MANILA, Philippines — Filipino Cristian Gopez has realized every basketball coach's dream with his student recently hitting the ultimate goal — making it to the NBA.
Gopez, who founded US-based Edge Basketball International, recently hit a milestone after one of his students, Onyeka Okongwu, got drafted sixth in the 2020 NBA Draft.
In an exclusive interview, Gopez spoke to Philstar.com to share his experience in mentoring Okongwu, who will be playing for the Atlanta Hawks in the upcoming NBA season.
"Onyeka was absolutely a special kid… When Onyeka came into our gym, we already knew right off the bat he was going to be a big help to the team," said Gopez.
The 19-year-old Okongwu spent his early basketball development with Gopez, beginning his journey with the Filipino coach as early as eight years old.
Gopez shared about how Okongwu's journey with Edge International, not only benefited the University of Southern California alumni, but also other members of his camp.
"Being Filipino, we don't have the advantage in temrs of the size so having Onyeka at eight, nine years old, it really helped us compete at a high level," said Gopez.
"Throughout his development, there was a lot of ups and downs… [but] it definitely became something special," he added.
Okongwu was under Gopez' wing until he reached Junior High School, before the First-team All-Pac-12 member shifted to a new organization in Compton Magic.
"I'm not gonna sit here and take full credit of his development, but I could say that we were the start of his full development at a young age," said Gopez.
"Not only myself, but the entire coaching staff at Edge International really dedicated the time to not only develop the kids that were part of the organization but also Onyeka throughout his time with Edge Basketball," he added.
The Filipino coach, cousin to San Miguel Beermen stalwart Alex Cabagnot, raved about how he felt about the accomplishment to see Okongwu at the highest level of basketball in the United States.
"I'm proud of him, I'm proud of where he's at today. It was definitely an emotional moment for myself as a coach," said Gopez.
"Every kid's dream is to make the NBA but I believe the dream of a coach producing one and being part of that journey is every coach's dream as well," he added.
"Definitely it's an accomplishment, not only for myself but everybody who's been involved in his development stages," he said.
Gopez's role in Okongwu's journey remained constant even when the 19-year-old transferred to a different program, with both men remaining close until Okongwu's entering the NBA.
So much so that Okongwu's mother even asked Gopez on whether he was NBA-ready or not.
"We got to watch his (Okongwu) game against Arizona State… That was the night when [his] mom asked for the blessing," said Gopez.
"As a mother you want to ask all the people that was part of your child's success… whether or not their child was ready and at that point I already told her that this is a great opportunity," he added.
"I just knew he was going to be in that Top 10 and Top 8 picks,"
The Filipino coach, who also heads an organization called Fil-Foreign Select — which showcases Filipino talent in different parts of the world — foresees his student succeed in the long run in the NBA.
Knowing how dedicated the Nigerian-born player is, Gopez believes Okongwu has the highest ceiling in his basketball career.
"He's gonna definitely bring the professionalism of a true athlete… I know he's the type of athlete that really cares about his game," said Gopez.
"So for him to go to the NBA, I see him having that longevity in terms of his career. I can see him 15, 18 years in the league," he added.
Okongwu recently inked a four-year, $26.4-million contract with the Hawks after the draft.
With more than a handful of great prospects entrusting Gopez's coaching in Edge Basketball International, Okongwu's NBA achievement will likely not be the last in Gopez's career.
Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com