Right move for Kobe

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 21, 2021 - 12:00am

Kobe Paras, once the high-flying poster boy of Gilas’ new generation, is back in the US after deciding to pursue his basketball career under the guidance of Kai Sotto’s management team East West Private. He’s now in Cincinnati and the word is a full-blown training program is being laid out to get the 6-6 forward back on track.

Paras, 23, finished his high school in Los Angeles then became the first Filipino ever to join the Creighton University varsity in the NCAA D-1. He had committed to play for UCLA but failed to make the cut despite glowing stats in FIBA U16 and U18 competitions. At Creighton, Paras warmed the bench, scored a season-high six points and collected only 20 points in 15 games. He then left the school and hooked up with coach Reggie Theus at California State Northridge. But it meant redshirting a year to establish residence. Before Paras knew it, Theus was fired and he lost his chief backer. Paras ended up going back to Manila.

Paras sat out a year to gain eligibility with UP in the UAAP then in the 2019 season, played for the Fighting Maroons, averaging 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists. UP, however, didn’t make it out of the semifinals. Critics came down hard on Paras for failing to live up to the hype particularly as UP was tipped to battle Ateneo in the finals. It wasn’t as if UP’s fate was entirely in Paras’ hands. It was just that there was so much expectation with Paras forever at the center of the media limelight.

Then came the Philippines’ two games against Thailand in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Bahrain last November. Paras averaged 3.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 19.3 minutes while shooting a lowly 15 percent from the field. While Gilas won both outings, critics again pounced on Paras like the Savior who couldn’t deliver even if the team went unbeaten. Paras was labeled by critics as overrated. When the team returned home, I invited eight players to guest on the Philippine Star podcast “Beyond The Game With The Dean” but Paras declined. It would’ve been an opportunity to air his side and face his detractors. Paras’ father Benjie explained why: “He told me to say sorry to you. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone for now. He said he’ll just be quiet for now and concentrate on what he will give to Gilas and vice-versa.” Last February, Paras begged off from joining the Gilas pool that coach Tab Baldwin assembled for bubble training at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba. Baldwin said Paras cited a medical reason.

Paras is still eligible to play for UP but with the pandemic wreaking havoc on collegiate sports, it’s not sure when the UAAP can restart. The plan is to resume in January next year. Because collegiate sports isn’t a priority, CHED hasn’t given the green light for teams to even conduct individual workouts, putting athletes in limbo. Paras’ brother Andre, meanwhile, made the jump to the PBA last March and will make his pro debut with Blackwater in the coming season. Paras could’ve also applied for the draft but chose to hold back. With no clarity on the horizon for the UAAP to restart, Paras took the US route and renounced his UP eligibility. He’ll be away from media scrutiny and just focus on basketball without the pressure of dealing with harsh critics. It’s true that as a person, Paras is still maturing and evolving. He’ll be in a better position to develop as a basketball player under East West’s wing. Papa Benjie should be happy with this move.

“Kobe will start training in Cincinnati initially then of course, we’ll take him through our usual network of trainers on a progressive plan, depending on his readiness and identified challenges,” said an East West source. “Right now, we’re just assessing. He’s definitely focused and committed to take this second shot. But he’ll need a lot of work.” While the work ahead will be difficult, Paras isn’t the type to back down from a challenge. His potential is enormous and now, he’s on course to play it forward.

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