I’ve been batchmates with Thirdy Ravena ever since he entered Ateneo in Grade 5. Admittedly, I’ve never been that close with him; I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, we’ve had a few conversations in social events, and for what it’s worth, we’re friends on Facebook.
But simply as a basketball fan, I had the unique, firsthand experience of watching Thirdygrow up.
From the moment he arrived in Ateneo Grade School, everyone already knew about him and his bloodline: His father, Bong, was a PBA legend, and his brother, Kiefer, was a basketball wonderchild entering his freshman year of high school.
However, Thirdy didn’t seem to have the same trajectory as his dad or kuya. His best trait was that he was already an elite athlete, though back then, his athleticism wasn’t supplemented with much else. He was—believe it or not—small and scrawny. When I’d see him in the hallway, I’d think he could have been a basketball player just as easily as he could have been a mathlete or musician.
His best role during his grade school career was as solid wing contributor, but he really wasn’t the elite prospect that Kiefer or even eventual college teammates Mike Nieto or Jolo Mendoza were in their youth.
Meanwhile, Kiefer lived up to his ‘The Phenom’ nickname in the UAAP Juniors level. He was the rare impact player from Day 1 because of an elite basketball IQ and maturity beyond his years.
ABS-CBN S+A Reporter and Ateneo Juniors Assistant Coach Enzo Flojo recalled the first time he ever saw Kiefer play for the high school team, “He picked the pocket of an older opponent (Jeric Fortuna, I think) in the backcourt for an easy lay-up, and I thought— ‘This kid’s just a freshman, and he’s already making 4th year players sweat in their shorts.’”
His dominance would eventually lead to three straight championships (Seasons 71 to 73), with two Finals MVPs in his junior and senior year.
I was in the freshman batch during Kiefer’s Ateneo High School Swan Song. The grade school and high school campuses are about a 20-minute walk apart, so that year was the first time Kiefer and Thirdy were really in the same vicinity during their stay in Ateneo. But Thirdy just wasn’t good enough to join his brother on a dominant Juniors team that featured a legendary Big Three of Kiefer, Von Pessumal and Paolo Romero.
Thirdy did eventually make the UAAP Juniors team in his Sophomore year, but he barely played. It got to a point that us peers were really starting to wonder if he’d ever make a significant impact on an Ateneo team ever again.
When junior year came around, Thirdy looked like he literally grew a foot taller in the summer break. And during our batch-wide sportsfest, he let us know he was turning into a different animal.
My class had the task of playing him in the first game of the knockout tournament. I vividly remember one play where I was guarding Thirdy at the left wing by the three-point line. He got the ball, faked a three (I bit slightly), then disappeared. When I turned around, he had already blown by our entire defense for an easy lay-up.
He did that same thing to every single player on every single team he faced. So in the Finals of that tournament, almost the entire batch surrounded the court to watch Thirdy throw down dunk after dunk against a team filled with players who some of us used to say were superior to him. At that point, there was no question who the best player in our batch was.
A year later, Thirdy showed it on a bigger stage. He led the Blue Eaglets with averages of 18.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists enroute to a Juniors MVP that his brother never received. His size and strength finally complemented with his otherworldly athleticism, and he showed the ability to be a playmaker from the forward position.
However, there was still major criticism surrounding Thirdy’s game. The Eaglets ran most of their offense around Thirdy’s ability to operate on the high post, but he was still not the best decision-maker with the ball, and was extremely turnover prone. He failed to bring a championship home to Ateneo, and pundits were legitimately questioning whether he inherited even a little bit of the intangibles that set his kuya apart from the rest of the competition.
On the other hand, Kiefer was still removed from criticism at the seniors level. He entered the league as a super rookie, and his ability to create his own offense was exactly what the already stacked Ateneo roster needed. His numbers didn’t jump off the page (13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists), but he still took home a deserved Rookie of the Year, and won two championships at the tail end of Ateneo’s five peat.
When Season 77 came around, the stars finally aligned for the two brothers to play together for the Blue and White. Kiefer spent that season showcasing his individual dominance for the first time, and he won the first of his two MVPs while leading Ateneo to the top seed in the league. Ateneo suffered a gut-wrenching loss in the Final Four to NU that year, but make no mistake about it: Kiefer was the best player in the league. And as a two-time seniors and three-time juniors champion, he was UAAP’s immortal superstar.
The eye-test was indicative of his statistics as well. He looked lost on the court, unable to showcase his athleticism against the older and stronger competitors at the seniors level. Once again, it seemed like Kiefer’s maturity just surpassed Thirdy’s, and that the latter would have to forever live under the shadow of his older brother.
“It was kinda different for him. I was fortunate enough to transition very quick, play right away when I was a freshman. I didn’t have anybody in [my] position, [but he had] Chris Newsome when he started,” Kiefer said of Thirdy’s Rookie Year.
It didn’t help that academic woes kept Thirdy off the court in Season 78, another MVP season for Kuya Kiefer.
“That was the worst year for me, basketball-wise,” Thirdy told me in an interview with him back in 2016. “I cried for weeks. [I couldn’t] take it.”
However, that one-year break was the wake-up call that completely changed Thirdy’s basketball career. He worked on his body in the off-season to become the 6 foot 4 inch tank that can defend all five positions on the floor. He rigorously worked on his jumper, decision-making, and even academics.
“It was a good time for Thirdy to take a step back: See the game in a different perspective, from a different view,” Kiefer said of Thirdy’s missed year.
Thirdy returned in Season 79 with a vengeance, winning Mythical Five honors after averaging a near double-double. The following year, Ateneo won the title, and Thirdy walked away with the Finals MVP award.
Still, there was something missing. Thirdy wasn’t a dominant force, instead figuring as one of the vital pieces to a well-oiled machine.
But in last Wednesday’s championship sealing game, three years removed from his sabbatical season, Thirdy peaked.
13/18 from the field
Thirdy, who was critiqued every step of the way, hidden behind kuya’s shadow at every turn he took, had reached the mountaintop of the UAAP, again. He wasn’t just the best player on an unfair Ateneo team; He was, without a doubt, the most dominant individual force in the entire league.
So as Thirdy faced the Ateneo crowd, screaming and pointing his jubilation towards them, it was clear that he had freed himself from his brother’s shadow. Ironically he did it by achieving the one thing Kiefer always had: UAAP immortality.
Photographs courtesy of The Guidon