It all started in the 2009-2010 season when senior center Justin Dobbins was stricken with an injury that put him on the sidelines for almost the entire non-conference season. During that time the Eastern Michigan University men’s basketball team relied on, then freshman, Matt Balkema to lead them in the paint.
He went 58.8 percent from the free-throw line and 36.5 percent from the field that season. Balkema started seven games in place of Dobbins and recorded a season-high 10 points and nine rebounds at Georgia State on Dec. 19.
He has been playing basketball since he was a youngster and, if you asked him, he probably could not even tell you how old he was when he first picked up a ball.
“As long as I can remember,” Balkema said. “I’ve seen home videos of me very young, barely walking playing ball in Fisher Price rims.”
Balkema, now a 6-foot-10, 285-pound junior center for the Eagles, hails from Warren, Mich., and graduated from Cousino High School. While at Cousino, Balkema not only shined in basketball, but he was also a starter in football and baseball. But the competitive and physical nature of basketball is what had him hooked.
“I love the game,” he said. “It’s very competitive and just like playing it. Out of all the sports you really have to have an eye for the game. You really have to be athletic. You have to be strong, physical to play this game.”
In his senior season of high school, Balkema averaged 16 points along with 10.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He recorded a total of 13 double-doubles and was named the team’s MVP at the end of the season. He garnered accolades such as second-team All-Macomb area, honorable mention All-State, and a McDonald’s All-American nomination.
When Balkema was considering his options for higher education, EMU stood out for a number of reasons. The main reason for his choice to come to Ypsilanti was its proximity to his hometown.
“I came to EMU because it’s close to home,” Balkema said. “I wanted to be far enough away from home but just enough that my parents can come watch me play.”
Last season with the Eagles, Balkema battled a number of injuries that limited what he could do on the court.
He still managed, however, to play in 18 games and make 10 starts. He tied his career-high of 10 points on Nov. 27 at James Madison while putting up nine points twice in that season.
Since coming to EMU, Balkema has improved in many ways, but picks two as his biggest; academics and learning how to use all 82 inches and 285 pounds of his body to make shots easier for himself. He admits to not really
taking school too seriously in high school, but college changed all of that.
“My biggest improvement since coming to EMU is probably academics,” he said. “Coming out of high school, I didn’t really take my grades seriously, but coming here really made me crack down on the books; off the court. On the court, probably the way I use my body on the court; putting myself in the position to make easy shots.”
So far this season Balkema has played in each of the Eagles’ contests. He is averaging 7.6 points and has gone 53.6 percent from the free-throw line. He is also bringing down 3.5 rebounds per game.
Upon graduating with his degree in Communications, Balkema plans to further his basketball career, and focus on his driving force, his son Mason, who was just recently born.
“After EMU I’d like to take on my basketball career professionally somewhere,” Balkema said.
“That’d be really nice. I just want to be successful and be a good role model for my son.”