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Kai Sotto’s collectible jersey

By Andi Mencias Published Mar 10, 2021 11:09 pm Updated Mar 11, 2021 4:11 am

Kai Sotto has left the NBA G League, which leads us to two questions—so what? And now what?

This very moment of writing, on the online store of the NBA G League, sits a curious item with stocks that can only run out. In fact, by the time you read this, it might have already been sold out, and lest you go to resellers, you most likely will never be able to get it again.

It’s the jersey of Kai Sotto—the 7-foot-3 Filipino wunderkind who, in 2020, joined the Ignite, the NBA G League’s premier experiment team. Buying the jersey will set you back around P3,000, but only about P2,000 if you’re willing to go youth size (which, let’s be real, is probably big enough for most Filipinos.)

There’s an unspoken morbidity to the jersey. The image on the shop’s site is as unsettling as any product listing could be—an empty jersey with nobody wearing it, and a tag saying “free shipping” over a list of sizes that would never be big enough to fit Kai Sotto himself.

Of course, this is what most pieces of clothing look like on most online stores, but this particular jersey feels like a bad omen, because on Feb. 24, 2021, Kai Sotto was officially relieved of his duties with the G League Ignite. He didn’t play a single game.

At this point, the law of supply and demand would probably tell you that Kai’s exit from the G League means his Ignite jersey is now effectively a collector’s item. Depending on who you ask, this either makes the jersey a useless relic, an ironic punchline you can wear, or an effigy of a somewhere somewhen once imagined, and now lost.

Kai Sotto’s jersey is now a collectible. So who ordered it? And how’d we even get here?

 Impeccable work ethic

“Kai was constantly absorbing everything he learned. He was gettng better every day.”  Photo from FIBA Basketball

The world has many obstinate ironies. Earning money for your family means less time for them. Factory workers are alienated from the very things they produce. And the Philippines, despite its fanaticism for basketball, no homegrown Filipino has ever worn their own NBA jersey.

This isn’t to say the nation hasn’t tried. From Johnny Abarrientos and Japeth Aguilar to Kobe Paras and Bobby Ray Parks, Jr., the Philippines hasn’t been without glimpses into that elusive dream. But for one intention or another, for personal reasons or external ones, there’s always seemed to be a wall stopping Filipinos from stepping foot on the grandest court. The intuitive mind might reach the conclusion that perhaps the Philippines would have more chances at a height-fixated sport with, I don’t know, more height.

But this is where Kai Sotto comes in. Talking about him is, without exaggeration, a tall order. It’s immensely difficult to properly contextualize what he means to the Filipino basketball fan, because the only way to measure it is in feet and inches.

Kai is listed seven-foot-three. This makes him about 140% the height of the average Filipino male. It also means that he’s as tall as Raul Dillo, the tallest recorded Filipino ever. Put those two statements together, and while there’s no official record, this means Kai is the tallest Filipino ever.

But unlike Dillo, Kai isn’t playing kapres in movies, nor does he show any signs of gigantism. He’s just a really, really tall kid. And as the son of a former PBA player, he’s a very skilled one, too.

If he had played in the Orlando bubble, for example, a lot of relevant NBA people would already have an idea of what he could do. It’s basically a given since that was what the Ignite program was meant to do.

But all skill needs honing. And while Kai was dominant in the UAAP and world-level FIBA tournaments, there were also very justified questions about whether or not his skills would translate in an NBA setting. Can he handle the pace? Does he have the quickness in his post game? Could he beef and fill out his frame? Is it possible that maybe he looks good just because he’s playing against kids half his height?

For Joe Silva, Kai’s high school coach, those questions were immaterial to the talent and discipline found in the youngster.

“Kai's work ethic was impeccable. He would always spend time after practice working on his skills and getting stronger,” says Silva. The coach remembers how Kai would be the last to exit the gym, and how even on no-practice days he’d spend hours watching film and practicing with the coaches. According to Silva, even after games, Kai would drag himself to the Moro Lorenzo gym to sneak a few workouts.

“Besides his height, Kai was a sponge,” the coach said. “He was constantly absorbing everything he learned. He was gettng better every day.”

One of Kai’s first tests of strength against international competition was against fellow Filipino-blooded and future almost-teammate Jalen Green, who, at the time, was the highest ranked prospect in US high school hoops. Green came over with FilAmSports—a collection of Filipino-American basketball prospects—to participate in the NBTC Tournament. And Green’s presence was immediately felt, especially on one play where Kai guarded the rim as he’s accustomed to, but it didn’t end the way it normally did. Instead, Green rose up almost instantaneously, cocking back the ball back, driving his momentum right into Kai Sotto, and dunking it in his face.

It wasn’t the first time we’d seen someone dunk on Kai Sotto, and coach Silva notes that Kai didn’t feel bad about it at all. But it was one of the first instances Filipinos really got to see Kai Sotto as human. It didn’t help that Ateneo lost that game to FilAmSports by 23 points. Kai had 24.

Two years later, when the NBA and FIBA hosted its annual Basketball Without Borders Camp, the same tune played. While Kai impressed in the morning skills routines, ESPN draft expert Jonathan Givony noted Kai’s inconsistency in the scrimmages, saying Kai struggled to make his presence felt, despite his obvious talent.

But while the rising pressure would immediately crush for others, Kai seemed to have a great head on his shoulders. However difficult the situation, Kai never grumbled. He did what anyone at that height ought to do—keep his head down, lest he bump the ceiling.

“Kai had a great support system in his family, teammates and coaches. They made sure that Kai just focused on getting better and enjoying playing basketball,” says Silva. “Kai was already mature enough to shut out any kind of pressure from the outside.”

And it’s this humility combined with the raw talent that opened so many opportunities for Kai, including the one he would end up accepting—becoming a member of the NBA G League Ignite, a team specifically designed to allow talented young prospects essentially a direct road to being drafted in the NBA, without having to go to college. Here, Kai could train directly in front of NBA scouts and learn straight from NBA veterans like coach Brian Shaw.

G League vs. Gilas Pilipinas

Photo from Kai Sotto Road to NBA Facebook page

To most Filipinos who followed Kai’s journey, this was it—the Philippines was finally assured of an NBA player. All Kai had to do was go through the motions, get better each day, and wait his turn. Filipino fans seemed to believe that Kai’s entry into the G League was them being rewarded for their patience—not just with Kai, but with the decades worth of attempts to see their own kind in the league.

But it seemed that even more certain than Kai Sotto succeeding in the G League was the certainty that things can only ever go sideways for Filipinos. And despite visible progress after participating in a few scrimmages, Kai Sotto announced, seemingly out of nowhere that he’d be joining Gilas Pilipinas in Qatar for the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.

Many questioned the move, asking why Kai would give up that kind of opportunity to learn from the best.

We need to let Kai do things at his own pace. Besides it’s his dream to chase, not ours—we’re just here for the ride.

For PhilStar sportswriter Lui Morales, they believed staying in the G League was still best route for Kai’s development.

“Even if he didn’t get enough minutes, he would still be around NBA-calibre coaches and players whose talent is just south of the NBA in the G League,” said Morales. They believe that keeping Kai would’ve not only kept him around stronger talent, but also kept him right in the eyes of NBA scouts. For Morales, Kai would’ve been better in sight, than out of mind.

“If he had played in the Orlando bubble, for example, a lot of relevant NBA people would already have an idea of what he could do,” Morales said. “It’s basically a given since that was what the Ignite program was meant to do.”

And many fans echoed similar sentiments. A lot of netizens believed a Gilas stint would’ve been a mere distraction to Kai’s ultimate goal. Why would trade in a G League jersey for a Gilas one? Memes circulated asking why would you risk the possibility a Golden State Warriors jersey for the likelihood of an NLEX Road Warriors one?

These questions still remain unanswered. Kai’s agency, EastWest Private, still hasn’t released any statement on the rationale to initially pull Kai out of the G League. People have speculated that it’s due to the uncertainty of Kai getting any real minutes to show off his skills. People believed the writing on the wall was there when Kai’s jersey number 11 was given to somebody else. But these are just speculation, all we can really work with is radio silence.

What is certain, however, is that when Qatar got a surge of COVID-19 cases and had to cancel the tournament entirely, the move was hit with even more questions of whether or not Kai would be able to enter the G League again due to quarantine restrictions, or worse, due to NBA bridges burned.

By Feb. 24, we had an answer. Kai’s camp and the G League Ignite reached a mutual agreement to part ways. And Kai, all seven-three of him, became jerseyless.

And so the witch hunt began

“The hype around Kai is just the product of how basketball crazy our country is.” Photo from ESPN

On the G League website sits Kai Sotto’s G League Ignite jersey. There are still stocks left, even if Kai himself, is without a team, much less a jersey. It’s a cruel reminder of how athletes like Kai are viewed as just that—names on jerseys. Things to be sold and traded and kept and worn. And with all the fanfare, it’s easy to forget that Kai is just 18 years old.

So it’s probably worth mentioning that it’s never a good idea to put this much pressure on anybody as old as Kai was when he first burst on the scene. The biggest responsibilities most people have at high school are studying, figuring out how to ask someone to the prom. Not carry the weight of an entire country.

But when you’re a hundred million people all expecting to receive gratification in the form of seeing “SOTTO” labeled on the back of an NBA jersey, the only word to describe that feeling is grief. And grief has a funny way of working—it turns love and expectation into an immediate search for answers, even when the loss has nothing to do with you. Anyone who’s experienced it knows piercing grief begets pointing fingers.

And so the witch hunt began, because people needed answers.

Was it the fault of Kai’s handlers? EastWest Private, of course, is the one in charge of making decisions for Kai. At the same time, they must know something we don’t. They’ve also had a relatively good track record with managing Filipino athletes like Jordan Clarkson and Andray Blatche.

People closer to Kai’s certainly don’t seem to think so. Take Kobe Paras, who’s been in Kai’s almost exact situation before, who tweeted his support for the youngster, saying “I will not tolerate any Kai Sotto slander. Instead of talking bad about him and his handlers, why not wait for the final word? Why not just support him and his dreams no matter what? Most of y’all opinions don’t matter.”

It’s hard not to take Paras’ word here. He was the most recent person to experience the vicious cycle of pressure to be the first Filipino in the NBA. And unlike Sotto, Paras barely had anybody supporting him during his journey to the States.

So if it’s not EastWest’s fault, it’s clearly the media’s, right? They’re the ones who began the Kai Sotto hype train to begin with. But media members, like Morales believes the hype is just a natural consequence of the excitement of Filipinos.

“I think, the hype around Kai is just the product of how basketball crazy our country is. We’re obviously all excited at the prospect of him making it to the NBA,” they said.

“I guess extensive media coverage does contribute to that. For us, though, I believe our diligence in covering Kai comes from the interest of our countrymen,” they added. “As media people, of course we want to be able to provide what our audience wants.”

So it’s also hard to truly blame the media either for how Kai Sotto’s situation turned out. The kid is a seven-foot-three elephant in the room. And in a world of uncertainty and volatility, Kai Sotto making the NBA was as close to a sure thing as Philippine sports has gotten, and maybe ever will, get.

But what all this fingerpointing reveals is a basic truth—we need to stop doing it. It’s something Morales can attest to.

“I just think we need to let Kai do things at his own pace,” they said. “Besides it’s his dream to chase, not ours—we’re just here for the ride.”

Coach Silva agrees, believing that people need to start giving Kai the space to do his own thing. He believes the noise unnecessary, but luckily, he knows Kai’s the type to use it as motivation.

“Kai is just 18. He still has a lot of time and many opportunities to get to the NBA,” Silva said. “Lets just support him and let’s all be patient. Everything will fall into place.”

Silva and Morales are both firm believers that Sotto is still the country’s best chance at making it into the NBA. However, neither of them believe the kid has to accomplish it to be someone the country should be proud of.

“I can imagine it’s frustrating for them—either [fans] pressure you or they belittle your abilities,” says Morales. “Fans need to find that right kind of balance between tempering expectations and supporting our fellow Filipinos.”

Morales believes that the kid needs to make his own journey. And regardless of who that’s with, where it is, or who it’s for, it’s imperative that it has to be Kai calling all the shots.

“He has a lot of options right now on what he can do next. And all I can say is that I just want the kid to be able to dictate his own journey,” said Morales. “NBA or not, Kai deserves to choose his path.”

Memento or sign?

Right now, on the NBA G League site, you can still purchase an authentic replica jersey of Kai Sotto with the G League Ignite. Stocks haven’t run out, even if Kai’s time in the G League has.

For some, the jersey might be a tragic memento of what could’ve been. For others, it might be a sign that we’ll get to see more Kai Sotto jerseys, with teams not just the G League, but in the NBA.

But however you look at his jersey, the truth is Kai Sotto still has a chance. His jersey doesn’t have to be collectible forever. But hopefully it’ll be a jersey that comes in his size.