By Karlo Lovenia and Frankie Serrano

We remember the very first time we laid our eyes on Kai Sotto. It was the Summer of 2016, as he debuted for the Ateneo Blue Eaglets in the Filoil Flying V Preseason Tournament. His first test: the defending NCAA champions, San Beda Red Cubs. Quite frankly, it wasn’t looking too good.

The worst-case scenario we had in mind at that time: Gian Chiu. Right now, it’s funny to think about it.

Sobering up however, it wasn’t such a bad take when the then-14 year-old Sotto came to the Ateneo High School program. He was coming in more as a novelty because well, for starters, he stood 6’9”, reed-thin, and uncoordinated. Chiu came in to the Blue Eaglets in the summer of 2003, out of the Xavier School varsity program, 6’5”, obviously not in the best of shape, and heavy on the feet.

Most importantly, at that point then, Filipino basketball fans such as us had given up on these hyped up, tall prospects. It started with Ethan Kirkness, but he never materialized even for Batang Gilas. Jay Pangalanan gave us some hope, but he’s been out of the radar for quite some time now. While Junemar Fajardo and Greg Slaughter have had fruitful careers, they still weren’t the dominant forces we needed for Philippine Basketball. In this case, why even believe in Kai right?

“EJ Feihl naman kalalabasan niyan.”

“Tingting. Itutulak-tulak lang yan.”

“Puro tangkad lang yan.”

Honestly, we would not be surprised if those were the actual things Kai Zachary Sotto heard about him as a Blue Eaglet rookie. Disregarding the second statement, those were what we heard about Gian Chiu. Was Kai going the same? Will he just be another hash mark in a short tally of tall Filipinos that were forced to play basketball just because well, they ended up an anomaly in the height department?

His rookie year for the Blue Eaglets did not do much to silence the doubters from the church of Tangkad Lang Yan. He averaged a measly 5.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks. The blocks were a given. There’s no one standing above 6’9” and what the hell do you do with those long arms playing with guys who only reach up to your waist? “Tangkad lang talaga. Walang ibubuga,” huffed members of the Tangkad Lang Yan church. As an added salt, the Blue Eaglets did not even make the Finals.

While Sotto had quite the stretch during the second round of the UAAP and in the Final Four, it wasn’t anything too convincing for the wildest of haters. He still looked soft. He was still reed-thin. The chatter about him being all height continued to ring around chat boxes.

It’s important to ask then, What can change the minds of these members from the church of Tangkad Lang Yan? A good start was UAAP Season 80, as the Ateneo Blue Eaglets were heavily favored to win the championship once and for all. Kai had a better season than last time around, finishing with averages of 12.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks, good enough for a spot in the Mythical Five.

But ultimately, it’s dealing with the big bullies of the Nazareth School-National University Bullpups what might actually change the minds of these zealots into members of Worship the Future Unicorn movement. The lineup against the Bullpups was nasty. All-nation Rhayyan Amsali. The rugged Paolo Javillonar, young brother of notorious NU Bulldog Jeff. Lastly, there’s Michael Malonzo, who can probably audition for your next action flick goon.

There was bad blood with how they pushed Sotto around. Or that’s what they thought. Game 1 in the UAAP Juniors Finals was the coming-out party and declaration of supremacy that nobody saw coming.

22 points. 16 rebounds. 11 blocks, including one super dirty chase down on Terrence Fortea. Finals MVP.

The doubters from the church of Tangkad Lang Yan started to convert themselves after that Finals MVP performance from Sotto. But there were still those who stayed in this church, hoping to watch Kai fail in the FIBA Asia U16 tournament in China. Sadly, they’d be left disappointed, and doubting their faith in this church even more.

Kai had a rough first two games versus Malaysia and Australia, but as Coach Mike Oliver made adjustments, Sotto also followed suit. Slowly but surely, the being we know now as the Kaiju was being unleashed. It started versus Japan, as Kai unloaded a monster 28-21 line to secure Batang Gilas a spot in the FIBA U17 World Cup.

But the final nail in the coffin was versus China. It was a hyped-up affair, as Kai was set to go up against his biggest (literally and figuratively) rival yet in Jiao Boqiao. If there was a chance for the church of Tangkad Lang Yan to rejoice, this could have been it. Kai had an equal in terms of size. Maybe then, those preaching “Puro tangkad lang yan,” could finally get their strongest argument yet.

26 points, 21 rebounds, six blocks, and one mean dream shake versus all of the big men China threw at him. Sure, China won the game, which wasn’t particularly surprising. But they didn’t leave without getting beat up real nice. It took an entire army to stop a Kaiju from completing the upset.

Suddenly, witnesses say, you could only count with one had the members who remained then in the church of Tangkad Lang Yan. Yet, they were still aggressive with their cries, especially with the impending arrival of a kid named Carl Tamayo, who was straight up giving the business to anyone not named Kai. It was a legit battle of the titans for Season 81.

Or so we thought. Only it was a one-sided fight. There was no chance Carl Tamayo withstood Kai Sotto mano y mano. It was such a reach to even say, and probably kind, to say that he got the better of Kai in the Finals series by snagging a title, forgetting how loaded the Bullpups were considered to the Blue Eaglets.

Just to show you how good the final year of Sotto was for the Blue Eaglets might make you think whether the computer is busted or nah: 25.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.6 blocks, 60% FG, 33% 3FG. In the Finals against Tamayo, ho-hum, just a regular 21-20-4.5 average FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES, while having to deal with Kevin Quiambao, Rey Torres, and Paolo Javillonar on the side.

No contest. It wasn’t even close. That performance not only served as the final stamp in Kai’s ticket abroad, but also as a memorable One Last Ride for the Kaiju.

Most One Last Rides are elegant, poetic even. Kai’s, was far from it. It was a Kaiju who finally gained full confidence, and burst flames out of its mouth to destroy everything in its path. That included the church of Tangkad Lang Yan. According to witnesses, the church no longer exists today. It shouldn’t have even existed in the first place.

Hindi puro tangkad lang.

Hindi tinutulak-tulak lang, siya yung tumulak, at wala silang nagawa.

Hindi yan si EJ Feihl.

And lastly, he did not turn out to be a Gian Chiu.

He’s Kai Sotto, who could very well be an NBA draftee in two or three years time when everything is said and done.