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There's a new Kobe in town at Cathedral High

Eric Sondheimer
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There's a new Kobe in town and this one plays basketball too

Don't be surprised if Filipino flags are being waved en masse this winter in the gym at Los Angeles Cathedral High. There are more than 375,000 Filipinos living in Los Angeles County, and a 17-year-old basketball prodigy with more than 50,000 Twitter and 67,000 Instagram followers is set to make his high school debut in the United States.

Kobe Paras is no ordinary foreign exchange student. As a 15-year-old in 2013, Paras participated in a Nike exhibition in Manila, and with LeBron James on the court, Paras dunked. That moment was captured on video, and in the era of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Paras' life changed.

"They're calling me the kid who dunked on LeBron," Paras recalled.

Last week, UCLA Coach Steve Alford showed up at Cathedral to watch Paras practice and ended up making a scholarship offer. On Saturday, Paras committed to the Bruins. In 24 hours, he picked up 1,000 more Twitter followers.

"Pinoys in L.A. will go nuts to see Kobe as a Bruin," said TJ Manotoc, a sports broadcaster for ABS-CBN in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, Paras and his family were celebrities long before his LeBron moment. His father, Benjie, in 1989 became the only player in the history of the country's professional basketball league to be the rookie of the year and the MVP in the same season. He became an actor and businessman. Paras' brother, Andre, also plays basketball and went into acting.

Then it was decided Paras, who was named after the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, should come to Los Angeles to prepare for college and see if he was good enough to earn a college basketball scholarship. He's living with a host family.

"I always remind him to continue working hard and to focus on his studies," his father told Philstar.com on Friday.

With his youthful looks and willingness to be playful and entertain fans through postings on Instagram and Twitter, Paras has a gained a large following among teenage girls in the Philippines.

Whenever Paras does just about anything noteworthy, Filipino media report it.

"I liken him in his country to what LeBron was here" as a high school star, Cathedral Coach William Middlebrooks said.

Paras is 6 feet 6. He was a center in his country, but he was playing guard last summer for a travel team in Southern California and picked up scholarship offers from Arizona State, California, Fresno State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine even though he's going into his junior year. Then UCLA entered the picture.

"While all of this is new to me, I realize that I can only go to one college, so I felt it was not necessary to continue the recruitment process with so many very good schools and coaches already at the table," Paras said in a statement released by Cathedral.

"Most know him for his dunking, but he can shoot the three, dribbles and passes," Middlebrooks said. "He's highly skilled and is adapting to the style of play in America."

Clearly, Paras' leaping ability will make him a crowd favorite this season. He hasn't measured his vertical leap, but it's so explosive that you can count on Cathedral statisticians to start keeping track of dunks.

There's little doubt the attention he received for his LeBron moment had a huge influence.

"He was my idol since I was a kid, and getting to do that with him is something that changed something in me big time," Paras said.

Of course, basketball is more than just dunking, and the focus on Paras' dunks takes away from his other strengths. He really is a terrific shooter and his work ethic is outstanding.

"I want to show everybody it's not all about dunking or highlights," he said. "It's about what you do on the court."

But asked if he likes to dunk, Paras smiles and says, "Yes, I do."

Paras has earned a reputation at Cathedral for being a polite, well-mannered, humble student. Seeing him walk around campus with other students provides no clue that in the Philippines he is a media sensation.

"How good that is I don't know because he's still a kid, but that's his life at this point," Middlebrooks said.

According to Manotoc, the combination of Filipinos' love for basketball and Paras' family connections and success has led to much attention. A video of Paras winning a FIBA dunk contest has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube.

"Basketball is a religion here," Manotoc said. "The only time kids on the street don't play ball is when Manny Pacquiao has a fight."

Rarely do homegrown Filipinos receive scholarships to NCAA schools, which means Paras is going to be followed even more closely.

For now, Paras will try to show that he has skills beyond dunking. But when he soars through the air and jams the ball through the net, the excitement he generates is likely to prompt more than just Filipino fans to rise to their feet.

Los Angeles now has more than one basketball player named Kobe with star power.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSondheimer

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