Photo by Naveen Ganglani/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – For nearly two years now, Benjie Paras hasn’t practiced what was nearly an everyday tradition that he had cherished in years prior. But even with all the time that has elapsed since, old habits continue to die hard.
For so long, Paras’s morning routine involved waking up his son, Kobe, and driving him to La Salle Greenhills for his schooling. Nowadays, as Paras walks into the room of his son that’s 7,292 miles halfway across the world, all the former PBA MVP sees is a blank space, with memories of the past making up for the absent present that’s serving as the bridge-way to what’s hopefully a bright tomorrow.
“Until now it’s really hard for me,” Benjie told Rappler. “I’m used to waking him up every morning and then bringing him to school. So every morning I just wake up and go to his room and it’s empty.”
But not even the amount of land and water separating the Philippines and Los Angeles - or in Kobe Paras’ case, the past and the future - has hindered the bond between father and son. “So what I do is, every morning, I just text him, and he’ll text back, are you free, and then okay, I’ll call him,” said Benjie.
“So that’s the only way we communicate. And it’s a good thing we have good technology now that we can talk through Viber and FaceTime.”
Kobe Paras is a terrific basketball phenomenon, and his resume attests to it: he’s a star for Cathedral High School in Los Angeles; he’s already verbally committed to join Steve Alford and the historic basketball program of UCLA once he gets to the NCAA; and he’s competed in multiple FIBA tournaments, one most recently where he was crowned slam dunk king for a second straight time.
With Kobe Paras, most that observes see are highlights - tomahawks, windmills, and between the leg jams. Others see a world full of potential that can be unlocked by an improved jumper and stingier defense. Website editors see clicks and hits. TV stations see ratings. Filipinos see another son of their own representing the colors of the nation on the grandest basketball stage in the world one day.
But those who really listen to what Kobe says quickly figure out that he’s a family guy. It’s easy to forget that he’s only 17-years-old because of what he’s already achieved and all the headlines he’s made, but as he sat with his dad and brother at the Viva office in Ortigas on Thursday, June 11, the most glaring aspect about the towering 6-foot-6 talent was the bond he shares with Benjie and Andre.
“[My family’s] been a huge part because in everyone’s lives, they need a support system, and knowing that I have a family there for me is just amazing,” Kobe told Rappler.
“He’s (Benjie) been through more than what I have… he just guides me if I have a hard time and whenever I need help, he’s just there to tell me stuff.”
Kobe and Benjie will always be compared. While one could eventually turn into an NBA prospect, the other will always hold a place in Philippine basketball lore. Benjie remains the only player ever to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. He was given the nickname “Tower of Power” for a reason. When the PBA announced their 25 greatest players ever in 2000, his name was on the list.
Some might have expected that dad would have wanted his sons to follow his footsteps and perform at a high level on the basketball court such as he did. He could have made his boys practice hours a day after school and on the weekends for that to happen - let’s call it the Dan Scott Syndrome.
But he didn’t. “Carve your own path,” he essentially told his boys, giving them the liberty to write their own futures even as they were still years away from the position they’re in now.
“What’s a good thing about this is I didn’t really force him to play,” Benjie said about Kobe, “…he’s the one who got interested in playing basketball, when he saw his friends playing basketball also.”
“I just told him, if you want my advice, I’ll just give you some tips and I’ll give you some drills, but I cannot coach you. You need to follow your coach and that’s it. I think with that kind of support - the important thing is I’m not forcing him.”
So it was true to form that, when NCAA colleges came calling to show interest in Kobe - from UCLA, to Arizona State University, to UC Irvine, to California, and to Fresno State - Benjie let his son make his own decision with guidance from experts more used to the student-athlete dynamic in the United States.
Benjie had a right to play a heavy role in dictating his son’s collegiate dedication, but chose to contribute from the bench instead, willing to give a helping word if need be, but not imposing it.
“I talked to his coach and I told his coach and I told Kobe, ‘I really can’t give you advice because I don’t know anything about schools in the States.’ So the coach just told me, ‘I think it’s better for him to go to UCLA.’ We just followed his advice… I didn’t force him to go to a college that I want for him,” said Benjie.
Benjie’s decision to hold back and not force his hand on Kobe’s decisions has played a role in the development of his son’s maturity - something that was evident during the press conference on Thursday.
“He became more mature,” said Benjie. “He became more independent. He fixes his bed. He does some errands in his dorm. For me, it’s a good achievement for him to learn life aside from basketball.”
Another big part of Kobe’s life outside of basketball is the relationship he has with his brother. The two are often seen together - whether on Instagram videos, public appearances, or even Cherifer commercials. After the press conference at Viva, they played around like young 10-year-old boys as photographers clicked away for images that would be printed on newspapers for the country to see the next day.
It was as if the past two years brought the two even closer - Andre says that even at the wee hour of 2:00 am in the morning and while at work, he made sure to take the time out and watch his brother in action in the recent FIBA 3-on-3 U-18 tournament in Hungary.
“Whenever [he’s] in the Philippines, we’ll play one on one and he’ll dunk on me,” said Andre, before turning to his younger brother to say, “I let you dunk” jokingly. “I’m just really happy I was able to watch him do things that I’ve never seen before. I’m really proud of him.”
Unlike Kobe, Andre’s basketball career has not exploded off the roof. He had a pedestrian freshman season with the UP Maroons in the UAAP in 2013 before deciding to transfer to San Beda. Now, it seems as if his basketball career has taken a step-back for a field that his father excelled in as well: show-business.
Is Andre, a star of GMA Network’s series The Half Sisters and Let the Love Begin, jealous of his brother? Yes, he admits. But not like how you’d think.
“Honestly, sometimes (it’s like) we want to change - we’re both jealous of each other,” Andre said. “Ako (I’m), like, ‘Kobe, I want to dunk like you,’ and Kobe’s like, ‘Dude, I want to act like you.’Eh di magpalit tayo (then let’s just change).”
“But we both know it’s just funny cause whatever happens, we’ll be there for each other, and at least, honestly I know we both have the talent. Maybe not the same but we can always relate in some ways.”
“So if ever we want to work with each other in TV, pwede (we can), or if we want to play one on one, pwede din (we can do that as well). So we’re always in the same level.”
By the time the last words of that sentence left Andre’s mouth, the usually quiet Benjie, who’s also known for his humor - after all, he did play many comedic roles - chipped in: “Yun ang nagawa ko sabay,” much to the delight of those in attendance.
(That’s what I did at the same time,)
“Good job, dad,” Andre responded. Thought that comment wasn’t suitable just for Benjie’s properly-timed and laughable comment, but also for a job which he has accomplished even better than being a basketball player:
Being a father.
That includes raising two sons that seem as close as close can be. That includes letting them make their own mistakes but still being around to offer a guiding hand. That includes teaching a son that’s on the road from becoming a star to a superstar to stay grounded, humble, and never forget his origins regardless of the success he achieves.
“Off the court, he just tells me to stay humble and just focus on where I came from,” Kobe said about Benjie. “Because if there was someone in my situation, they would use the most out of it and do what I’m doing right now - that is to represent my country, my family and everyone who’s supporting me.”
Playing in the Philippines might be in Kobe’s past while whatever lies in store for him in Los Angeles is his future. But, as he promised (more on this on another upcoming story), he will never forget his roots, never let go of the pride he has of representing the Filipino name overseas.
And here’s another thing that looks like it will last for a long, long time: the bond he shares with his family.