Located in South East Asia, The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of over 7000 islands. A collective nation of different cultures under one ceiling that preaches strength, hard work, and integrity. To the Western hemisphere, the Philippines is known as the home of eight-division boxing world champion Manny Pacquiao. To some classic rock fans, it is the home of Journey’s current frontman, Arnel Pineda.
To its citizens and the rest of Asia, the Philippines is known for other things. The two largest religions in the Philippines are Roman Catholicism and basketball.
The Philippines’ unique and unwavering relationship with hoops is one of the most interesting national sports phenomenons. You can cover your eyes, point your finger in any direction and be in the range of a basketball hoop. The sport unites a country that spans different social classes, religious beliefs, and over 170 dialects. Basketball is the Philippines’ universal language.
Everything from the pickup games on the streets that pause when vehicles pass by to organized interscholastic hoops and the Philippines Basketball Association is incredibly competitive. The Philippines consistently competes on a global scale as well. Consistently placing in Asia-wide competitions and qualifying for the FIBA World Cup. This year, the Philippines will be one of three host nations for the latter.
Only one thing is yet to be achieved by a nation whose heart beats to the rhythm of a ball hitting the hardwood– a homegrown player in the NBA.
Kai Sotto joins the Orlando Magic Summer League team
Enter 21-year-old Kai Sotto. Born in Las Piñas, a city in the Philippines’ National Capital Region, Sotto had many eyes glued to him early in his career. The first key factor is at 7-foot-3, Sotto is an absolute Goliath in a population that averagely stands at 5-foot-5.
Sotto did not just stand out in height, his skills were also evident on the court. Hoops fans in the Philippines immediately wondered how this would translate in the United States and if Sotto would be the first Filipino to enter the NBA.
After playing for the highly-successful Ateneo Blue Eagles early in his high school career, Sotto took off to the United States to fulfill his and his countrymen’s dreams. Sotto joined Atlanta’s The Skill Factory in 2019. His most impressive showing for the preparatory program was in the King Invitational Tournament. Sotto averaged 27 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.3 blocks, and three assists to earn the MVP award in the competition. His efforts were enough to attract some of the best colleges in the United States, including the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky. He was listed as a four-star recruit coming out of high school.
Sotto decided to join NBA G League Ignite, waiving off the college route and interest from Overtime Elite in doing so.
In 2021, Sotto headed to Australia and joined the Adelaide 36ers. He declared for the 2022 NBA Draft but was not selected. This did not stop Sotto. He continued to play and post solid numbers in Adelaide. In 2023, he joined a wave of Filipino talents who tried their luck in the Japanese B League.
Sotto’s numbers for the Hiroshima Dragonflies were not as impressive. He started 19 of the 24 games he played and averaged 8.9 points, six rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game. While his 50 percent average from the field is respectable, he was not as dominant as expected for someone of his stature.
Still, Sotto ended up on the Orlando Magic’s 2023 NBA Summer League roster and will debut against the Detroit Pistons on July 8. The general Filipino audience is excited. However, hardcore basketball fans look at this opportunity with caution. As exciting as it is, we have seen Sotto swing and miss in the United States before.
Can Sotto carry the weight of his nation onto the promised land? The Philippines will be backing him whether or not he makes it to the NBA. This opportunity is as close as the hopeful nation has gotten to reaching its dream– and it all falls on Sotto’s young shoulders.