MANILA, Philippines – There was a different vibe to the NLEX Road Warriors' practice this week, when star guard Kiefer Ravena returned to the team for the first time in 16 months.
Ravena was making his comeback after getting suspended by FIBA for testing positive for banned substances. He can't play in a competitive game until August 24, when his 18-month suspension is fully lifted, but his presence at NLEX practice was clearly missed.
"Excited kami lahat na maka-practice siya for the first time," said center Poy Erram, who was acquired by NLEX in a trade while Ravena was still suspended.
"Sa practice, nakita niyo ngayon, umaangat 'yung kumpyansa namin," he added.
Coach Yeng Guiao said that having Ravena back was a "game-changer" for the team, as he impacts them both on and off the court.
"Off the court, he also exercises leadership, as young as he is. So meron siyang nako-contribute on and off the court, that’s why he’s such a big part of our team," said Guiao.
There are still a few months to go before Ravena can officially put on the NLEX jersey again. He is not expected to play until the Governors' Cup, where he will finally join forces with Erram and new acquisition Jericho Cruz, along with import Olu Ashaolu. There is also hope that Kevin Alas will have recovered from an ACL injury by then.
That gives NLEX a full roster for the first time since the 2018 PBA Philippine Cup, where they made it all the way to the semifinals before losing Alas to a knee injury.
Ravena knows that because of this, there will be heightened expectations on NLEX in the third conference – a stunning turnaround for a team that opened the Commissioner's Cup with six straight defeats.
"Of course (there will be high expectations)," said Ravena. "Our goal is to really win it all sa third conference."
"But we have to take it a day at a time ngayon," he stressed. "As soon as this conference ends, we'll take probably a couple of weeks break, not so long para pagbalik, naka-bwelo ka na kaagad para sa third conference."
For Erram, there are no more excuses for NLEX once the Governors' Cup rolls around. Since he was acquired by the Road Warriors ahead of the 2019 PBA season, they had tried to keep their heads above water without Ravena, and then, without Alas. Come the third conference, however, they will have the personnel they need to contend.
"Mas malaki 'yung tsansa namin, at saka wala na rin kaming excuse. Parang ano na 'to eh, kumpletos-rekados na eh. So hindi na kami dapat humanap pa ng paraan na 'kasi ganito, kasi.' Hindi na," said Erram.
"'Pag na-kumpleto na kami, ano na kami, aarangkada na kami," he added. "Bagong simula ito."
Cruz, who played with Ravena in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, is looking forward to when they can unleash the three-guard line-up featuring himself, Ravena, and Alas.
"As we all know naman with Coach Yeng, he likes running three guards eh. Kaya sobrang excited ako, kasi parang I think we'll be able to make it to the playoffs this conference," said Cruz. "Babalik na rin si Kuya Larry (Fonacier) eh."
"Mas mapapadali 'yung trabaho ko ngayon nandito na siya (Ravena)," he also said. "Si Kevin din. So 'yun lang, I'll be supporting. Sa likod na lang nila ako. 'Pag may mga small things na kailangan, ako na 'yung gagawa nun."
As Ravena said, however, the Road Warriors will have to take it a game at a time. That means finishing up their schedule in the Commissioner's Cup, where they still have three games to play starting with a date against Rain or Shine on Friday.
At 1-7, there is little chance that the Road Warriors will make it to the playoffs, but their spirits are already lifted despite their poor record.
"This conference masama ang pinapakita namin, at least meron kaming hope for the third conference na si Kiefer, so tumataas ang kumpyansa namin at lalo kaming ginaganahan," said Erram.
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