The way people understand the road toward the Filipino NBA dream is rather simplistic. Playing in the country isn’t enough. Going abroad, and chasing better opportunities for training and competition are needed to complete this task. Perfection is expected out of these dreams whenever they are chased, and any sort of struggle would be deemed a failure.
It was the 11th of February, 2018, when the Ateneo Blue Eaglets found themselves celebrating inside the Blue Eagle Gym after a hard fought win versus the NU Bullpups. The mood around the team was fiery, but light, as the victory secured Ateneo of an outright slot in the UAAP Juniors Finals, after sweeping their 14 games in the eliminations. It was a good day to be a Blue Eaglet.
More hoop dreams:
But standing at the corner was a seven foot pogo stick, Kai Sotto. There was a smile on his face, but it wasn’t as bright as the others. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel happy at winning the game. Of course he was happy; they had just booked a ticket to the Finals. The faint smile on his face became more clear a few seconds after, as he suddenly found himself holding onto his shorts, simply trying to catch his breath after what had been a physical game.
Sotto, for all of his dominance, was exhausted. It had been the first time in a stellar Season 80 run where he looked vulnerable. NU’s bevy of bigs in Rhayyan Amsali, Paolo Javillionar, and Michael Malonzo had teamed up to tire out the giant that was Kai. All three bigs were actively testing Sotto’s mobility, and for the most part, it worked.
For quite some time now, Sotto has been considered as the country’s best shot at an NBA player. His tantalizing height of 7’2” was enough to gain the attention of even the most demanding of Filipino basketball fans. Blend this in with noticeable skill, IQ, and rare feel for the game, and you have someone who looks built to be the next NBA dreamer.
The last great hope
It was six years ago when someone from the country was branded as a potential NBA dreamer. Kobe Paras, while not possessing of Sotto’s impeccable height, had athleticism that was clearly fit for the NBA game. For someone who stood at a respectable 6’6”, Paras is a quick-twitch, bouncy athlete whose game looked like it was in another level compared to his peers in the country. After a run at the Finals with the La Salle Greenhills Junior Blazers, Paras made the jump to the United States to pursue further training with Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, and eventually, Middlebrooks Academy.
After numerous highlight reels from notable outlets like Ballislife, Filipino basketball fans felt like this was it. Kobe Paras was set to become the first Filipino-raised prospect who would play for the NBA. However, struggle came.
He played one year with the Creighton Bluejays in the US NCAA Division 1, but did not receive much burn over the course of the year. That’s why Paras opted to transfer to the Cal State Northridge Matadors, only for him to leave after the coach that recruited him, Reggie Theus, was removed from his position. Suddenly, the what was once linear road to the league looked hazy and impossible. Paras wound up going back to the Philippines and has since then deemed as a cautionary tale for upcoming NBA dreamers.
Which then brings us back to Sotto, who’s struggling to catch his breath after a grueling grind versus the NU Bullpups. It’s struggle like that, against players half his size, that cause Filipino basketball fans to come up with comments such as these:
Don’t even bother.
Magagaya ka lang kay Paras.
Tangkad ka lang!
Doubters of Sotto and other NBA dreamers continued to bark that chasing the big league was pointless. They often pointed to Paras, implying that more than as a sign of caution, his journey is proof that Filipinos simply do not have it. It’s an experience that’s considered as life-depleting more than anything else. Just lay down, and give up as you catch your breath, haters would whisper in Sotto’s ear.
But then, in Sotto’s other ear was his dad, Ervin, who has been his mentor in basketball ever since he was born. His dad never forced him to play the sport, but since Sotto’s interest in it was natural, Ervin simply served as a guide on Sotto’s unique journey.
With the possibility of the NBA being opened up as early as Season 80, the cautionary tale of Paras was thrown around once more. However, he didn’t treat this as some life-depleting narrative. Instead, he looked at this with humility, an experience his son can use so he doesn’t make the same mistakes Kobe had before.
Steps to glory
The core of Ervin’s guidance starts with the concept of a step-by-step process that he laid out for his son. This was something that wasn’t familiar to basketball fans during Kobe’s sojourn up west. Ervin, however, wanted his son to realize this wouldn’t be a quick, linear journey as contrary to popular belief.
Step 1 for Sotto was to dominate in the Philippines, something he had begun to do during Season 80. However, here he was, huffing and puffing after a grueling game versus the NU Bullpups. Would he give up then, and throw the towel in fear of Kobe Paras’ cautionary tale?
“Nag-weights ako, nag-workout ako ng maayos,” said Kai then on what he did after the struggle versus the NU Bullpups. “Tsaka every practice, talagang shooting ako after hanggang sa halos hindi na ako makatayo, makatakbo.” Sotto looked at the situation the same way as his dad. He viewed it with humility, recognizing that this wasn’t going to be a linear process. There would be bumps. Sotto would be pushed. The difference between the elite and the normal, would be how they’d respond to the pressure. Sotto was willing to push back.
It was a worthwhile push, as during the Finals against the same NU team, Sotto averaged 17-12-6 (blocks), en route to a Finals MVP award. “Madami talaga nagagawa yung effort pag sa loob ng court. Extra effort lang talaga,” lamented his dad when asked about how he bounced back. Step 1 was already complete as early as then.
After dominating the country, came Step 2: dominate the Asian level. This was difficult, as the country hadn’t had history of dominating the Asian level at that time. Would history humble you, or take away the life out of you?
Humility was always the answer. Sotto took on the challenge, and as the FIBA Asia U16 tournament rolled along, slowly gained control of his game. When everything was said and done, Sotto dominated, stamping his mark as one of the most dominant big men to watch out for in the Asian level for years to come.
“Kaya mo na ba makipagsabayan sa Asia, sa mas matanda sa’yo. Try naman natin sa ibang lugar,” Ervin recalled telling his son after a solid performance during the FIBA Asia U18 tournament. It was evident that Sotto had already completed Step 2. Next up was Step 3: the world level.
Even as early as September, Ervin was already saying, “Kung titingnan mo siya ngayon, puwede mo na siya bitawan abroad.” The elder Sotto, along with the rest of the clan, recognized the situation at hand. Sotto was special. He was different from Paras, Japeth Aguilar, or any of the other players deemed as failures by the wide Filipino fanbase. They weren’t going to let cautionary tales stop their chase at the NBA dream.
“Yung fear kasi, may kabaligtaran, yung reward,” Ervin says. “Yung development nung bata, mabilis. So bakit mo puputulin kung may opportunity sa ibang bansa na alam mo naman na mago-grow siya?”
The opportunity presented itself with multiple offers from European teams and even schools abroad. As of this writing, the family hadn’t decided yet on where Kai would go. Step 3 wasn’t complete yet, by any means. It’s still ongoing, and its current setting is now in Atlanta, where Kai is undergoing training in a personalized program. “Puro individual. More on strengthening ng katawan,” Ervin says.
The lingering question now is, where will Kai go after his training in Atlanta? The next step will come after the FIBA U19 World Cup, which will be held in Greece from June to July. “Puwede kami bumalik ng States, or mag-decide kami bumalik ng Europe,” Ervin says. “Wala pa kami dun. Pero nandun yung path ni Kai.”
The road to the NBA isn’t as easy as others have made it to be, but this doesn’t have to be something life-depleting. Sometimes you need to take events like this with humility, and use it to fuel your own passion moving forward.
This is the road Kai Sotto and his family are taking as he chases his NBA dream. It’s a step-by-step process that may even be considered as tasking by others. But they know that doing this as carefully as possible can pay off in the long run. “Bakit ka matatakot kung ito naman talaga yung gusto mo?” Ervin would say. For Kai and the Sottos, failure isn’t the end. It’s necessary pain that one needs for the reward that is fulfilling the Filipino dream of making it to the NBA.