Swimming with the big fish
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - March 30, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s hard to imagine being Kai Sotto. At an early age, he’s faced the attention reserved for the rarest of child prodigies. Just his luck, he happens to be in his country’s favorite sport. And given his family history (with a father who played pro basketball), expectations are exceedingly high for the teen to make something of himself. There was palpable disappointment when the Ateneo Blue Eaglets lost the UAAP juniors basketball championship. In spite of all that, Kai has still had an exceptional career.

“Fun, a really fun experience,” Sotto said at the NBTC All-Star Game last weekend. “A happy experience. For me, this has been my best year of my three years in the NBTC All-Stars. And for me this is the most enjoyable and also the most challenging.”

The big news is that Kai and his family have decided to leave the country to seek his basketball fortune overseas, and make a play for the NBA Draft in two or three years. And it may not necessarily involve studying, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Tracy McGrady once told this writer that he was studying to get a job. T-Mac stopped studying to become an NBA player, for him the best job in the world. Other players like Shaquille O’neal finished their studies during or after playing.

There have been other young players whom Filipino fans thought would make it to the NBA. Six-foot ten Gian Chiu left the Blue Eaglets for a high school scholarship in the US, then went to Oberlin College. Japeth Aguilar played for Western Kentucky University – a strong school in a division weaker than its neighbors – alongside NBA first-round pick Courtney Lee, but opted to return to the Philippines and play in the PBA. Ray Parks was offered a scholarship in Georgia Tech, then decided to stay with NU. Afterwards, he tried his luck with a developmental team in the US.

Kai will build himself up physically in the US before trying to join a club in Europe, it seems. This is a wise move, since more than half of the non-American players in the NBA are European. And to Sotto’s advantage, American clubs haven’t learned how to replicate the systems that made them great players. Instead, NBA teams just choose to import more NBA players. Besides, Kai’s finesse and shooting will match European style of play, and will add to his longevity down the road. And teenagers can play professionally in Europe, so he can learn on the job.

“I had a really intense experience with my teammates,” Sotto said. “We didn’t need any bonding activity to come together. In the dugout, we were having fun, and on the court, we really were able to use our closeness to play well.”

For this writer, the historical impact of Sotto making it into the NBA cannot be underestimated. In the 1980’s, an entire generation of young girls wanted to become Lydia de Vega. Twenty years ago, a new legion of billiards champions was born when Efren Reyes won the first World 9Ball Championship in Wales. Success begets success. Detlef Schrempf went through the American collegiate system, but paved the way for other players from Europe. When Wang Zhizhi came into the NBA, it turned attention to China, and opened the door for Yao Ming, the league’s first Asian top draft pick. 

If Kai Sotto can become an important player in the NBA, he will further stimulate Filipino markets, beginning with the West Coast, where the bulk of Filipino immigrants are. This will in turn create clamor for more players of Filipino extraction. The country is already the NBA’s most intense market outside of the US itself, and China. And this generation of Filipino players has something their predecessors didn’t – size. Imagine the next five years.

Unlike 30 years ago, we are no longer insular about our status in basketball. Thanks to the SBP, we’ve seen firsthand where we stand, and have made substantial progress. Angola was not even on the radar until the early 2000’s. Now we are playing them in the FIBA World Cup. That is why our prayers go with brave young Kai Sotto. He has a responsibility none of us will ever know. As the saying goes, the first one through the wall always gets bloodied. Kai will be the first of his kind.

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