Matt Balkema, who wears the number 45 for the Eastern Michigan University men’s basketball team, was a man of many talents in high school. A three-sport athlete, Balkema attended Cousino High School in Warren, Mich., which is about 30 minutes northeast of Detroit.
Balkema played football and baseball in addition to basketball while at Cousino. Until his junior year, he was a three-sport varsity star for the Cousino Patriots. He played Amateur Athletic Union basketball for the Michigan Mustangs. It was with the Mustangs that Balkema said he got the most exposure from a recruiting standpoint.
Balkema said he was also able to do some traveling with the Mustangs.
“I traveled all throughout the Midwest and a couple tournaments on the west coast,” Balkema said. “[Las] Vegas always holds a big tournament in the summer. That’s really all I did in the summer in high school.”
Balkema said he got an early start playing basketball.
“I was introduced to basketball at a young age, probably as young as I can remember,” Balkema said. “My parents took me to a lot of camps and put me on elementary club teams. I was bigger than everybody so I figured basketball was the route for me. And it was fun.”
Balkema was almost a football player in college. He said that he was actually recruited at both the mid-major and high-major level to play both football and basketball, but a “sweet dilemma,” as Balkema put it, caused him to stick with basketball instead.
“I had to make a choice,” Balkema said. “Football takes a lot out of you. I wasn’t lazy by any stretch, but basketball was a lot of fun and exciting. [There is] a lot more running up and down. Like I said, I was introduced at an early age and I’ve been around it.”
As a senior, Balkema is focused not only on basketball but also on graduating in the spring.
“The last two years, I’ve been trying to get my grades up,” he said.
When Balkema needs to get away for a little while, as everyone does at some point or another, he said he likes to go to the movies and play video games.
“I love going to the movies as a hobby of mine,” Balkema said. “And I’m a gamer. I’m a ‘Call of Duty’ type of guy.” Balkema also said that he’s excited for the recently released addition to the “Call of Duty” franchise, “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.”
Balkema said he had a lot to take away from his time at EMU.
“I’ve been through a lot my last four years,” Balkema said. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, to be honest. I look back on my freshman year where I was starting the first 10 to 11 games playing 20-25 minutes a game and then I went to zero minutes.”
The rough ride continued into his sophomore year, when he played only 31 games, missing time throughout the year with a hand injury. He said his junior year was no easier.
“Last year, I had a lot of weight issues, keeping it up and down,” Balkema said.
Balkema said the key to managing his weight was taking his time to watch what he eats.
“I think the thing that takes a lot of my time is managing my diet,” Balkema said. “I take a lot of time with what I eat, or I try to at least, to be honest. I try to take a lot of time with extra cardio.”
Balkema said he takes pride in bringing his grades back up. He is a communications major and as far as his career goals after he leaves EMU, he was very clear about how he feels.
“It’s a scary thought to be honest,” Balkema said.
After his initial fear, Balkema admitted that he wants to play
basketball professionally at some level.
“That is the big dream of mine,” Balkema said. “That’s a big goal that I want to achieve.”
Balkema also has an idea of what he wants to do when his professional career ends.
“When I finally hang up the shoes, I would love to stick with sports somehow,” he said. “Whether its coaching or maybe getting into public relations … I would love to be around sports.”
Head coach Rob Murphy taught Balkema his biggest lesson since coming to EMU.
“He says, ‘Look yourself in the mirror, did you really give it your all?’ When you look at things after you’ve done them and kind of reflect and focus on how you’re going to put yourself in a better position to be successful the next time around. I think he’s been a big role model of mine the last two years,” Balkema said.
In addition to considering Murphy a role model, Balkema said his older brother is also someone he looks up to.
“We’re only a year and a half apart, so we’ve been kind of going head-to-head, and he’s a bigger guy like me,”
Balkema said. “We’ve been going head-to-head since we were little tykes. I’ve always competed with him; I’ve always tried to be better than him. I look up to him because I know he’s been through a lot and he’s my older brother.”
Another role model for Balkema is EMU assistant coach Benny White.
“When I’m down, he [White] always knows how to say the right things,” Balkema said. “He has this certain type of wisdom that he preaches to me that just sticks in my head. He uses these different kinds of metaphors that just stick in my head and that I can use in different aspects of my life. I think Coach Benny White is a big time role model of mine.”
Balkema had some final words to say when it came to describing himself.
“I love to be loved and I hate to be hated,” Balkema said. “I like being friends with everybody. So whenever I see the fans in the crowd, primarily our student section, I always try to throw them a look or throw up the deuces, like thank you for your support, I love that you guys support men’s basketball. It makes me feel good when we have a lot of fans.”
Teammate Derek Thompson had some good things to say about Balkema as well.
“On the court, what stands out to me about Matt is his leadership, his energy, the positivity that he brings,” Thompson said. “Always cheering his teammates on regardless of whether he’s on the court or not. Just that unselfishness about him, it is really not about him, but about the team.”