MANILA, Philippines – The NLEX Road Warriors welcomed back their star guard, Kiefer Ravena, on Tuesday morning, after the "Phenom" had been suspended from all basketball activities for the last 16 months for testing positive for banned substances.
Ravena was at the FCL Gym bright and early, and reunited with his old teammates such as Larry Fonacier, Asi Taulava, and Cyrus Baguio. For the first time, he shared the court with the players whom NLEX added since his suspension – Poy Erram and Jericho Cruz.
He also got to practice with import Olu Ashaolu, who will be their reinforcement for the Governors Cup which is when Ravena is expected to finally make his return to competitive basketball.
"Kagabi pa lang (sa Gilas Pilipinas practice), nakita na natin 'yung kundisyon niya. We saw how he plays," said NLEX coach Yeng Guiao of his prized guard.
Guiao noted that it is in NLEX that Ravena had been truly missed. The former Ateneo de Manila University guard had been in the midst of a superb rookie season when he was suspended. Ravena was averaging 17.2 points, 4 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game in last year's Commissioner's Cup before he was barred from playing.
"This is where we really miss him. This is where he's really a dominant force," said Guiao. "He's a game-changer, he changes the complexion of our game."
"Now that he's back, that's what we're gaining. 'Yun naman ang mage-gain namin. So as part of the team, we're able to raise the morale of everybody else," he added.
Guiao had praised Ravena's conditioning during the national team practice on Monday night, and he did the same after the guard's first practice with his mother club.
"Parang hindi siya nawala," he said.
"The way he’s playing, the way he took good care of himself, he’s showing that he’s really eager to play, hungry to play and make a contribution to our team," he added.
Ravena, of course, won't be able to play for NLEX until the third conference, but just having him in practice is already a big deal for a franchise that has struggled since his suspension. The Road Warriors had greatly missed Ravena, especially as they also remain without their other dynamic guard, Kevin Alas, who is still out with an injury.
"At least even in practice, he's challenging the guys," Guiao said. "He's able to lift up their level of play, maski sa practice lang."
His new teammates are eager to welcome Ravena to the fold once more.
"Kailangan namin ng magi-stabilize ng team. Si Kiefer talaga 'yung key contributor ng team, and siya rin 'yung leader ng team. Kami, team 'to ni Kiefer, susunod lang kami kung anong gusto niyang gawin, saan niya gusto pumunta," said Erram.
"Natutuwa rin kami kasi hindi niya pinabayaan ang sarili niya. Hindi siya nagpabaya, hindi niya ginawang reason na mag-quit na lang. So excited kami na 'yung work ethic niya, 'yung motivation, andoon pa rin, 'yung fire inside, mas lalo madadagdagan," he added.
Cruz, who previously played with Ravena in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, noted that the game will become easier for them once the "Phenom" is allowed to play once again.
"He stills plays the way how he used to play, pero mas nakikita ko lang kay Kiefer ngayon, mas lumakas siya," he also said.
"Parang mas nagpabigat siya, which is good, good sign, hindi siya mapupush around. At saka 'yung IQ niya talaga iba, iba siya," he added.
Ravena, for his part, said he simply wanted to treat Tuesday's practice as he would any other day.
"I wanted to make it as routine as possible, to hasten the process na, to get back to my rhythm," he said. "Ngayon, it was a good day of practice."
Ravena is expected to be in attendance on Friday when NLEX takes on Rain or Shine – a prospect that excites the 25-year-old guard.
"I'm excited to watch," he said. "It's been a while since I watched a basketball game."
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