Kobe Paras had never heard of Omaha when Creighton called this past summer.
He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles to chase a basketball scholarship. At the time, Creighton was just one of dozens of prominent basketball programs in pursuit of the high-flying 6-foot-5-inch tall guard. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott had coveted Paras since he first spotted the native Filipino while recruiting his high school teammate. Paras had committed to UCLA at the time, but he withdrew from the school in early June after failure to meet academic requirements. With Paras back on the open market, McDermott wanted to make him a Bluejay.
During his July visit to Creighton’s campus, Paras toured the $13 million Championship Center and posed for pictures with McDermott’s Naismith player of the year trophy, but it was the personal connections Paras made that led him to pick Creighton as his future home.
“I got to bond with the coaches and my teammates, and it really felt right,” Paras says.
He will need those bonds. Paras enjoys celebrity status in his home country, as the basketball-obsessed nation looks to him as a potential NBA player. The Pacific archipelago has never produced a professional player in the world’s most coveted league.
“I am not a regular student-athlete,” he says. “I have a lot of people looking up to me.”
Paras’ earliest memories are of hoards of fans stopping to ask his father, Benjie Paras, for autographs and pictures. Benjie was a two-time MVP in the Philippine Basketball Association, and has since become an actor. His father’s fame caused the younger Paras to grow up in the limelight, but Benjie tried to instill a sense of perspective in his son.
“When he was my age, he had to do laundry for other people to have enough money,” says the younger Paras of his father. “He kept telling me how blessed I was.”
Basketball was not something Paras picked up until the third grade. Before that time, he played badminton and table tennis. A growth spurt in seventh grade helped the now-taller young man to fall in love with basketball. Meanwhile, basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the Philippines.
“Basketball in the Philippines is a religion,” Paras says. “Wherever you go, you see people playing basketball.”
NBA games were constantly broadcast throughout the country, which helped Paras, whose first name pays homage to the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, become familiar with the sport’s biggest stars.
In 2013, an encounter with his favorite player, Lebron James, took Paras’ fame to a whole new level. During a trip to the Philippines, James took part in a camp for the country’s most promising young players. In a pre-game warm-up, Paras slammed home a one-handed dunk as James leapt to the side of him in a half-hearted effort to play defense.
“I didn’t really plan it,” says Paras about the moment. “My friends were like, ‘do you realize who you just dunked on?’”
The original video of the dunk received over 2.5 million views. That clip would bring about a whole new level of fame for the then-15 year old.
Paras’ move stateside to aid his basketball skills would come just months after the dunk. It was at Cathedral High School, under the guidance of coach William Middlebrooks, that Paras, living away from his family, honed his leadership skills and focused on building his brand.
“I told him, now that you are here, your popularity can only grow,” says coach Middlebrooks. “Especially as people better understand Kobe Paras the person.”
Paras also developed as a basketball player with more than just raw athleticism. He will bring those skills to a Creighton team poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.
“He already has the body to play at this level,” says McDermott of Paras. “He also really knows how to put the ball in the basket.”
And even thousands of miles from the Philippines, Paras’ enthusiastic fans have been able to follow his every move.
“We found out pretty quick that the media in the Philippines was going to find him wherever he went,” says McDermott, who has spent many a Skype session this fall with the media outlets in Paras’ home country.
Paras also keeps in touch with many back home via social media. On Twitter he has over 114,000 followers and on Instagram he has more than 454,000 followers.
“On social media people always reach out to me,” Paras says. “Anywhere I am, I feel the support.”
Even though he knew almost nothing about Omaha before his visit in July, he has come to appreciate his new home. He says his favorite place is the gym, and he loves that there is less traffic here than in Los Angeles. He also knows that the start of basketball season means winter is coming.
“He is getting ready for that snow,” Middlebrooks says. “He called me and said, ‘coach, I think I need boots.’”
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