Arkansas State basketball coach Mike Balado celebrates Cuban heritage off and on the court
Arkansas State head basketball coach Mike Balado may have dedicated his life to the game, but his childhood dream was to be a professional wrestler.
“I missed my calling 25 years ago,” joked Balado.
The basketball coach grew up watching wrestling in the back of his dad’s dry-cleaning business. His parents and grandparents migrated from Cuba and built a new life for themselves and their children in Miami.
“My cousin and I used to work in the back [of the dry cleaning business], and they had a little black and white TV. And every morning at 11 am, on Saturdays, they put wrestling on, so we watch it every week. And that was my first dream, to be a professional wrestler,” said Balado.
His ongoing love for wrestling is not the only sport Balado inherited from his father. He became a basketball fan thanks to his dad, who discovered the Boston Celtics one day while watching a game where the Celtics were losing.
“He thought they were the underdog, so he related to that, not knowing the team had won seven championships in a row,” said Balado.
Balado grew up watching basketball games with his dad and became not only a fan of the Celtic but of the game itself.
“That’s when I became so interested in basketball, around the seventh grade, watching Larry Bird play and all those teams. I loved it so much. I didn’t know if there was anything else I wanted to do besides play sports, but I didn’t know where it was gonna take me,” he said.
Growing up, Balado learned there were many other things he could do in the sport besides playing, and coaching was one of them. But that wasn’t Balado’s first career choice.
The coach majored in psychology and had his eyes set on becoming a criminal psychologist. But the love for sports kept pulling him back to his roots, so he wanted to use his psychology degree to help other athletes handle difficult situations, especially in individual sports like golf and tennis.
Balado got his first taste at coaching At Augusta State as a grad assistant. From there, he coaches at various schools in South Florida. His first power five stop was at Louisville.
In 2017, he earned his first DI head coaching job at Arkansas State.
When Balado started coaching, he said his psychology degree helped him tremendously with his players.
“[In addition to being a coach], you also have to mentor a lot of these players. You need to be almost like a father figure to a lot of them. It’s just not telling them what to do in the court; you also have to raise them off the court,” said Balado.
His psychology degree is one of many tools Balado uses to coach his players. He also brings the lessons he learned growing up in an immigrant household.
“One of the things that we always talked about in our household was, don’t expect anything to be handed to you. Everyone goes through rough times in life, and you can’t just expect things to be handed to you. You have to work hard,” he said.
Balado said he grew up in a loving household filled with music and food. Still, his parents and grandparents were also very disciplined about academics and “making sure you’re doing stuff the right way.”
This same discipline and work ethic is what the basketball coach brings to his team, and he said it’s one of the things he enjoys most about his job.
“Basketball is fun, it’s stressful, but I enjoy it. But my favorite part of the day is being able to interact with young men and help change their lives, become men, and grow to become better people in society,” said Balado.
Since Balado has been in Arkansas State, every player who finished their eligibility to play in Division I received their college degree. And in the past five years, out of the roughly 22 recruits, 12 of them were the first people in their families to receive a college education.
Balado has also hired several Hispanic assistant coaches. One is now the head coach at Tallahassee Community College, and another is the head coach at Greensboro.
The idea of turning back to lend a hand and help others reach their goals is a lesson Balado also learned from his Cuban heritage. And as one of only four Hispanic coaches in Division I Men’s basketball, Balado is more than happy to open the doors for other Latinos interested in the game.
“My goal is to continue to build other Hispanics and give them the opportunity to become head coaches one day, but the only way we can do that is to continue to be accessible, and being open and really trying to do a great job of helping those that are Latino to have that opportunity. And if we do that, you’ll see growth, which I hope there is,” said Balado.
Balado added that his “door is always open” and encourages people to reach out to him via his social media channels.
As for what the future holds for the basketball coach, he said he prefers to put all of his focus in the now – on his family, his players, and the Arkansas State program, leaving a bit of time to watch some professional wrestling like he did when he was a kid.
“Outside of basketball and being a great dad, or trying to be a great dad and a great husband, I take my time by myself, when everybody’s sleeping and not laughing at me, to watch some professional wrestling,” he said.