HISTORIC as Kai Sotto's coming stint in the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia would be, a sports executive argued it's development that was four years in the making.
Former Asean Basketball League (ABL) chief operating officer Jericho Ilagan bared to Spin.ph that as early as 2017, officials and scouts from clubs Down Under have already explored the possibility of enlisting Filipino players.
The Aussie actually had their eyes on two talents: Bobby Ray Parks and Kiefer Ravena, said Ilagan.
The two young guards were then playing for Alab Pilipinas in the ABL and several executives from the front office of the Adelaide 36ers watched the Philippine club face off against the Singapore Slingers at the OCBC Arena.
"This was Game One of the semis back in the 2016-17 season and officials of the Adelaide 36ers were there," Ilagan recounted.
Among those in attendance were chairman Grant Kelley, who Ilagan described "would usually watch Slingers games as he is often times based in Singapore," as well as then-36ers head coach and former PBA import Joey Wright.
"We spoke during the game and coach Wright told me that there was an impending approval from NBL Australia on allowing Asian imports and he was really interested in Ray and Kiefer," the soft-spoken executive shared.
That was Ravena's first game with Alab and he poured 16 points in his debut, but the three-seed Alab fell to the hosts, 77-67. Parks only had four in the game after suffering a sprain in the third quarter.
Alab eventually lost the best-of-three series after an 82-64 defeat at home in Baliwag, Bulacan five days later.
Still, the potential of Ravena and Parks going to Australia intrigued Adelaide that Wright inquired about game tapes and contact numbers with Filipino officials.
"It’s extremely competitive here. I like the competition. We just want the best that we could get. We preferably want a young player that we can develop," Wright told Spin.ph's Reuben Terrado back then.
"We are trying to venture out to the Asian markets. The ownership group and leadership of the NBL felt like we can start getting Asian players involved, and we can start getting attention [here in Asia]."
Unfortunately, none of those talks led to terms.
Ravena has since jumped to the PBA, getting picked second overall in the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft by NLEX before signing with the Shiga Lakestars in the B.League this season.
Parks, meanwhile, spent the next two seasons in the ABL, leading Alab to a title the following season before being chosen second by Blackwater in the 2018 PBA Rookie Draft. After a full season with the TNT, he is now with the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins in Japan.
The NBL eventually rolled out its Special Restricted Player (SRP) rule starting in the 2016-17 season to allow Asian talents, primarily from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, India, and Singapore, to suit up in the domestic league outside of the Australia and New Zealand markets.
Only a few teams were able to utilize the rule. Among those signees in past seasons include shooter Makoto Hiejima (Brisbane Bullets) and swingman Yudai Baba (Melbourne United) from Japan, Chinese guard Terry Li (New Zealand Breakers), and Indian center Amritpal Singh (Sydney Kings).
This year, however, three clubs enlisted SRPs and Adelaide is curiously one of them.
Although Wright parted ways with the team in 2020, the 36ers pursued their Asian imports plan by bringing in Sotto for this season.
Aside from Adelaide, other clubs which inked Asian players were South East Melbourne Phoenix, which signed former Houston Rockets center Zhou Qi, and the Brisbane Bullets, which signed another Chinese big man in 7-foot-5 Liu Chuanxing as a development player.
Safe to say, Filipino talents truly are on the international scouts' radars.