Photo by Jan Dizon
On a cold and quiet Thursday night, Kiefer Ravena revealed a life-long dream that could change his life forever.
"Ever since I started playing basketball, I really wanted to make it to the NBA," said Ravena in a podcast interview last week.
"That's my ultimate dream. I think I have to work hard, try to impress people, try to dominate here in the Philippines because I believe that for a Filipino to make it to the NBA, you really have to be special in the eyes of international coaches, international scouts. And that's what I'm striving to do."
Ravena has always been special. But his special talent wasn't merely God-given.
It was harnessed to perfection.
Born to a former PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) star and a volleyball ace, Kiefer Isaac Ravena unearthed the excitement of playing at such a young age. In fact, instead of watching cartoons or playing with toys just like a typical kid, he would join his dad in his practice and shoot endlessly whenever the team was on a break.
Most of the time, he would sneak out of the house and burn his neck in an open court from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. And if his team losses, he would wake up very early the following day to play against the same kids who smacked their behinds.
He was four when he joined his first basketball camp, five when he first met NBA star Kobe Bryant and 13 when he started to dominate in high school, imposing his will against 15- and 16-year-old opponents. He was simply born to excel. All signs were pointing toward greatness.
"He was called 'The Phenom' because he is truly special," said his high school coach Jamike Jarin in a previous interview. "The first time I saw him play, he was just 13, but he dominated older guys and played like a full-grown 18-year old."
His basketball prowess wasn't just limited in the Philippines. In 2009, he skippered the country's national youth team in the Fiba Asia U-17, winning all, but the semifinal game against taller, faster Chinese side. He played again in the Southeast Asian Games in 2011; this time, winning the crown convincingly over lighter foes.
From high school, he joined his school's seniors squad, the Ateneo Blue Eagles, probably the most successful program in Philippine collegiate circuit, where he won three straight titles, including the Rookie of the Year and several Most Valuable Player plums.
But the Filipinos' road to the NBA is already littered with tears and frustrations.
It is a dungeon that looks impossible to infiltrate. Not even for a 20-year old boy who has been eating, drinking and breathing basketball since he was three.
The first time a homegrown player attempted to penetrate the NBA was in 1997 when Johnny Abarrientos was reportedly scouted by the Charlotte Hornets as a replacement for their injured playmaker, Muggsy Bogues.
The Hornets' international scout, Joe Betancourt, was said to have sat down with 5-foot-7 Abarrientos and his adviser, Anton Montinola, and coach, Tim Cone of Alaska, to discuss the possibility of him flying to Charlotte for a 10-day contract and officially become the first Asian to play in the NBA.
"Charlotte is the ultimate team for Johnny," Betancourt was quoted as saying. "I will recommend the signing of Johnny to a 10-day contract. If there's a chance for Johnny to play in the NBA, it will be with Charlotte. It's important to have someone in the organization batting for him. And I am pitching for Johnny to make it."
Betancourt promised to be back after two months carrying Abarrientos' contract.
But months went by, and Betancourt was nowhere to be found. No words. No letter. No call. Nothing.
Just like that, Abarrientos' NBA dream had completely fizzled out.
Ten years later, another Filipino in Japeth Aguilar, braved the odds in an attempt to chase his NBA dream.
Looking like a solid prospect at 6-foot-9 who can run the floor, take it strong, play defense and jump out of the building, Aguilar stunned local basketball circuit when a prestigious program in Western Kentucky University offered him a slot in its roster that will campaign in the US NCAA Division I tournament.
Fate, however, was quite cruel.
Aguilar hardly saw significant minutes and the Hilltoppers relegated him from a top prospect into a benchwarmer, leaving him with no choice but to return to the Philippines and campaign for the national team, and eventually, the PBA.
He would try his luck again four years later when he applied for the National Development Basketball League (NBDL) Draft.
Santa Cruz, a Latino town near the San Francisco Bay Area, tabbed him as the 109th overall pick in the draft. But the Warriors decided to cut him in the final week of the training camp, politely asking him to be part of their practice team, instead, leaving Aguilar with shattered heart and bruised ego.
Despite these heartbreaks, Ravena still believes that a Filipino can make the jump to the NBA. He may or may not be that person, but yes – with the globalization of the NBA – anything is possible.
"Technically, I can't go to college in the States anymore. Well, I can, but I'm gonna waste a lot of time. Mainly because you have to sit out, play a couple of years in college before I can get drafted into the NBA. It's gonna take up another four years of my life," he said before wrapping up the program because he had to sleep early.
"The most probable thing to do is to finish college here, try to go to the States and, hopefully, I can get an invitation to the draft itself. That's one thing we're looking at. Because I can't go to college anymore. It's already too late."
But I have to focus first on my last two years at Ateneo and see what happens, if the opportunity arises…" he added.
"I want to, and with my willingness, I think I can play with them. I just really have to work hard because the NBA is the NBA. As everyone knows it that you have to be something – you have to be that extra special player who can penetrate the NBA."
That night was cold and quiet at the Ravena residence, which witnessed how Kiefer blossomed into a star – and, if fate and destiny would conspire, all the way to the glitz and glamour of the NBA. And when the lights finally went out in Kiefer's bedroom, a small glow of dreams could be seen flickering brightly through the windows – it was the NBA.