MANILA - The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) is pulling out all stops to bring young center Kai Sotto home in time for the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers.
The 18-year-old Sotto announced last Thursday that he intends to play for Gilas Pilipinas in the third and final window of the continental qualifiers, which will be held in a bubble in Clark, Pampanga from February 17-22.
It was not immediately clear from Sotto's announcement if he will join the national team in its training camp at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna. The squad has been training in the facility since mid-January to prepare for their three games in the February 2021 window.
According to Ryan Gregorio, special assistant to SBP President Al Panlilio, they are in constant communication with Sotto's management team to work out the details of the teenage center's return to the country.
"If this is just a normal environment for us, he would have been in the country probably three days ago," Gregorio told former PBA Commissioner Noli Eala during an episode of "Power and Play" last Saturday.
"But what we're doing is we're closely coordinating with IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force), we're following strict protocols espoused by our country, just to make sure the transmission of the virus will not be rampant," he added.
"That is where the delay is happening."
Sotto has been training in Walnut Creek, California for several months now together with his G League team, Ignite. They are set to compete in the G League season that will take place in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, also in February.
According to Gregorio, they have already received permission from Team Ignite for Sotto to miss a bulk of games in the G League season and instead play in the FIBA Asia Cup.
The more pressing issue is when Sotto can fly back to the Philippines, as he still has to fulfill the protocols of the government including a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
"It is absolute," Gregorio said of the quarantine requirement. "Hindi talaga nagbigay ng shortcut ang IATF, which we very much understand."
The recent recommendation of the Department of Health of an additional testing requirement for travelers entering the Philippines, five days after their arrival, gave Gregorio and the SBP more hope. However, he stressed that ultimately, they will follow whatever protocol is implemented by the IATF.
What's crucial is for them to get Sotto back in the Philippines as soon as possible, and work from there.
"Ang talagang finality na lang on the logistical requirements para makarating siya sa ating bansa," said Gregorio.
"Mas maganda sana kung mas maaga, but narito na tayo. Ang sinasabi lang natin is sana makarating na, tapos 'yung mga unknown, problemahin na lang natin 'pagka dumating na siya," he added.
Even with the difficulties posed by the situation, Gregorio says that Sotto's commitment to the Gilas Pilipinas program is a massive boost to the team. Sotto is expected to join a young squad filled with collegiate standouts, as well as a handful of PBA players led by Kiefer Ravena of NLEX.
"This is very good as far as Philippine basketball is concerned. Our best and brightest prospect not just in the local setting but also in the NBA and the world, Kai Sotto, has willingly volunteered and raised his hand to play for our country," said Gregorio.
"That is the first step… We're willing to wait for Kai Sotto," he stressed.
The Philippines currently have a 3-0 record in Group A of the qualifiers. They will play South Korea twice and Indonesia once in the final window.