Meet Kobe Paras: Filipino matinee idol, turned Creighton basketball star

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Kobe Paras still can’t help but laugh thinking back to the first time it happened in Omaha.

It was this summer and the Creighton freshman basketball star had arrived at school and in his new hometown. On a whim he decided to take a stroll down to the mall and do some shopping. Yet as he got into the checkout line, he noticed something strange, as the light of a camera phone caught the corner of his eye.

“I was just standing in line,” the 19-year-old Paras said of the unusual encounter. “And the whole time, I was thinking ‘it’s so bright.’ And I think he didn’t know that his phone’s camera flash was on. He was videoing me the whole time.”

After a few minutes, the playful Paras decided to have some fun.

“I knew he was videoing me, so I looked back at the camera, starting doing poses, and I was like ‘I think your flash is on.’” Paras said with a laugh. “And he was like ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And he was like ‘You play for Creighton right?… I know I knew you.’”

If that seems bizarre – even in a basketball-obsessed town like Omaha – it is, but in Paras’ world, nothing is what most people would consider “normal.”

That’s because while Paras might just be another young freshman to most across the sport of college basketball, halfway across the world he’s something entirely different in his native country of the Philippines. There he’s, for lack of a better term, a pop culture celebrity, a member of the first family of both basketball and entertainment. As one college coach who recruited him said, “His family is like the Kardashians of the Philippines.”

More than that though, in a country consumed by basketball, he’s something else altogether: The latest, and maybe greatest hope of producing a home-grown, NBA player.

That’s still years down the road, but as Paras gets set for his second college game Tuesday night on FS1 against Wisconsin, he carries the weight of the Philippines on his shoulders. And he is taking it in stride.

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To say “basketball is big in the Philippines” would be a huge, gross, massive understatement, like saying “Steph Curry is pretty good at shooting jump shots.” Or “Russell Westbrook plays with a lot of energy.”

The sport was introduced to the country by American soldiers in the early 1900s and hasn’t stopped growing. A 2008 study showed that 40 percent of the country either plays, or previously played basketball, and a staggering 80 percent of the nation calls themselves fans of the sport. The Philippines is Nike’s third-largest basketball market in terms of merchandise sold (trailing only the United States and China) and the Philippine Basketball Association is the second-longest running professional league in the world, behind only the NBA. Basketball is a national obsession.

And since the advent of the PBA, few players have been more of an obsession in their own right than Benjie Paras, Kobe’s dad. As a 21-year-old in 1989 he became the first player in PBA history to take home the league’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, and he followed it up with another MVP a decade later. Eventually he retired in 2003, and he has since been a professional actor.

Therefore, there’s really no other way to put it: Kobe and his older brother Andre grew up in a world of celebrity. Kobe will be the first to admit that it’s the only life he’s known.

“[Taking pictures and signing autographs] it’s a part of going out,” Paras said. “There’s never not a time where people are asking for pictures.”

Despite it though, Benjie Paras did everything he could to create a normal childhood for his kids, and part of that included actually keeping them away from basketball. Benjie retired shortly after both were born, so neither remembers much from his playing days. And when they showed an interest in the sport, he made sure it was their choice to play, and not anyone else’s.

“I never introduced basketball to them because I have some PBA friends who have kids, and they forced their kids to play basketball and it didn’t end well,” Benjie Paras said. “When my kids asked me, I said ‘are you seriously interested’ and they said yes, and that’s when I taught them some basics.”

Kobe – who yes, was named after Kobe Bryant – was still young at that point, and it wasn’t until a few years later that he jumped into the sport more seriously. By his early teens he began making a name for himself in his home country (once causing an international fervor, when he “dunked” on LeBron James during a Nike sponsored tour of the Philippines), and a few years later he was a bona-fide star, a wing player who eventually grew to 6-foot-6, with a solid 3-point shooting stroke and elite athleticism.

At that point Kobe began pressuring his dad to come to the United States, to test his game against the best high school players in the world. Eventually the family connected with William Middlebrooks, the head coach at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles.

Even when Paras arrived in the fall of 2014, Middlebrooks wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

“My first interaction, was, I walk in the gym, you see a big 6-4, 6-5 kid and I’m thinking ‘does he really play basketball?’” Middlebrooks said. “So I give him a basketball and he dunks it, and I’m like ‘Ok! Let’s see what this is.’”

Middlebrooks admits that it took Paras a while to adjust to the American style of game, but once he got comfortable, he took off. He averaged 15 points per game in his junior year, and impressed college coaches that summer playing for the Compton Magic AAU team. He played his senior year on Middlebrooks’ post-graduate team, and as big as his game got, his profile grew bigger.

Understand that while Kobe was already well-known in the Philippines, the move to the United States actually created even more excitement back home. Over time Kobe transitioned from “Benjie’s son” to a star in his own right, as Filipinos wanted to know how one of their own would stack up with the best players in his age group in the world. During his time at Cathedral, Paras’ high school games were covered by some of the biggest outlets in the Philippines, and his social media accounts grew to levels that would make some actual, NBA players jealous (to date he has 114,000 followers on Twitter and another 450,000 on Instagram).

Like the sport of basketball itself, the coverage of Paras has grown from “fandom” to “obsession.”

“You’ve got kids who cut their hair a certain way because that’s how he cuts his hair,” Middlebrooks said. “They’re going to dress a certain way [because he does]. You’ve got grown women trying to get his autograph.”

Middlebrooks, who spent years in the music industry, couldn’t hide who Paras is, or what he’s become.

“He’s a unique kid,” Middlebrooks said. “He’s a superstar. He’s a pop culture superstar in the Philippines.”

Well, that’s not entirely correct; he isn’t just a pop culture superstar in the Philippines, but here in the United States as well. According to a 2012 census report, there are more than three million Filipinos in the United States, with a huge portion of that population living in the Los Angeles area.

And that population headed to Paras’ high school games in droves. Cathedral had to hire a security guard after fans rushed the bench after a game, with some traveling from places as far away as San Diego (a three-hour drive) to see Paras play.

As the hype grew, Paras stayed humble.

“We had a road game, and there were 130 people in line after the game to see him,” Nia Alafia, Middlebrooks’ wife, and brand manager for Cathedral and Middlebrooks Academy said. “And he would not stop until the final person got a picture and autograph. … He wouldn’t stop. He just loves his people.”

And as he begins his career at Creighton, his people will watch from a world away.

They’ll also wait and wonder: Can he possibly, one day, make it to the NBA?

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Paras was initially supposed to attend UCLA, but an issue with the admissions office re-routed him to Creighton. The combination of playing in the Big East and for a coach in Greg McDermott, who once developed a player with a similar skill-set – his son Doug – into an eventual first round NBA Draft pick was appealing to Paras and Middlebrooks.

Now a few months into the experience in Omaha, Paras has come to love his new home, even if the Filipino-born, Los Angeles-based star does have teenage concerns to work through.

“I’ve never been in the snow, never been in cold weather,” Paras said with a laugh. “So I’m really bracing myself for this.”

He’s also bracing for what life will be like in his first year in college basketball.

Things got off to a slow start in Paras’ Creighton debut last Friday, as the freshman played just six, foul-filled minutes in the team’s season-opener against Missouri-Kansas City. As Paras and Creighton get set to face No. 9 Wisconsin in a Top 25 showdown on FS1, he knows he’s got a long way to go.

“I’ll be more controlled, more energetic,” Paras said of how he plans to play in his first year on campus in Omaha. “I’m a team player. That’s what fans can expect this year.”

Of course with Paras, a whole country watches and waits to see not just what this year holds, but the future as well. While basketball is a national obsession in the Philippines, the country has had few players to latch onto at the NBA level. Lakers’ guard Jordan Clarkson is half-Filipino, and before him, no one of major Filipino descent has played in the league since Raymond Townsend in 1982.

Paras might eventually be that guy. At 6-6, with athleticism and improving strength, already on the radar of NBA scouts, even if everyone – including Paras and Middlebrooks – are quick to admit that he is still very much a developmental player.

Only time will tell if Paras makes that leap, and takes the final step in his basketball journey. In the meantime, it raises one final question: With an entire country watching, does Paras feel any pressure?

“Not at all,” Paras said “I take that as motivation. There aren’t a lot of people out there that have the benefit I have, so I’m making the most of it.”

Even if it does include some awkward encounters at the mall.

Aaron Torres covers college football for Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_TorresFacebook or ATorres00@gmail.com.

 

Paras, making his Creighton debut (Photo by Steven Branscombe)
Paras, with family on graduation day. Father Benjie Paras is pictured, wearing a blue button down shirt. Coach William Middlebrooks wearing purple.