“The hype is real. Sometimes though, it’s real quiet. Or it has died down. Forgotten, looked over, doubted and slept on, some players have to start over. They have to build from the bottom. They have to shock the world. This series tells the stories of six athletes who have overcome, who have defied the odds, who have come out of nowhere.”
UNBREAKABLE: Kat Tan is your new hero
Let’s get this out of the way: the following is not a story about a young girl and a terrible accident. It’s not about what she can do in spite of her situation. This right here is about a baller. A good one. Better than most, stronger, tougher than all. If you don’t believe it, ask Kobe Bryant. He’ll vouch for her.
I sat across Kat Tan on the basketball court she grew up playing in: your usual, run-of-the-mill covered village court located not so far from the Bicutan exit. Well, it’s sort of, kind of, the court she started playing at.
“The tennis court beside us, that’s actually where we used to play. It was an old, crooked, wooden court. Eventually, they built this new one and turned the old court into a tennis area.”
Oh well, details.
I asked Kat to tell me where she wanted to start telling her story. Unlike Ben Mbala, or Chris Newsome, none of us have seen Kat play on national TV before in a big Finals series. She didn’t come out of nowhere to land in the spotlight, no. She did however, come out of nowhere and refused to ever return.
“It was before the accident. It was a tryout. That’s where my story started.”
“Go ahead, what’s on the first chapter?”
“I was in Grade 4 and I tried out for the varsity team. Long story short, I gave it my best effort but I got rejected. The coach told me that I was too small, too weak. Basketball was a physical game and I just wasn’t ready yet. He told me to keep practicing and come back next year. I was still physically complete then, two arms, two legs, everything.”
If you want to know what happened to her, why at ten-years-old, a young, fun-loving, girl lost her left arm from just after the shoulder down, well, quite frankly, just ask her. She’ll tell you about the accident on the carnival ride at the school fair, how it derailed, threw her and everyone on it in every possible direction. How when she came to, she looked left and realized she only had one arm left.
“At the moment I realized I lost my arm, I accepted it. This is it. This is it for me.”
While many would – in the days, months, even years following such a tragedy – live in denial, in anger or in doubt, Kat chose acceptance. “This is who I am now. This is what my life will be like. So be it. Bring it on.”
Kat won’t blink when she tells you this, she won’t hesitate, or mince words, or look back with regret or despair. Understand this: the accident isn’t her story. It’s just a small, tiny part of the larger tale. She will look you in the eye and talk about the events of that day and how they changed her life, providing a challenge so great her parents would have to leave their jobs to support and take care of her. In the next breath however, she’ll get to the next chapter, and yes, it takes place back there, on the court we were sitting in (okay, technically, on the tennis court next to us).
“As I was recovering, I told my dad that all I wanted was a basketball hoop for Christmas, which was a month away. My parents were shocked but they gave it to me anyway. They supported me then, and ever since. After a while, my friends convinced me to come here, to the village court. And I’ve been going everyday since.”
It was a big deal for her, that first day on a real court. The Little Tikes plastic hoop and the soft plastic ball that came with it proved to be a challenge for just a couple of weeks. Here was where reality was supposed to come crashing down. The rim’s too high, the ball too big, the game, the real game, too tough. Kat was tested, for the first time since her life changed. And she failed. Horribly.
“That first shot was terrible. It had no power, no direction, it was pathetic. I thought to myself, ‘Okay this isn’t my mini-hoop anymore’”.
From where did you shoot?
“Are you kidding me? From right in front of the basket, straight ahead. Less than five feet away. It was so close, but my shot, I don’t even remember how far my friend ran to get the ball back. But I went back the next day, and then everyday. I kept working on getting stronger, having power. I didn’t really stop. I look back now and realize basketball was as much mental therapy for me as it was physical.”
She was ten, her whole life ahead of her, her formative years just beginning, and already an unspeakable turn of bad luck forces her to live a life very few are familiar with. There was no handbook to living one-armed. There was no one who “had been there, had done that” to show her the ropes. Every time I asked Kat what the toughest thing through it all was, the answer was never “everyday tasks” or “dealing with people looking” or “not being able to live a normal life”.
“Changing direction, gathering for a shot quick enough, having the power to connect on jumpers from farther away,” these were the challenges she worried about. These were the challenges she overcame. “Everything happened on the court. And the more confident I was there, the easier everything else outside of it became.”
Kat tried out again the year after, not because she wanted to prove anything, not because she was on some advocacy to inspire. She did it, because a year before, she was told she could, and that she should.
“All I could remember was the coach telling me to try out again next year. And I did. And all I was thought about was being treated equally and hoping they wouldn’t take it easy on me.”
“Yeah. The drills were so hard, I remember looking at the coach and the other players and none of them were looking at me any differently. I didn’t catch any breaks, no special treatment. It was just basketball. I struggled at first but I kept pushing, you know? I kept just wanting to get what I didn’t get the year before. I knew I deserved a spot. I wanted to earn it.”
Kat Tan made her school’s varsity team that year. She was handed a parental approval slip at the end of the last day of tryouts. She practically ran home and begged her parents to sign it. And true to her work ethic since the day her life changed, her parents were once again there for her, sometimes to physically help her, but this time, to sign a sheet of paper and make their daughter’s dream come true. She would go on and while she would not be her team’s star player, she was The One. Literally.
“I took pride in defense. I was our team’s go-to girl when it came to stopping the other team’s best player. You know when you run box-and-one on D? I was the One. That was my job. And I was good at it.”
Year after year, all the way until high school, Kat would try out. Nothing given, no corners cut, she would keep earning her spot, and every minute she played on the court. She became a better ball handler, improved her already-stellar defense, and yes, started becoming the deadly shooter she is today.
“In college, I stopped playing varsity. I promised my parents that after seven years of them supporting my basketball dream, I would pay them back with four years of focusing on their dream, which was for me to graduate college.”
But as the sayings go, Ball is Life, and Basketball Never Stops.
“I still played though, everyday. On this court. I never gave it up.”
It’s 2016 now and Kat was once again in a tryout. The Kobe Academy had 24 spots open. The Mamba himself was on his way, and Kat found a new mountain to climb, a new challenge to defeat, a new set of odds to defy.
“When I was recovering, I was watching basketball on TV and I saw this kid come out of high school to play in the NBA. I saw something in him, got inspired and it helped me gain confidence in myself.”
Before anyone, even Kobe himself, knew it, Kat Tan already had the Mamba Mentality. She, like many of us, would have been happy to just see the man, be in his presence, maybe even get coached a little bit. Kat has lived a life of appreciation: for the simple things, for little opportunities, for the chance to play a game where she could be just like everyone else.
But, as many things her tenacity and hard work have produced for her, she got more. Because she earned it, because she prepared for it.
At the end of camp, looking at 24 exhausted kids who had never worked that hard on a basketball court ever before, Kobe Bryant issued a challenge: someone step up, take one shot, and determine everyone’s fate.
You make it, nobody runs. You miss, everyone runs 17 sprints. Everyone, that is, except the shooter.
“I was standing there in the back, but there was a gap that put me in the coaches’ line of sight. Coach Yuri [Escueta] pointed at me and said ‘Kat will do it.’”
“What was your reaction?”
“I said yes, man. Immediately. Kobe’s right there. I couldn’t let him see that I was afraid of it. I mean, I was, I was really nervous. If I missed, they’d run and I would just watch. What? That’s a no-no in basketball! It’s a team effort. I would have really felt bad if I missed the shot. You wouldn’t get another opportunity. You wouldn’t get another chance to be in that same position.”
You might think to yourself that here she is again, where she always finds herself, in a situation where she has to prove herself, where the standards aren’t slanted, where the rules aren’t softened. It doesn’t matter, her physical handicap. She still has to make the same shot anyone would’ve had to make: from three, from straight away. This seems like it’s her fifth grade tryout all over again, right?
Except it’s not.
Except it’s no longer a ten-year old girl just wanting to play ball and feel like people are finally looking at her for the right reasons. She’s a grown adult now, fully aware of the repercussions a miss would result to, fully aware that her life and basketball career’s hard work all led up to this, fully aware that the chance to shoot for all the marbles, with everything on the line, in front of the legend who inspired you to pick up a basketball in the first place? These things don’t happen to everyone. And if they do, they don’t happen again.
Kat had one shot. With teammates looking at her anxiously, with her heart pounding out of her chest harder than ever, with all the years’ worth of makes and misses replaying in her head. This was the same shot she missed all those years ago in that old basketball/tennis court, only a little (a lot) farther away, only with Kobe Bryant watching and waiting.
The crazy thing is, as Kat was telling me this story on that day, I got a chill come down my spine, slowly building, and then suddenly rushing. I did not know this was HER story.
It was a story I’d heard before. On the day it happened. From Kobe himself.
After the camp that day, Kobe made his way over to the Nike store in BGC where I was hosting a Disciple’s Talk, his final stop before leaving the Philippines. I was pacing back and forth, downright frightened to meet him. I had a 60 tattoo on my hand, I figured it was a nice conversation-starter, “Hey man. I got your achievement permanently etched on my skin for the world to see!” Yeah, not creepy at all.
And then he walked in, that big smile on his face, like it was 2010 after Game 7 all over again. I walked over and was introduced, while he was in the middle of sharing a story. Kobe shook my hand, and out of politeness started over.
This is word-for-word, I swear to you.
“So anyway man, I was telling them, at camp today. I asked one kid to shoot from three. One shot, make it we’re done. Miss it, everyone runs 17’s except you. And this girl comes up right? Kat, her name was Kat. You know her?”
I nodded. I obviously didn’t know about Kat yet then, but I was nervous, and staring at Kobe. Bean. Bryant. So I just nodded.
“There, great. So her of all people right, walks right up and takes on the challenge. She lines up, dribbles twice for momentum, and rises up man. Perfect follow-through, gorgeous arc on this jumper right? And swoosh. Ripped the net. Perfect. It was amazing. Amazing. Most amazing thing I have ever seen. Amazing. I’m so happy man, I mean what a thing to happen. Amazing.”
Back to me and Kat sitting on her court. I’m smiling like an idiot now, Kat’s nearing the end of a story I now realize I had heard before. Like a complicated movie with a crazy twist in the end, it all came together. That’s why Kobe was so excited about one three-pointer. That’s why it was such a big deal.
Amusing myself, I asked Kat, “What did he say?”
“Amazing. He said it was amazing.”
“I know Kat, he told me.”
By the time I had filled her in on my side of the narrative, after telling her the words Kobe used and the way he told the story, Kat was covering her mouth in disbelief, tears struggling to break free from the box-and-one defense her eyes were employing on them.
That moment, she was reminded of what she discovered when she came out of nowhere and hit that shot and pumped her fist the same way Kobe would after big shots: all of it, was worth it. She was patient and prepared for her moment. She believed in herself. She proved, everything, everything, happens for a reason. And this was hers.
She returned to help coach the grade school and high school teams she was once part of and helped young kids find confidence and joy in basketball the way she did. Since, she’s taken on a role in a basketball academy to continue sharing her story, this story, with young ballers who need it. That, and how to pull up from three or lock someone down one-on-one.
Kat Tan and I spoke at the very court she shot her first real basketball shot at (sort-of, kind-of). It was 20 years to the day of her accident. We spoke about basketball, we shot hoops, we compared sneakers. At the end of it all, we stood and hugged and realized that my little moment with my hero was a product of a lifetime of hardwork she had put in to be ready for her giant moment with the same guy.
As I walked off, I asked her “Did you know it was gonna go in when you let it go?”
She looked at me, smiled a 2010 Game 7 smile and nodded.
“Yeah. Of course.”
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