned for his on-court antics. Complaining to referees with his arms outstretched and palms upward, arguing with teammates, scolding himself, making "suggestions" to his coaches.
The sometimes childish behavior has often led to the childish equivalent of a timeout.
"If a call doesn't go his way, or he misses a layup, it sets him off in a negative manner that can spread to his teammates," Nash said. "It's not that he's mean-spirited or anything to his teammates. It's just not the right time for that, and sometimes the best option for that is to sit him down."
Balocka said he realizes he can be his own worst enemy at times.
"It's been that way ever since I started playing basketball," he said. "I just want to win so bad and when things are not going right, I kind of beat myself up. The bad part is when my teammates feed off that and it brings them down, too. But when I'm having positive energy, they feed off that, too, so I need to get more of that."
Through the ups and downs, Balocka is averaging 7.8 points and a team-best 8.1 rebounds per game this season.
MEET REAL PETRAS
Balocka's most impressive accomplishment came off the court in December. He graduated with a degree in sociology.
He came to Hawai'i from Pensacola Junior College in 2008. It is a rarity for junior college transfers to graduate in less than two years.
"It's very rare, actually," said Conred Maddox, the team's academic coordinator. "In junior college, you can accumulate a lot of credits, but not all of them transfer. Once Petras realized what he needed to do, he committed himself to that degree and got it done. It's really impressive — a model for other student-athletes."
Making it more impressive, English is not Balocka's first language — although it is fast becoming his language of choice.
He grew up in Lithuania and also speaks Russian and Polish.
He came to the United States in 2002 to play basketball. He attended a private school in Georgia for four years, and also had college stints in Tennessee and Florida before signing with Hawai'i.
"He has a bit of perspective that most students don't," Maddox said. "He's literally been all over the world, and I think that has really helped him."
Nash said: "Off the court, he has that type of outgoing personality that people gravitate to. It's just on the court where he gets competitive, and that's not always a bad thing. He just has to control it."
Nash and the other Hawai'i coaches often have to deal with "smart Petras" when he decides to question a play or a drill.
"You mean Coach Balocka?" Nash said with a laugh. "I hope he gets the privilege to coach a team someday with 10 Petrases so he knows what we're dealing with."
First, Balocka said he'd like to give professional basketball a shot.
"I'd like to go to Europe and try and play basketball there if it can work out," he said.
Despite the disappointing season of the 'Bows so far, Balocka said his two seasons in Hawai'i will not be forgotten.
"At least I got to live in a wonderful place for two years of my life and I cherish every moment of it," he said.