MANILA - Kiefer Ravena made his highly-anticipated return to the basketball court on Monday evening, when the former Ateneo superstar joined the Philippine national team in its practice at the Meralco Gym.
It marks the first time after 487 days that Ravena had participated in an official basketball activity, following his much-publicized suspension by FIBA after he tested positive for banned substances.
The NLEX guard was one of the early arrivals at the gym, putting up shots while waiting for national team coach Yeng Guiao -- also his coach with the Road Warriors. Ravena participated in drills and 5-on-5 scrimmages, along with Gilas veterans such as June Mar Fajardo, Paul Lee, and Japeth Aguilar.
Guiao gave his prized guard passing marks for his first practice, noting that the "Phenom" barely missed a beat.
"You saw him in practice today, it's just like he did not miss the last, or he was not suspended the last one and a half (years)," said Guiao.
"His sharpness is there, his stamina is there. He does not look like he's heavy; that's his natural body. So things are looking good naman at this point," he added.
Ravena, for his part, was admittedly a little emotional to finally be back in the national team program. His positive tests had emerged from urine samples taken after the Gilas Pilipinas-Japan game in February 2018, and because of the FIBA suspension, Ravena missed not just the rest of his rookie season in the PBA, but the other windows in the World Cup qualifiers.
"Grabe, 'di ba," said Ravena, who revealed that he was tempted to drop by Gilas practice for the final window of the qualifiers, where his younger brother Thirdy had been included in the pool
"Masaya, sobrang saya lang talaga. Very emotional na nakabalik ako, chine-cherish ko yung moment na andito," he said.
Ravena showed little signs of fatigue or flagging during practice, and was immediately familiar with the plays that Guiao was running. Afterward, he stressed that he and the rest of the team are "100% committed" to the Gilas program, especially with the World Cup just around the corner.
"Ngayon, this is a very good jumpstart na kumpleto kami on my first practice. Nakapaglaro kami 5-on-5 and to see what we need to do, what we need to improve on. Obviously it's a lot, and again time is not our side so we have to hasten everything and hopefully we're able to do that naman," said Ravena.
The former two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player will be thrust into a major role at once, as Guiao has tabbed him as the most likely "replacement" for veteran guard Jayson Castro. "The Blur" had opted to beg off national team duties for the World Cup, focusing instead on his family.
Ravena knows that he has big shoes to fill, but also points out that replacing Castro is a job for more than one player.
"It's a cumulative response," he said. "Kailangan namin magtulong-tulong, kasi mahirap talaga bunuin yung Jayson Castro."
In this regard, he has also challenged young guards Robert Bolick and CJ Perez, the two PBA rookies from NorthPort and Columbian who formally joined the pool on Monday night. "Fight for your spot" was Ravena's message to the two guards, both of whom expressed their excitement at joining the national team program.
But the spotlight will remain on Ravena, who still has two months to go before he can even play a competitive game. The guard will join his mother team, NLEX, in practice on Tuesday morning; from there, it will be a two-month race for him to reach full fitness before he makes his grand return on August 24.
"I take it as a challenge," says Ravena. "I've prepared my mind to be ready, for this day to come, and na hindi ko mapapahiya yung sarili ko, yung coaching staff na pinili ako dito."
"Of course a lot of people will say otherwise, marami na namang magsasabi na andami namang naglalaro sa PBA who's in better shape, di ba? So I think we have enough coaches, and we don't need other coaches in social media," he added.
"I think we're good with that and we're happy with what we have right now. So we have to keep this circle very tight as we go closer to the World Cup."