On Monday morning, 247 Sports recruiting guru Evan Daniels broke the story that international basketball star Kai Sotto would take an unofficial visit to the University of Kentucky.
In the Bluegrass, that news was met with curiosity. No school has media which cover college basketball recruiting quite as aggressively as Kentucky does, and no fanbase has a better pulse for who their coaching staff is interested in, and where that player’s recruitment stands, than Kentucky fans do.
Therefore, for a player like Sotto — a 2020 prospect who could play college basketball next year — to pop up out of nowhere, certainly created intrigue within the fan-base. Many reporters, including our own Jack Pilgrim, connected with Sotto’s high school and coaches to dig up any information they could on the mysterious 7’2 center prospect.
But for as much intrigue as there was with Sotto in Lexington, there was even more intrigue some 8,000 miles away in his home country of the Philippines. There, the news wasn’t met just with intrigue, but also excitement, and in some regards, downright hysteria.
That’s because in the Philippines, Sotto isn’t just a young basketball star, but instead someone who is so much more.
He is a prodigy, one of the greatest young players the country has ever produced. And in a basketball-mad country of 104 million, that is a big deal. Filipinos have been waiting decades to have one of their own play in the NBA. And Sotto is the latest, and maybe greatest hope to make that happen.
“We’re just all ready to explode to have the first, full-blooded Filipino in the NBA,” TJ Manotoc, a Filipino born sports journalist for ABS-CBN, who is now based in the United States, told KSR in an exclusive interview. “And it’s just a matter of time.”
As Sotto navigates the next chapter of his young career, he won’t just have the eyes of a couple college fanbases on him, but the eyes of an entire nation.
To fully understand just how much Sotto means to people in the Philippines, you must first understand how much basketball means to the people of that country. And to fully understand that, you have to understand the history of the country, one that dates centuries.
It all started really 500 years ago, as colonizers first arrived from Spain back in 1521 (yes, 15-freakin-21!!). For a period of over 300 years, the Philippines was under Spanish rule, but in 1898, the United States took control of the country. From 1898 until the late 1940’s, American soldiers were stationed in the country, and those soldiers brought American customs and culture with them.
That included basketball.
“We’re the only nation in our area where soccer isn’t the No. 1 sport,” Manotoc said. “All the other countries around us, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, they’re all soccer fanatic countries.”
“They [the U.S.] gave us basketball and boxing,” he said. “Basketball is the No. 1 sport here and it’s not even close.”
Let the fun begin! Legends begin their lives here! pic.twitter.com/P73tIeoe7O
— Kai Sotto (@kzsottolive) December 9, 2019
And as the years have gone on, the love affair between the Philippines and basketball has only heightened.
The country is home to the oldest professional basketball league in Asia, the PBA, which started in 1975. The country also has a thriving college system similar to the NCAA, and the NBA has also hosted exhibition games in the country dating back to 2013. Manotoc describes basketball as the Philippines “religion” and according to a survey done by Nike, some 40 million Filipinos – nearly 25 percent of the population – call themselves “fanatics” of the sport.
“Back in the 1970’s, the 1980’s, the early 90’s, that was the only thing,” Manotoc said. “There was no internet, there were no shopping malls, everybody just looked forward to either the collegiate games or the professional games.”
Like in the US, rivalries sprung up. And at times even turned violent.
“What’s the biggest rivalry in football?” Manotoc asked. “We have those for the pro leagues here. [The team] was called Crispa, which was a clothing brand and Toyota. Toyota had a professional team here. They went at it for like 10 years, and they went at it. It was violent. People would throw bottles and coins on the courts when they weren’t happy with referees calls and things like that.”
So yes, the passion for basketball runs deep in the country. But for all the fanaticism, there is one thing that has been lacking: Major international success in recent years. From 1951-62, the country won four straight Asian Games titles, but hasn’t finished in first since. From 1936 to 1972 the Philippines qualified for the Olympics seven times, including a fifth-place finish in 1936. They haven’t been back to the Olympics in basketball since.
Yet despite the lack of success, there is excitement for the future.
Most recently, the country was awarded the 2023 World Cup of Basketball, which is an Olympic qualifier. It’s the same event which was held last summer, where the United States famously finished in 7th place under Gregg Popovich, with many US fans being critical of American players for refusing to play.
Regardless, with the event in the Philippines prior to the 2024 Olympics, the country has its best shot in a while of making major international noise. As the host, the Philippines automatically qualifies for the event, and to help prepare, the country has spent the last few years identifying young high school and college-aged players who will hopefully be hitting their prime when 2023 rolls around.
One of the players at the center of those plans is Kai Sotto.
Manotoc still remembers the first time he heard the name “Kai Sotto.”
It came in one of the country’s first ever “Junior NBA” camps, a combine where players under the age of 13 were brought together from all over the country, to hopefully identify the next wave of great Filipino basketball talent.
It didn’t take long for one player to stand out above the rest, literally and figuratively.
“People came up to me and said, ‘We’ve just seen this 12-year-old kid who is 6’8,’” Manotoc says with a laugh.
That player was Kai Sotto, son of former professional player Ervin Sotto.
What immediately stood out to those watching was how different the younger Sotto was from his dad. His father was 6’8, and known as a bruiser, but as Manotoc joked, “Thankfully for Kai, his mother is tall.” Kai had the same height, and significantly more athleticism than his dad could ever dream of.
And he was just 12-years-old.
— Kai Sotto (@kzsottolive) December 9, 2019
From there he kept growing, and not long after the camp, whispers began to circulate that Sotto would eventually make his way overseas to play against better competition. There was talk of him following the path of Kobe Paras, a Filipino born player who finished his high school ball at Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles, and played one year at Creighton before recently returning to the Philippines (I profiled Paras for FoxSports back in 2016). However, with younger siblings, Sotto and his family decided to stay in the Philippines for his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
Eventually though he got too good, and the competition was just too inferior and in recent months he made his way to the United States. Even then, the assumption was that he was simply coming to the US to train against better competition before going pro in Europe next season (because he just turned 17-years-old, Sotto is not eligible for the NBA Draft until 2021).
When word trickled back to the Philippines that he was actually enrolled in high school here in the United States, that raised some eyebrows.
And then he showed up on Kentucky’s campus Monday morning.
Before Manotoc gets anyone too worked up about the idea of Sotto enrolling at Kentucky or any college, he first wants to readily admit that he has no idea what the family has planned for Sotto’s basketball future. Again, because Sotto just recently turned 17-years-old last month, it means that he will have to play basketball somewhere next year before he can even consider entering the NBA in the spring of 2021 (if he’s good enough).
Whether the plan is to spend next season in college or overseas in Europe remains to be seen. And even if he does choose the college route, that process is only beginning. As it stands, Kentucky hasn’t even offered Sotto a scholarship. And even if they do, it seems pretty apparent that more colleges will get involved, if and when it becomes apparent that college is a serious option for Sotto.
Still, while Manotoc is uncertain of what Sotto’s future holds, he’s positive on one thing: If Sotto does decide to play college ball, it will create an explosion of interest back home. And will create a branding gold mine for whatever school signs him.
Yes, even for a school with a brand as big as Kentucky.
Manotoc explains that after Paras committed to play at Creighton, a media bidding war erupted in the Philippines over who would broadcast his games, and Manotoc expects the same if Sotto plays college basketball. He also believes that jerseys and paraphernalia of that school would pop up all over the country of the Philippines.
Social media engagement would multiply overnight. Again, even at a place like Kentucky.
“The attention to their social media accounts will be flooded by hundreds of thousands of followers,” Manotoc says. “Easily, quickly.”
In the meantime, that college would also get a player that many believe is good enough to one day play in the NBA.
Kai Sotto made an unofficial visit to the University of Kentucky ?
— ABS-CBN Sports (@abscbnsports) December 10, 2019
As things stand, ESPN is the only recruiting service that has Sotto ranked, and Manotoc points out something interesting: That ranking is solely based on what he’s done in international competitions. It came before he ever played a game of high school basketball here, and as he acclimates to the competition his ranking could go even higher. It also leaves him with a bright future. With Sotto’s size and skill, Manotoc believes that some NBA team will eventually take a flyer on him. He may never turn into a star. But you just can’t teach the natural gifts from God Sotto has.
Yet before we can talk about the NBA, the question first is, “What’s Next?”
As mentioned up top, Sotto and his family still have a lot of decisions to make, and – much like American high school players considering options overseas – both have good and bad qualities.
If he were to play in Europe, it would mean around the clock basketball instruction. There would be no NCAA 20-hour rules, no class, no school. Just all basketball, all the time. But playing in Europe also means that at times, you can be out of sight, potentially leaving you out of mind.
Then there is the opposite in the United States. Practice time is limited at the college level, but you can’t put a price – again literally, or figuratively – on the value of exposure the college game brings you. That includes exposure with fans in the US marketplace, but it’s also easier access for NBA scouts and decision-makers to evaluate you then it is when you play in Europe. Manotoc also mentioned that even 8,000 miles away, fans in the Philippines are very aware of the big men who have come through the Kentucky program, including Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and others. That certainly can’t hurt Sotto’s longterm development either.
Over the next few months, we will find out just how serious Sotto is about college basketball, and in turn Kentucky.
Not only will fan-bases all over college basketball be watching his every move.
But so will an entire nation.