Life is supposed to be simple when you’re 15 years old. Math class sucks, as does the inevitable angst and awkwardness as you try to figure out Who You Are™, but the average person can look back on that age and call it a simpler time. A time for video games, hanging out with friends, sleeping in on Saturday mornings. When you’re 15, nobody expects you to be the future of anything or have your life figured out.
Unless you’re Kai Sotto.
The 15-year-old UAAP Juniors Champion and Finals MVP wakes up to headlines calling him “The Future of Philippine Basketball.” As part of the Gilas “23 for 23” pool, he gets to train with four-time MVP June Mar Fajardo. Everywhere he goes, people approach him for photos. And at 7’1”, there is no incognito mode.
“Siguro nagsimula tong lahat noong lumipat ako sa Ateneo,” Sotto says. He was 13, a varsity player in Las Piñas, when his parents and siblings packed their bags and moved to a village just off Katipunan Avenue. “Nami-miss ko nga ‘yung ibang friends at family ko. Taga-Las Piñas talaga ‘yung buong family kaya dito sa QC, walang malapit.”
Sotto’s first impression of Ateneo and the Katipunan life: “Bakit lahat ng makakainan dito, mahal?” (And he still feels that way.)
He had always been tall for his age, and had been playing basketball for as long as he could remember, but it was only upon suiting up for the Blue Eaglets that the hype began. It’s a huge departure from his former life, and it’s the sort of attention that could easily go sour—how many young players get caught up in their own hype? How many talented but difficult pros trace their origins to unchecked teenage stardom?
Which is why it’s good to see that Sotto has maintained a sense of normalcy. He walks around in comfy T-shirts and jeans, or a plain white sweatshirt with shorts—apart from his Jordans, none of that baller lifestyle just yet. His dad, NLEX Road Warriors assistant coach Ervin Sotto, manages his son’s schedule and has asked him not to get on social media for now. The former player has turned down a number of TV appearances and guestings for his son in the name of rest, focus and staying grounded. And the younger Sotto doesn’t mind.
He’s not the type to go partying, anyway, or get excited about meeting girls at soirees, Sotto says. “Mahirap na nga ‘yung nag-aaral eh, tapos may UAAP pa, tapos Batang Gilas rin. Dalawa lang muna, basketball tsaka aral,” he explains. In his free time, he’d rather stay indoors and play NBA 2K with other Blue Eaglets. He doesn’t have a PS4 at home, so he evens out his friends’ console-experience-advantage by always picking the Golden State Warriors: “Doon na tayo sa best team, diba? Pero kapag PS3 ‘yung labanan, wala sila sa akin!”
At the same time, Sotto gets along more easily with older people than his peers. “Dahil nga matangkad ako, palaging mas matatanda sa akin ‘yung mga kalaro ko noon. Bago ako mag-Ateneo, mga tricicyle driver sa may amin ‘yung kalaban ko,” he recalls. “Kaya siguro nasanay na ako.”
Sotto’s more at home with the Road Warriors, which is where you’ll see him these days now that he’s on summer break—being teased by Mike Miranda and Alex Mallari, sitting in the dugout beside Asi Taulava, and getting advice from Kiefer Ravena. He’s very much a 15-year-old next to them, but there’s also a sense of maturity and measuredness you don’t see in most kids his age.
“‘Yung sinasabi ng mga tao na pressure o hype, hindi ko naman nararamdaman as pressure,” he says. “Sa akin, mas ginagamit ko siya as motivation para mag-improve.”
He can’t tell you which college star he sees himself in, though. “Kasi by the time na college ako, magbabago na ‘yung ine-expect ng mga tao mula sa college players. Wala rin naman akong katulad, so siguro ako na ‘yung magbabago noon!” Sotto laughs.
That sentence may be truer than we all know.
For his first SLAM Rising Stars, Sotto’s goal is simple. “Gusto kong ma-represent ‘yung Ateneo, at ipakita ‘yung totoo kong laro. ‘Yun din naman ‘yung pinapakita ko sa UAAP, pero syempre kapag Rising Stars, lahat magagaling kaya magandang challenge,” he says. “Excited na ako.”