Small stature, big heart: Oscar Kao’s Road from Eastern Taiwan to the United States

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(Photo credit: Esquire雜誌)

Short height has always been the most glaring deficiency for basketball players, even for Oscar Kao, who follows a long lines of great Taiwanese players with indigenous descent blessed with spectacular athleticism. Kao, however, makes it up with a big heart. And now he is widely recognized as the best young talent in Taiwan and is taking that talent across the Pacific.

Hailed from the small port town (population: 40,000) in eastern Taiwan of Suao, known for fishing industry, Kao came from a poor family of six — he has three brothers — with no basketball tradition. But God-given talent helped the kid of Atayal tribe from the first minute he picked up a basketball.

Kao was so good by the time he was at junior high school that the discussions of his play flooded the PTT bulletin board system, the largest online discussion board in Taiwan and the Taiwanese version of Reddit. Interestingly, that was where Song Shan High School head basketball coach Roman Huang first discovered the lefty combo guard.

In the summer of 2014, Kao enrolled at Song Shan (the name of the school means Pine Mountain in Chinese), a basketball powerhouse that had won three consecutive National Champions (2009–2011) before Kao’s arrival, and was quickly dubbed potential freshman of the year prospect with unparalleled impact.

Kao’s lightning speed, solid built, scoring ability and the seeming ability to see the game before it happens are without question. In addition to his small stature, what worries observers, ironically, was also his talent. They had been wondering whether Kao’s flamboyant style of play and occasional hot-headedness would fit in Huang’s system at Song Shan that always prioritizes defense and discipline.

For Huang, often described as the Taiwanese version of Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich, molding Kao was also an enormous challenge.

To everyone’s surprise, Kao and Huang completed a dream season in the first year, with Song Shan winning the school’s fourth national champion in the High School Basketball League (HBL) and Kao garnering both the Freshman of the Year and national tournament MVP honors. Kao finished for 17.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 49% shooting.

The following year Kao again turned in solid stats of 17.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game and carried an undefeated record going in the national championship game, where Song Shan suffered a heartbreaking loss to longtime rival Nan Shan High School, also a local high school basketball powerhouse, and finished the disappointing season 16–1.

Entering his final year (Taiwan has a three-year high school system), all that was on Kao’s mind in the 2016–17 season was redemption and bringing home another championship. Meanwhile, Huang began moving Kao to the scoring guard position from time to time to better utilize his scoring ability. Kao took his game to another level, averaging 23.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.8 steals on 49% shooting and 85% on the charity stripe.

In a championship rematch, Kao tallied 38 points and 10 rebounds as Song Shan defeated Nan Shan 74–62 for a sweet revenge and its fifth title in school history. Kao finished his high school career on a high note, winning the most valuable player in the championship game once again.

While virtually no one was able to guard Kao one-on-one in Taiwan, Kao also showcased his talent on the international level. He led the Taiwanese national team with 13.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game in the 2016 FIBA Asia Under-18 Championship in Tehran, Iran, where Taiwan settled for sixth-place with a 5–3 record.

Kao also attended numerous basketball camps and competed with global elites, such as Jordan Brand Flight Camp in Shanghai, China in 2014, Jordan Brand Classic in New York in 2015 and Basketball Without Borders Camp in Toronto, Canada in 2016. Most notably, he was named to the First-Team in NIKE All-Asia Camp for three consecutive years in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Looking back at his three-year HBL career, the most impressive part of Kao’s game perhaps is neither his uncanny scoring touch nor his dazzling speed, but his poise when the game in on the line, the ability to deal with enormous pressure to perform when it matters most as well as his determination to carry the team on his back in a tight game. In other words, it is the mental toughness, which every basketball observer would agree that it cannot be taught, that sets him apart from other basketball standouts.

What he lacks in size, Kao has always been able to make it up with the strong desire to win, drawing inspiration and comparison from 5–9 star guard Isaiah Thomas of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. But Kao knows too well that as soon as he commits to a basketball scholarship offer from the United States, he will have to prove it all over again just like when he first picked up a basketball in the shabby asphalt basketball court in Suao.

Don’t bet against him.


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