This article appears in SLAM #217, available now in Titan outlets and major bookstores
Kobe Paras is as honest as he’s ever been: opening up about his mental health, his family, his decisions. None of this, contrary to what you may think, has been easy. And all the kid wants to do, like all of us, is be happy.
By Jon Rodriguez
Kobe Paras is turning 20 this year. It feels more like 30. His head-spinning journey that took him from Manila to LA will now settle back in Manila, in the same school where his father was once king. But Kobe’s not back because of that. Not for his last name. Not for politics. Definitely not for money. Kobe’s back because, finally, he has learned to listen to the voice he should’ve listened to since Day One: his own. I talked to Kobe, who sounded like 40, about losing himself in his quest for greatness, and then finding himself at just the right time.
What’s up, Kobe? How are you feeling these days?
Right now, I’m good. That’s because last year was my year of facing adversity and improving my mental health. There’s a lot of articles about athletes and celebrities facing mental issues and I think I had that problem. I would be practicing and working out, but there were times when I would be thinking too much about family, friends, you know, life problems. I think that’s one thing that people don’t really understand that much. Athletes and celebrities—and people in general—have a life of their own outside of what they do. I play basketball, but people think I’m just a basketball player. That’s why I appreciate all these athletes just like LeBron [James] who said we’re more than just athletes, we go through everyday struggles too. I think one thing that changed with me this year is that I’m handling my mental health better and I’m happier with all the things I do.
How was life like for you in the US?
There was a point, living in the States, when I lost myself because I was busy pleasing others and chasing a ghost that I shouldn’t be chasing. I think right now, I’m in a point in my life where I have to do something that makes me happy because I’ve been doing so much things where I wasn’t happy anymore but I was forced to do these things. Kasi before, sinasabay ko lahat ng kailangan ko gawinand I’ll just be physically drained, mentally drained. I think this year, it’s about balance and just being happy.
Living in the US without your family, trying to make it big while representing the Philippines, was there enormous pressure to succeed?
It wasn’t really pressure for me because growing up, people would say I have a chip on my shoulder, they say I have the whole Philippines on my back. I think my problem was I never understood what it meant to carry a country. All I said was, “Kaya ko naman, this is for them, I’m going to play for them.” And while doing that, I lost the sense of who I am. That just goes to show just how important mental health is and knowing where you stand as a person, and understanding the things you can carry and the things you’re going to need help with. Kasi sa akin naman, I keep saying na, “I’m game! I’ll do this for the country.” But I never really understood na all my decisions pala affected so many people.
In March, you released a statement that you were going pro. But you surprised a lot of people when you decided to come home and play for the UP Fighting Maroons. What were the factors that led to that decision?
When I said I was going pro, there were so much stuff happening in my life. The one thing that shocked me the most was when Coach Reggie [Theus] got fired because I was ready to play for [Cal State Northridge] this year. But when Coach Reggie got fired, I couldn’t trust anyone but him. Coach Reggie was unbelievable and he taught me a lot and it sucked na my favorite coach and the person I really want to be coached by isn’t going to be my coach. When I said “going pro,” I meant just opening my options, not really focusing on college. Pero the bad part was I didn’t think about my education. But I don’t think it was that bad because a lot of people are out there making a living without school, but at the same time, for me naman, there are so many years I missed in the Philippines because I was too focused on what people had to say and the pride of the Philippines. So now, I think what led me to the choice to go to UP was my happiness.
I lost so many friends when I left for the States. I gained friends too when I just moved back so right now, I just want to focus on my happiness. I have a lot of friends who I consider family here in Katipunan, so that was a big factor in choosing UP—I’ll be near my friends and that just makes more sense for me to stay here because honestly, this is the first time that I feel loved and happy moving to the Philippines. Because every time I visit here, I have a consciousness na, “Shit, I miss the States,” or “I wanna go back.” But now that I’ve realized that I have to focus on myself and my happiness. I’m slowly finding my purpose in this world. It just feels good na I’m happy with the decision I’m making.
Your father, PBA legend Benjie Paras, also went to UP. How much of your decision of going to UP was for the Paras legacy?
People think I went to UP because of my dad. But the fact is, I did not talk to my dad the whole process. No one knew about this, it’s just me and only me who made this decision. You can ask my mom too. Everyone was surprised. Even my friends were surprised. I told no one. I wanted to make a decision and I didn’t want to think about the fans, my friends, or my family, I only wanted to think about me and my happiness. This is a good step for me because this is my decision. I’ve been living in the States for quite a bit but I was living in a circle of consequences and the choices weren’t made by me. At least now I’m making the choices because it’s what I think is best for me.
What did your dad say when he found out about your plan to play for UP?
He was happy and he told me he loves me. My dad is never the controlling type of parent. We’ve had misunderstandings before but he’s never been the stage father. Never ever. Even if I quit basketball now, he would still love me and support me. I’m just glad I have a father like that.
What are you looking forward to the most in playing in the UAAP next year?
I’m just happy to be back home and I just can’t wait to make connections with people. I miss playing here.
A lot of eyes will be on you and your new teammate, Ricci Rivero, who transferred from La Salle.
Me and Ricci, we go through so much in life that people don’t understand. It’s crazy na me and Ricci came literally from nothing to something. There are people who would talk bad about us, [they’d say,] “Papogi lang” or whatever, and now we’re going to be teammates and we have a chance to do something extraordinary. I just can’t wait. It’s going to be interesting. I don’t want people to expect anything but it’s gonna be fun.
You and Ricci were also teammates as part of the Gilas cadets. How was that like playing for the flag?
It’s great. It’s not everyday that you get to represent the country. If you ask any other player, our kuyas sa Gilas, they’re going to say it’s an honor to play for the country and represent the country. It’s up to us because basketball is the most famous sport here in the Philippines. Every time we’re on TV, it’s our chance to give hope and to entertain our fellow Filipinos. It’s really up to us to show what we’re all about.
Looking ahead, is the PBA on your mind?
When I watched the draft and saw my friends getting drafted, it was really dope. I’m still thinking about everything. Every type of pro, not just the PBA. I want to see what God has in store for me. I’m still young, so I can still go to the States or Europe, or China, it depends. I just want to focus first on representing the Philippines on 2023 and representing UP.
You always use #rockstarlifestyle on your Instagram posts. What’s that all about?
I put #rockstarlifestyle because I live my life like a rock star. People tell me you have to live life the way you want to live it and people say life is short. I just live my life like a rock star because I know I can be one. I want to be a role model to the youth and to other people na whatever you want to do in this world, you can do it. There’s gonna be a lot of people out there who are gonna tell you that you can’t do certain things, but you’re just gonna have to defy the odds.
Those who say you can’t do things, the haters, do you use them as motivation?
Not at all. Because I don’t think they’re useful. Two things that we need in the world is peace and love. I write that on my shoes a lot because it makes sense. All these haters are gonna bring you down so I don’t need to listen to them. I know a lot of people who get affected by it, but I just laugh and don’t get mind it because I’m living my best life right now. No one can stop me from doing that.
Who do you think is your biggest competition in the UAAP?
Any team can be called the competition. We’re going to be team that they’ll be looking at as the underdogs or whatever, I don’t really care. For me, whoever we face, any team, it’s just basketball. I don’t think I have competition out there because I work hard to be the best. I don’t think of competition like that. I just have fun.
One more year to go before you suit up for UP, how are you preparing?
Right now, I’m just chilling, relaxing, having fun. It’s gonna be a year of rest for me again so I’m just going to be here supporting my team for Season 81, supporting my friends, and working out. I just have to give my all and realize that it’s my time again. I haven’t been here in a while—that’s my motivation. I haven’t been here in a while and I just want to show people what I’m made of.