Planting his basketball roots in Kokomo decades ago, DJ Balentine returned to the City of Firsts to begin his coaching career at IU Kokomo.
After graduating from the University of Evansville in 2016, Balentine continued his basketball career professionally overseas, traveling to countries such as Lithuania, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Cyprus. Although he always thought coaching would be the next step for him, he didn’t think the opportunity would be available so soon.
“When this opportunity came to me, at first it was just a thought in the back of my mind. Then I really started digging into the details and thinking about it and talking about it with my family and people in my close circle. They just told me it was a great opportunity, and I realized that and thought, ‘Why not start now and get ahead of everybody at my age who wants to coach? And why not start this great opportunity at IUK?'” Balentine said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Balentine was sent back to the United States from overseas. Around late-April and early-May, he was contacted by Cougars Head Coach Eric Echelbarger about the assistant coaching position. Balentine said he was caught off guard but was flattered by the offer.
Although he planned to continue his professional career for a little longer, Balentine said there was still a small possibility he could return sometime; however, he planned to shift his focus completely to helping others improve their game.
“Basketball’s been my whole life. And I’ve always dedicated everything I have to basketball. I plan on doing the same thing with this, with coaching, just putting in the exact same work. Although I know I can still play at a very high level, it’s just the fact that I’m all-in with this coaching career, and I’m excited where it could take me,” Balentine said.
Balentine said he could benefit IU Kokomo’s men’s basketball program by bringing his knowledge and experience of high-level NBA and European workouts and drills to the team. Additionally, he said he could bring a different perspective of the game mentally.
“I was never the fastest or strongest guy. I was just always smarter than my opponent. I found different ways to score. I really think I can bring that to the guys and up their game up,” Balentine said.
While at Evansville (2012-2016), he became the all-time leading scorer in school history with 2,464 points. He also led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring for three years in a row, a milestone only achieved by two other players in history, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.
Additionally, Balentine was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference performer and finished his career in 2016 as the active leading scorer in the NCAA. He finished his career as the fourth all-time leading scorer in Missouri Valley Conference history.
Before he played for the Aces, Balentine spent his time on the Wildkat courts from 2008 to 2012. He finished his career as the third all-time leading scorer in program history and was named to the Indiana All-Star Team in 2012. He currently sits at number-15 for Howard County’s 1,000 Point Club with a high school career total of 1,280 points.
When asked how it felt to be back in his hometown, Balentine said it was a special feeling.
“It’s surreal because right where I started my basketball career is where I’m starting my coaching career, just to do it around the people who support me and love me so much. So many people in the city that I’ve met once or never really met and are rooting for me and cheering me on like crazy. That support is indescribable how much it means to me,” Balentine said.
Last season, the Cougars won 27 games and advanced to the Sweet-16 of the NAIA National Championship for the second year in a row. The program repeated as West Division champions of the River State Conference (RSC) and runner-up in the RSC Championship Tournament. The Cougars have also earned a combined 53-15 record, two NAIA National Tournament berths, and finished ranked in the NAIA top-25 national rankings for the past two seasons.
Balentine said he was looking forward to the team having an even better season this year and was glad to be a part of it.
“I’m ready to start the season off. This team was really good last year … [Echelbarger] said in conversation this team could be even better. We want to get back to the national tournament and see how far we can go with it,” Balentine said. “From there on, we’ll see what I do. So, just excited to get my coaching career started. Very thankful for this opportunity.”