SLAM #212: Kiefer, Kobe, Kai, and the Filipino basketball player’s road less-traveled

SLAM #212 which includes a special edition Philippines cover entitled “Shoot Your Shot” featuring Kiefer Ravena, Kobe Paras, and Kai Sotto, alums of the Jr. NBA Philippines program, is available now in Titan outlets and stores near you.

In the issue are details of the Jr. NBA program in the country, its 10-year highlights, and creating outstanding players on and off the court.

It also includes the trio’s journey from youngsters dreaming of making it big in basketball, their Jr. NBA Philippines experiences, and the aspirations that lie ahead.

When the Filipino youngster first picks up a basketball to start a who-knows-how-long hoops journey, people are quick to set the end goal for them.

Play in some of the prestigious inter-school leagues when you reach college. Then try to get drafted in the local pro league. Win a championship or two, win some individual awards, have a lasting career. It’s been the default path.

For some brave young men, however, who believe there isn’t only one end goal or limit, a new path is slowly being charted. And they all hope soon, it would be considered a norm.

You’ve heard about Kiefer Ravena, Kobe Paras, and Kai Sotto one way or another. They’re all here to break the imaginary limits and bars people impose at the dawn of one’s basketball career, where outsiders already set what bars they should be working on.

“The road less-traveled… it’s a very apt saying especially to the few guys. You can even name them, the guys who have tried out. It’s difficult, yes, but there is no harm in trying,” Ravena tells SLAM Philippines during the photoshoot for the SLAM #212 cover.

Kiefer Ravena

“The Phenom” has been a talk of the town since his early days as a high school cager for Ateneo. He opened his college career winning two championships, and cemented his legacy with MVP awards. The decorated athlete has also been a staple for the national team. He has a secure legacy as early as now.

His foray into the international post-amateur basketball scene, however, is the one that’s less documented, and probably less talked about. It’s a road less-traveled, after all.

Like his predecessors Japeth Aguilar (Santa Cruz Warriors) and Ray Parks Jr. (Texas Legends), Ravena made the leap and tried out for the NBA G-League (then D-League). He made it as a developmental player for the Legends as well. He also played in the Drew League. Not long after, he was playing for Mighty Sports, and later Alab Pilipinas of the ASEAN Basketball League. Yes, it was a busy 2016 to 2017 for Ravena.

Talking now about why he decided to follow the footsteps of Aguilar and Parks, whose journeys are considered rare — and the goal improbable — Ravena said they wanted to achieve greatness.

“We picked that path because we wanted to be great. We are not saying you have to choose that path to be great, but you have to challenge yourself into pushing your limit to know where you are capable of going even though you don’t know what the destination is,” he shared. “You push yourself you go through difficult times, through adversity, even though you don’t know what you’re getting in the end.”

Ravena added, “At least, diba?”

Those last three words are an accurate line to say. No matter how hard they try and how much work they put in for the NBA dream, it doesn’t guarantee Ravena, Paras, and Sotto of spots in the top professional league in the world.

“I was there in the United States. And even if I don’t wear it everyday, in my heart, I was the proudest Filipino out there, playing my heart out in practice, knowing that if I do succeed, I am carrying a hundred million with me in fulfilling that dream. I am sure, hindi lang ako yung nangangarap na sana ako maging unang Filipino NBA player,” Ravena said.

Paras knows what uncertainty means too well. Three days after losing the NCAA Juniors championship to the San Beda Red Cubs, the former La Salle Greenhills star went to the United States.

“Ako naman, when I left, literally kakatapos lang ng finals namin, Benilde versus San Beda. Tough loss, and literally three days after, I left for the States,” Paras recalled.

“I sacrificed family and friends, went to the United States alone, with literally no one I know there and nothing I know about California.”

It looked like an escape at first. But it was also a crossroads moment for Paras. Will he stay in the Philippines, or pursue something else? When news finally broke out that Paras was chasing a familiar but not too common path, scrutiny and criticism came inevitably.

He won’t make it. Ray didn’t. Japeth didn’t. They both tried before him. They both failed.

Kobe Paras

“People think it’s easy and it’s fun and games. Oh, sikat ka, tatay mo si Paras, but it’s not easy. That’s why I appreciate Ray, Kiefer, because those guys, they still want to pursue something Filipinos can’t pursue,” the son of the former two-time PBA MVP Benjie said.

People eventually learned about how Paras was playing well for his high school in Los Angeles, and how he was getting opportunities for NCAA Division I schools. They thought it was all luxury. Living the dream. Fun and games.

“Me, binigyan ako ng chance to go to the United States and pursue basketball on a different level, so I said why not? When I went there, the media, the people, they think I had a great life,” Paras said.

“But you know, at the age of 15, it was the hardest, homesickness, it was the biggest things you have to go through. When I played there, I was 6-4, 170 pounds, I was so skinny, first practices ko, I could not go the limit. I gave up. Hindi ako makatakbo, hindi ako makahinga. It was adversity, pretty much like what I go through now.”

At a young age, Paras learned to develop a DGAF attitude about it. Like those who blazed the trail before him, Paras knew it was what he believed in which mattered, and not what outsiders think about him amd his trek.

“What I realized when I went there alone was that, life is about taking chances. You’ll never know what you’re gonna have unless you try. The sad reality is that yung mga Pinoy, they are afraid to fail. Nahihiya or something. Ako naman, I grew up having a hard childhood. All the experiences I’ve had makes me the man I am now,” he said. “My mentality was, I am the youngest Filipino representing the Philippines in the States (in basketball).”

“You can’t please anyone. Filipinos are like that,” Ravena added. “They don’t believe in their own people. It’s sad to say but we are one of those few nations na parang hindi nila masupport ng buong-buo, laging may nasasabi. But we respect the people who say that. It’s their opinion, their right to say it, the criticism, scrutiny. But hopefully, someday, we will have the full support of the country for players who aspire to achieve more.”

At only 15 years old and already 7-foot-2, Ateneo high school center Kai Sotto will always be associated with comments like “you should be playing in the United States” or “try to go for the NBA!”

At first, Sotto had a difficult time dealing with such hype or fame. Understandably, he is just an adolescent teen starting to play high school basketball.

In fact, when Sotto was invited to participate in a Nike Elite camp abroad earlier this year, he told his father Ervin, “Ayoko, pagod na ‘ko.” It was during the SEABA U-16 Championship in Manila, and Sotto was doing twice-a-day practice for Ateneo and the national team.

But Ervin insisted, saying it is a win-win situation. He even advised Kai to keep doing the drills in the five-day camp regularly when he returns to Manila.

Now, such advices aren’t new to him anymore. Sotto is the future. He isn’t just an oddity or a freak-of-nature. He knows his fundamentals. He has aspirations to play the wing position. It’s quite obvious why he is overwhelmed by fans pinning their hopes on him, because he has legitimate potential. And he is working on his game every step of the way.

“Ma-e-expect ng mga tao sa akin na every day, every time, magiging better ako. Gagalingan ko. Magpapractice ako para sa future, kasi para sa akin, yung future, hindi yan bukas or next year pa. Para sa akin, yung future, nagsstart ngayon. Kasi pag ginawa mo to ngayon, yun yung mag-aaffect sa kung sino ka magiging sa future. Tapos syempre, sa future, excited ako irepresent yung Philippines sa Gilas,” he said.

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Indonesia pic 23 by Roy Afable

The Sottos are in no rush, but Kai learning some wing or guard skills dishes out a very important clue to what his long-term vision is.

“Marami kasing opinions, pero ako naman, (I take it) step by step. Hindi ako magmamadali. Parang susulitin ko everyday para makaabot dun sa level na gusto ko,” Sotto said.

Sotto trying to make it big elsewhere is exactly why Paras, Ravena, and even those before them have tried in the first place.

“My journey right now is the most unexpected thing in my life, and right now I am happy I could be an ice breaker for many Filipinos to be able to pursue anything in life,” Paras said.

Having gone through the process, Paras is even personally willing to help those who have bold dreams.

“Me, I see a lot of potential in some high school players now. And I am willing to help them, I am going to give them my contacts, and I’m going to tell them, look, if I was 13, 14, I would go to the States right away. Because when I went there at 15, sakto lang. But my coach said, if you went here when you were 13, you would have been a better player because that’s two more years added to your game and studies. Me, personally, I am so open to helping Filipinos,” he said.

What Paras detailed about trying to help the future generation also answers the question, “What’s the point of all the trying?”

“I don’t want to be the only one making it but I want to help players achieve playing hoops in the States. It’s just hard because a lot of people are scared to take chances, so I want to give hope to the Filipinos to take chances because you really will never know what you have until you try,” he emphasized.

“Minsan kahit magpakahirap ka, hindi mo pa rin siya makukuha. It happened to me, to Ray, to Japeth, but these are lessons that we never regret learning,” Ravena said.

“These are the things who made us who we are right now. We are grateful, thankful that it happened. For me, I’ve worked around those failures on and off the court to help me be the man I am right now, whether as a player or as Kiefer Ravena the normal guy. Thankful ako it happened.”

If in the end, Ravena, Paras, and Sotto fail anew, they wouldn’t even bother. They know it’s beyond the point.

But if someone actually makes it to the NBA in the distant future, and thanks them or mentions them because they were the ones who made young players realize you can always try?

“We need people to set the path for the future generation of players to follow,” Ravena shared. “The success of one player, you can’t really just base it on his achievements but also by the number of lives touched by his movie. Kung tayo may mga idol, itong taong to, nagpush sa akin to be the best. Ako, sumubok ako, oy, hindi pala masamang sumubok.”

“It is going to make me really happy. I don’t do this because I’m mayabang, I want to be famous, I do this because I am passionate about basketball. I am passionate about the hardwork that comes with basketball. When I was a kid I was asked what my dream job is, and I said I want to have my own charity. I just wanted to help kids, people. If now, at age 19, I can help kids pursue what they want, that’s what I will do,” Paras proudly said.

SLAM #212 is a special two-cover issue featuring the 2017 NBA Rookie Class and Jr. NBA PH Alums.



Photos from Jutt Sulit