Should Kai go to Europe?


Over the past week, much has been said and written about phenomenal 16-year-old center Kai Zachary Sotto of the Ateneo de Manila University high school and Batang Gilas.

That’s part of the learning process Kai has to go through as he goes on this journey: Choosing one opportunity means leaving another behind, often for good.

It isn’t surprising, of course, especially since the Grade 10 student was last measured at 7-foot-1 and has turned a lot of heads since breaking onto the international stage early last year.

I was given the privilege to be with Kai when Batang Gilas travelled to Argentina for the FIBA U17 World Cup this year.

There, I witnessed how much attention he drew not only from fans, but also from players, coaches and scouts – most of them were toting cameras and laptops to carefully document Sotto and other basketball stars of the future.

Some would try to talk directly to Kai or his father, former Philippine Basketball Association player Ervin Sotto.

In one instance, a scout (or was he an agent?) had to wait at the hotel lobby just to get a chance to converse and marvel at Kai’s potential.

To say that people gravitated towards Kai is an understatement.

People were in awe mainly because of his size.

There were times that strangers would ask me: Dos metro (two meters)? To which I would answer: Mas (more).

And then when they saw him play, when they saw him move around the court so lithely, and when they saw him generally effective on both ends of the floor, it would be commonplace to see people in the stands nod their heads in approval or cover their mouths in wonder.

It was clear that Kai is someone unique — not just among Filipinos — but among players his age anywhere in the world.

That’s why we’re here discussing, debating, and arguing back and forth about the merits of Kai’s prospects whether it’s closer to home or farther away in the United States or Europe.

The last time Filipino hoop nuts had this debate was when Kobe Paras was contemplating on going abroad. Now, people are a little bit more tempered with their expectations, seeing as how a confluence of circumstances cut Kobe’s tenure in the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) short.

The fact is that Kai — more than any other previous Filipino player — has the tantalizing potential to make it where no homegrown Filipino has ever landed, which is the National Basketball Association (NBA).

But which path should he take?

Should he stay in the Philippines?

Should he follow Kobe’s footsteps and go to the US NCAA like what other Asians had done before?

Should he go to Europe, instead?

Now, I have a distinct vantage point when it comes to Kai’s situation.

As a teacher and as one of the assistant coaches for the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, I see him nearly everyday in school, in practice, and in tune-up games.

I see how he has really blossomed into the best player of his generation.

I also see him having fun with his teammates and friends on campus.

I sometimes run into him with his family at the nearby shopping mall and see him enjoying being a kuya to his younger sister and brother.

I see him living a good life here in the country.

But, if I’m being completely honest to myself, I have to admit that no matter how much I want him to stay and no matter how much I want him to keep on playing here in Manila, there are opportunities that have never been available to any other Filipino player before.

I do not want to be among those holding him back, but the flipside is that these opportunities also come with tradeoffs.

That’s part of the learning process Kai has to go through as he goes on this journey: Choosing one opportunity means leaving another behind, often for good.

Objectively speaking, the most straightforward path to Kai’s NBA dream will likely have to be through Europe, where assuming everything stays true to form, he will constantly get world-class training and play against world-class competition in world-class venues.

If he and his family opt to leave for Europe, incentives and perks aside, we should stand behind him, cheer for him, and be ready for the day he returns to don our colors once more.

But if he and his family choose to stay, then, to paraphrase coach Tab Baldwin, we have to make sure we can provide him with the same degree of training and competition he would have gotten abroad.

That’s something unheard of in the Philippine context, but it’s only fair since Kai is the kind of player we have never seen before.

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