Kiefer Ravena: A star is (air)borneBy Jasmine W. Payo |Philippine Daily Inquirer
The numbers have nothing to do with game statistics.
Yet Kiefer Ravena sits hunched over the breakfast table, running his finger down the figures on the newspaper.
“Bumaba [It went down],” he says.
It’s one of those rare days—more relaxing than the usual round-the-clock schedule of games, practice, studies, endorsements, social functions, media interviews, among others, that keep this Ateneo star player neck-deep in commitments. Today, Ravena finds time to check the stock quotations on the paper’s business section.
Fancy that: The country’s most famous collegiate basketball player surprisingly turns out to be investment-savvy as well. But isn’t he too young to have a financial game plan?
“I actually just started last year. I have to learn more about stocks, the business,” says Ravena. “I tried it and now have a certain amount of shares.”
It’s one of those unexpected Ravena moments, but it is still on the hardcourt that this 19-year-old basketball superstar coolly pulls off his many surprises.
Flashback to last month: Ravena runs up and down the basketball arena’s familiar maple floor, trying to lead the Ateneo Blue Eagles to another victory late in the elimination round of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP).
But the University of Santo Tomas Tigers keep getting their way early in the game, palpably turning the Ateneo crowd into a bundle of nerves. Then in one quick, spectacular sequence, Ravena gets the blue side of the gallery roaring.
The moment: One of the league’s best big men gets unbelievably posterized by a mere six-foot guard.
With Ateneo on the lead after a UST turnover, Ravena tries to scoot past the rest of the pack. UST’s Karim Abdul gives a good chase, but even the 6-foot-6 Cameroonian center can’t stop the soaring Ateneo Eagle, who goes for a full-force, one-handed dunk. He lets out a scream on the landing, then walks away.
“We were playing kinda low intensity, then I took it strong,” Ravena says after creating one of the most memorable plays of the season. “I took it strong and met him upstairs. I was surprised Karim was there.”
“Highlight of my career,” he adds in jest.
No doubt, though: Ravena’s first vicious slamdunk in the league has been tagged in his growing highlight reel.
“I was surprised. I thought he was just going for a layup. I didn’t expect him to go for the slam because it’s also dangerous,” Ravena’s father Bong says, noting how the burly Abdul also went hard to challenge his son’s dunk.
But the young Ravena, apparently, has always been built for the big time.
“He played mature basketball right from the beginning,” says former Ateneo coach Norman Black. “I’ve noticed him way back in SBP (Small Basketeers of the Philippines), in the summer leagues, in kids hoops. He’s just like (Ateneo senior player) Nico Salva; they’ve been good for a long, long time. When they were young, they’re always one of the best in their age group.”
Back in 2007, a 13-year-old Ravena emerged as the youngest and only freshman player to make it to Ateneo’s highly competitive juniors basketball roster.
At that time, Ravena had often been referred to as the eldest son of former pro cager Bong, the Rookie of the Year in the 1992 season of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
At that time, too, Bong had a piece of advice for the family’s budding star: “Whatever he does, there’s a chance that he’ll always get compared to me. So I tell him, just do the right thing, play hard. You can never please everyone. Be yourself.”
In just a few years, however, it’s the second-generation Ravena player who’s now top of mind.
The huge billboards, print ads and TV commercials of top sports as well as health and lifestyle brands may be evidence enough. Add to that the young charmer’s numerous magazine covers and appearance in virtually all media.
“Nakakaloka ang schedule [His schedule can be crazy],” Ravena’s mother Mozzy, also a former collegiate volleyball player, admits. “But everything is a blessing.”
The wonder of Ravena, of course, still belongs to the hardcourt.
“Kiefer gets along with everybody. He’s an unselfish player,” says Black. “It’s difficult not to like him because he’s the type of player who, even though he’s very talented, would give you the ball 100 percent of the time if you’re open [to it].”
Although his athletic genes have accounted for his luck many times, it’s clear that Ravena is uniquely and immensely gifted with a combination of physical talent, game smarts and court vision.
And his self-awareness and candid confidence can be disarming and refreshing.
“Not to sound arrogant, but decision-making is my strength. People say my basketball IQ is way beyond my age,” says Ravena. “To sum up everything, I read the defense quickly. I guess that’s the talent God gave me. That’s my advantage. I can see through things that others can’t see. It’s a talent, so I try to maximize it as much as possible.”
That, of course, was again evident in the Blue Eagles’ fifth straight UAAP championship romp this season.
In Ateneo’s Final Four duel against fierce rival La Salle, Ravena single-handedly pulls the Blue Eagles out of a double-digit hole in the final quarter, looking almost possessed as he rattles off 16 points in the last nine minutes.
In this year’s UAAP season, Ravena explodes for a career-high 28 points—including 12 straight in one stretch in the final quarter—and even flirts with a triple-double with 12 rebounds and seven assists to lead the Blue Eagles to a 66-63 escape.
“He just took over the game, that’s what great players do,” Black says after Ravena’s tour de force of a performance.
Yet his heroics didn’t stop there as Ravena also fires dagger shots in Ateneo’s championship showdown against UST.
As Salva pumps in a career-high 30 points in Game 1, Ravena unloads a clutch jumper with only 8.8 seconds left, giving the Blue Eagles much needed space from the tight-clinging Tigers for an 83-78 victory.
In another test of grit, Ravena drops 22 points in Game 2, highlighted by another crucial jumper with 30.4 seconds remaining, as the Blue Eagles hack out another thrilling 65-62 triumph to complete a title sweep of the Tigers.
“Kiefer is a talent. They don’t come along very often,” says Black. “Despite the fact that he is only 19 and only in his second year, if you ask me who our leader was this year, I would say Kiefer Ravena. He’s not the captain, but if you talk about leadership on the basketball court, the ability to communicate with the coach the entire game, to keep everybody in tune with what the coach wants during the game, I would say that our leader was Kiefer. No question.”
As Ateneo basks in its historic five-crown feat—the Blue Eagles are now the second longest reigning basketball team in the league since University of the East strung up seven straight titles from 1965—Ravena also relishes his own accomplishment.
“I also won five championships consecutively—three in high school and two in college. So it’s a personal five-peat,” he says. “In all, I think I have at least 10 championships in Ateneo.”
Adds Black: “When I recruited Kiefer, he was one of the few players that I expected to be part of the starting five immediately. It’s not only because of his talent, but also because of his maturity and unselfishness.”
Ravena, says Black, is perhaps the youngest local player in recent years to get a moniker as early as high school.
“You have really good players come along, but sometimes they’re not very mature in a sense that they don’t play an intelligent game,” notes Black. “Kiefer has always had a lot of basketball sense. He’s one of those players whom you teach something once and he gets it immediately, to the point that he’s now teaching his teammates.”
Nicknamed “The Phenom,” Ravena backs up his fame with his game, starting from his UAAP men’s basketball debut last year when he bagged the Rookie of the Year honor and earned a spot in the Mythical Five.
Ravena’s leadership, though, will be put to a test next season as Ateneo reels from the departure of Black, who has returned to mentor in the pro league, and several senior players led by key cogs Greg Slaughter and Salva.
“It’s added pressure,” Ravena admits. “We know that next year, even if we’re the five-peat champions, we’re the underdogs. So we have to focus even more. Work on our system, work on our strengths. It’s still possible. It’s not a long shot to get another championship.”
Down the road—in a couple of years or so—the pro league also beckons.
Although he can pick up his Communication Technology degree in four years, Ravena has the option to play out his fifth and final eligibility year in the league.
Predicts Black: “For Ateneo’s sake I hope he plays five years. But I don’t think he needs five years to be ready for the PBA. I don’t see him playing any less than four years, mainly because he also wants to graduate. But I think he’s good enough and mature enough so that after four years, he’d be ready for the PBA. Obviously he needs to be a point guard in the PBA, but I think he can make that transition. He’s athletic enough to play in the PBA; he’s certainly smart enough and talented. Sometimes you can’t just label players. They’re just talented.”
But Ravena is apparently not banking on talent alone. For skills references, he turns to his father and to other NBA and PBA superstars whom he looks up to.
“Kobe Bryant is a fundamentally sound player. All the flair surrounding him, how difficult his shots are… If you analyze the way he plays, it’s just a one dribble pull up for him, pump fake, fade away. It’s nice to watch. He’s very different from LeBron (James). LeBron is power, Kobe is finesse,” says Ravena, dissecting two of basketball’s greatest players.
He continues: “In the Philippines, I pattern my game (after that of) Jimmy Alapag. He’s not that tall as a point guard, but I see him working hard. When it comes to the game, he’s fast and he makes his teammates look better. He comes up big when needed. I would also like to be remembered as a player who doesn’t shy away from big moments.”
Right now, of course, Ravena knows there are more big moments to fill, but at the same time, more work to be done.
Up on the list is his game.
As Black advises: “He needs to be more consistent with his outside shots. He has the other things down pat. He’s a good distributor, a good creator and he can get to the basket pretty much every time he wants to. So once he starts consistently making those outside shots, he’s going to be a very difficult cover for any defensive player.”
Further down the list are other priorities, like his studies. “I balance my schedule between my studies and basketball. If not for basketball, I won’t be able to study at Ateneo. If not for school, I can’t play.”
Then there’s his charity work with Generous Soles. “It’s a work in progress. We put this up to collect shoes from other players and we give it as prizes to Mythical Five players in the provinces.”
Then there are his tens of thousands of fans, judging from his Twitter followers alone: “I’m very thankful. I know in the long run that they’d be the same people who will be there for me, whatever happens.”
And of course, his family, including younger brother and Ateneo high school basketball standout Thirdy. “He’s good, I can see his potential. I’m pretty much the critic of Thirdy, Papa is the mentor.”
Indeed, it’s a breathless list of activities. And it looks like there’s more in store for this natural-born hardcourt star.
“I’m happy where I am, with the many good things happening in my life right now,” says Ravena. “At my age, I’ve already accomplished a lot. But you can’t just take it easy and be complacent. You have to strive to be better.”
Photos by August de la Cruz