Photo by Jillian Velasco

Six days before his long-awaited UAAP debut, Kobe Paras sits. It’s a little gangly and awkward, the way you’d expect a six-foot-eight, twenty-something to maneuver a bench a third of his height. 

To most people, it’s a sight that would make it difficult to imagine how someone like him could have possibly been a kid; but Kobe insists that he once was, too.

“My favorite cartoon growing up was The Simpsons,” he says with a laugh. 

There’s a tinge of defensive embarrassment. He points out that, in retrospect, maybe his choice of cartoons wasn’t the best television exposure for a child. But he’s a different, older Kobe Paras – one who’s seen things change; change that’s been much more than just swapping out The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead for The Good Place and Friends reruns.

It’s the kind of change that pushed him across an ocean, a journey that still inconceivably ended with him back home. While Kobe may finally be home, gearing up for a new chance at life with the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons, he’s also seven years — and several thousand miles — older. He is back in the Philippines, and everyone knows his name. He, obvious as he is, is Kobe Paras.

He insists that he was a child once, too.

It’s one thing for a kid to grow up on their own, and  another for a kid to grow up on their own in a different country. Yet both of those are completely different things from growing up alone in a different country while carrying the insurmountable expectations of a basketball-crazy nation.

That is a story only Kobe Paras can claim. He was fourteen.

“I think [America] was a big move for me, because I didn’t really think about myself when I moved. I thought about going to the States and getting better for the country. I was playing basketball to be the first Filipino to play in NCAA Division 1, and in the NBA.”

They say it takes a village to raise a child. In Kobe’s case, he was a child pushed to raise a village of millions of Filipinos hoping for the first homegrown Filipino NBA player. He was tasked to do this alone, with his only physically present adult figure being his coach that housed him.

“I think [my time in America] was the start of my mental health [problems], because there were times after practice where I would just be sad and lonely for no reason,” he says. 

“And what I realized is that – not in a selfish way – I never really did things I wanted to do. And that kinda messed with my head, because I kept doing stuff for other people, instead of doing it for my pleasure or my sake.”

Mental health is something Kobe Paras has talked about before on social media. He isn’t shy about having dark days; if anything, he wishes he had addressed it with professional therapists as early as his teen years.

“Before, I thought that needing a therapist or needing help was a sign of weakness, ‘cause you know us men, we’re raised to be people like – ‘boys don’t cry,’ ‘boys gotta be tough,” he says.

According to him, it’s this kind of demand for masculinity that makes it specifically hard to deal with personal demons when all the cameras are turned towards you. However, for someone born the son of a Philippine basketball legend and a famous actress, and told he was destined for greatness as early as twelve, how could the cameras not be on Kobe? 

Especially now as a member of a revamped UP Fighting Maroons fresh off a Season 81 Finals run, Kobe Paras knows the cameras aren’t going to stop rolling.

So while there might have been a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old that wanted the cameras once upon a time, this one that sits gangly on a bench is a different Kobe – one that wants to play without a name.

“I’m way different now, and honestly, last year was the toughest year of my life,” he says, noting how UP is his fourth school in five years. Kobe initially started his college journey in the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), before he moved to Creighton University, and finally to California State Northridge (CSUN). 

“Because of that, there are a lot of people who make fun of me and say a lot of things.”

Kobe initially committed to UCLA – a historic school when it comes to talent. It produced the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and MVPs almost forty years apart in Bill Walton and Russell Westbrook;  and for a brief moment, UCLA also had Kobe Paras, until it didn’t. Seemingly out of nowhere, UCLA announced Paras wouldn’t be playing for a team that sported future NBA players Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.

Then, upon his transfer to Creighton, he averaged less than 2 points a game. This led to his next transfer to CSUN, where after a few public appearances, he never played a game. After this, people started saying he lost his chance at the NBA as a whole, that he failed the Philippines. YouTube videos popped up asking, “What Ever Happened to Kobe Paras?”

Thousands of people were willing to give him the kind of labels that would scar; the kind of names that most people would never understand.

The talk continued upon his transfer to UP, which saw its first UAAP Finals since Kobe’s dad led them there. Last year, UP was led by a ragtag group with Paul Desiderio, Bright Akhuetie, and Juan Gomez de Liaño, reflecting UP’s identity as the underdog in the basketball world. So to many Maroon fans, the addition of a name like Paras and his new teammate Ricci Rivero meant an end to that fairytale. To Kobe, it just meant more talk.

It’s this sort of talk that has plagued Kobe since before he could understand it. It’s chatter that wrongly assumes six-foot-eight of muscle can somehow carry more hurt than most people – because to the outside, it’s easy to question how anyone born with that kind of pedigree can feel sad. 

“I wish people knew I’m not just a basketball player, or whatever you wanna call me. I’m Kobe Paras, and I’m a human being.”

With UP, he’s given that opportunity – a fourth chance at life. 

“No disrespect to all my old teammates, but this is the first time I’ve felt like I can just be myself on a team; where I can just be myself and people accept me; where I can just be myself, and no one will judge,” he says.

In coming back from America, Kobe says the first step to adjustment was admitting that something was wrong. It’s a step he’d recommend to anyone.

“[Honesty] doesn’t make you weak or stupid. If you know that you’re insecure, just accept it. If you know you’re weak at something, or you’re shy, just accept it. The first thing [that needs] change is acceptance. And I had to change,” he shares.

Kobe says that if one were to watch footage of him in the NCAA, they would see him as a “hothead.” He says he was always angry, and that his bottled-up feelings manifested negatively on the court. The anger always overshadowed his hard work, and ultimately confused him. 

Now Kobe realizes it was all the things he needed to fix off the court. He believes he wore a mask, a little too long and a little too often. 

“Every time I tried to practice, or every time I went to school, I tried to be someone I’m not. And I think that’s why I’m happy [in UP], and I’m more grateful for my life now. I’m not worried about what I don’t have.”

The topic of mental health among athletes has become a budding conversation. For Kobe, he contributes to it by showing people how mental health affects anyone of any background. In his words, “We all still need help.”

According to him, the help he needed was found by simply looking inwards.

“There’s more to life than just how I feel. I just needed to open up to someone, open up to my friends. And I just had to be more honest and modest. That’s one thing that actually kinda sucks in the Philippines. If you’re too honest, people think you’re an asshole or mayabang or kupal,” he laments.

“But I figured out I had to go over the fence – the fence of the people who talk – and live my own life. When it’s all said and done, I’m the only person who’s gonna be by myself. Who’s with you in the bathroom? Who’s with you when you sleep? It’s just yourself. You do have family and friends, but you spend all of your time with yourself.”

This, to Kobe, is key – the breaking of masks, the letting go of a mindset that pressures you to cross bridges other people have set down for you. Kobe doesn’t believe in crossing those bridges anymore. He believes people should build their own, with themselves and with each other. 

Kobe admits that outside the court, he still has issues to fix. Although, according to him, there’s nothing particularly special about his bad days. He says, “Everyone has issues. Everyone has some problems. And that’s what’s crazy you know? You make fun of someone. You judge someone.”

But Kobe is past the point of letting strangers’ judgments get to him, and that starts with claiming his growth – insecurities and all.

“If you keep chasing the things that you don’t have in your life, you’re never gonna be complete,” Kobe says. In changing himself, he believes he became a better person, and therefore, a better player.

Kobe says he’s progressed well. It’s trusting his confidants and himself that has allowed him to be better, and it’s those little things like messaging your loved ones or being a little nicer to yourself each day that he thinks add up. 

“People will never know the real you, and that’s what I keep telling people,” he says “Even when people don’t know you, at the end of the day, it matters what you feel about yourself.”

Seeing and learning how to do just this is what Kobe credits his personal progress to. For the first time in a long time, his bad days are manageable. 

“I’ve been doing a lot better! I don’t really get mad anymore when it comes to basketball. I don’t get mad at my friends anymore. I have a sense of being right now. I feel more like Kobe, you know?”

And for someone who’s never felt like he was what his name entailed, that’s all he’s ever wanted.

Kobe stands up from the bench. He doesn’t know it yet, but in six days, he will lead the Fighting Maroons to a win over Adamson despite trailing by 16 after the first half, scoring 20 points and making the crucial assist to send the game to overtime. But for now, he stands.

He’s tall, obviously. It’s how everyone knows him apart from his name. But when Kobe Paras first left to pursue his NBA dreams, he went under a different username on social media  – @Im_Not_Kobe. 

Most might assume the old handle was a clear nod to how he isn’t his namesake, the future Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant – a tall expectation for a kid like him to meet. But Kobe says that was never the case. 

“The truth is, I just couldn’t register my name online.” He laughs, saying he couldn’t sign up under his real name due to a plethora of fake accounts that got there first. 

Kobe laughs at the memory, and how he couldn’t claim something as simple as his name. And if there’s anything Kobe can admit, it’s that he’s still trying to do just that.

“I’m not Kobe.” He laughs under his breath, and smiles.

It’s the smile of someone learning that maybe there was truth to the old username – because perhaps he isn’t Kobe, at least in the ways everyone thought he would be. But maybe it’s enough to just be himself.

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