After a year in Japan, Kiefer Ravena has found a new calling

While he's still in contract negotiations with NLEX Road Warriors, Kiefer Ravena has been occupying himself in his role as cheerleader for younger sister Dani in the ongoing UAAP 84 women's volleyball tournament. PBA Media Bureau

Tuesdays. Thursdays. Saturdays. Kiefer Ravena has become a constant at the Mall of Asia Arena for the past two weeks.

No, the NLEX Road Warriors aren't playing there. In fact, the PBA is only playing there four times in the ongoing elimination round of the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup. Rather, Ravena has been there to cheer on younger sister Dani and alma mater Ateneo and their Blue Eagles, as they're neck-deep in a playoff run in the UAAP 84 women's volleyball tournament.

He's there out of love. For family. For school. At the same time, he's there because he has nothing else to do these days.

"Workout pa rin. 'Di naman titigil yun," he answered when asked over the phone what he has been up to as of late, while also adding a few rounds of golf, as well as a few meetings with brands he endorses. "Busy pa rin. Blessed pa rin. Pero kahit saan ako maglalaro, kailangang ready pa rin."

The 6-foot primetime playmaker has sat out NLEX's start to the season, as he works on contract negotiations with the Road Warriors, as well as clearance from the league office. Sources said he's ready and raring to go for NLEX in the current All-Filipino conference, but right after, he hopes to go back to Japan and resume action for the Shiga Lakestars in the B.League. The Road Warriors and the PBA itself, for their part, are urging him to play out the Philippine league's entire season.

Technically, Ravena no longer has a live contract with NLEX, as the extension he had signed in 2020, originally bound to run for three years, was scrapped once the franchise allowed him to play in the B.League. That itself was a complicated matter as the PBA only gave its own green light if Ravena returned to the Philippines after one -- and just one -- season in Japan. Once he came home, the league also stipulated that he'll have to negotiate a new pact with the Road Warriors, so that he may continue his career with them.

As things stand now, Ravena has wrapped up one season in Japan, and has been back in the Philippines for over a month. Still, no new contract -- with any team. Still, no games to be played, as his camp and the PBA are right back in the dungeon, concocting several formulas that can work for everybody. No final answer is on the horizon, however.

While he's out of commission for NLEX, the 28-year-old has been tapped to go with young Gilas Pilipinas, with his latest tour of duty for the national team starting with friendlies against home team Korea on Friday and Saturday. There, alongside being the unquestioned floor leader, he's also expected to do something he has long been known for: mentoring younger players.

"For me, the goal here is to just be around them, be good company. Sometimes, nasu-surprise ako sa mga batang 'to, lalo sa basketball IQ nila at their age. Just goes to show that their generation is getting better and better and better," he shared. "Kaya I just have to let them know that they're the future."

Even from his high school days, Ravena was a clear-cut leader who set the tone in games, set the example in practices, and set the bar, all in all. He has been such a big brother to many teammates that he's fondly called 'manong' -- first, by siblings Thirdy and Dani, of course, then just about everybody else. He has long been the player the next generation looks up to. He remains, to this day, the top of mind answer when collegiate players are asked whom they're looking forward to playing with or against in the future.

That goes both ways, though, and Ravena goes out of his way to look after the next generation. From trying to woo a then-seldom used Robert Bolick into transferring to Ateneo, to getting in the ear of Jolo Mendoza who then proceeded to drop 30 points in a title-clinching win, he lives up to being 'manong,' indeed.

"Sa totoo lang, nagulat akong nag-resonate yun sa maraming tao. Ngayon, kahit mga tito or tita ko, or kahit teammate na mas matatanda, ganun na rin ang tawag sa akin," he quipped about the nickname that caught on during his junior year in college. "Pero masaya naman akong nakilala ako sa pangalan na ganun. That word has meaning e."

It's no surprise then that his hope to have a say in where he'll play is, in a way, also for the next generation.

Most, if not all, young talents today grew up dreaming to go the route 'The Phenom' once did: Juniors champion and MVP, Seniors champion and MVP, PBA top-two pick, NLEX superstar, Gilas stalwart. That was where it, more often than not, ended, however. Traditionally, the ceiling for a Filipino player was the PBA and, hopefully, Gilas.

Not anymore. Now, the ceiling has been busted. There's Japan. There's New Zealand. There's Taiwan. There's Serbia. There's Korea. There's maybe even the United States if Kai Sotto gets lucky by getting drafted to the NBA.

Ravena's just one of the already many who are proving Filipino players can make it abroad. He's not satisfied with that, though. He also wants to prove Filipino players can stay abroad, too. That overseas is not a one-off thing -- it's a viable career path that could go on and on, if a talent decides so. If the next generation decides so.

To be clear, he's getting paid. This isn't just for the love. As per previous reports, the max salary of PHP 420,000 (USD 7900) that was on his NLEX contract was the floor for what he agreed upon with Shiga. Meaning, whether the Philippines or Japan, he's getting big bucks.

And for the Road Warriors, the fact of the matter is they're missing their supposed face of the franchise for more than a year now.

"Ang laking bagay ni Kiefer for us to be competitive and to contend, so I hope magkaroon ng middle ground," remarked head coach Yeng Guiao in the preseason press conference. "But I don't let it stress me out. Sa akin, blessing siya kung makakalaro sa amin. Kung hindi naman, I guess it's another form of blessing for us and Kiefer."

Kevin Alas has come through in making up for the scoring, playmaking, and leading they're missing without Ravena. Alas -- as well as rising star Calvin Oftana -- is a terrific talent himself. Nonetheless, having Ravena boosts NLEX into legitimate contention. In the 2019 Governors' Cup, he turned in his best PBA campaign, and led the Road Warriors to the top-seed. If armed with Alas and Oftana -- and Ravena -- Guiao will have one of the better-equipped arsenals for the battle.

There was another war to wage, though, and it just happened to be away from the Philippines. While Shiga's offer may very well be something he can't refuse, getting to decide for himself is also all about fighting for the future of young talents.

"Yung goal ko is to open a lot of opportunities for the talent of Filipinos na makilala all over the world. At the end of the day, yun na yung feeling kong calling ko," he expressed. "I want na ma-realize ng mga bata na if you work hard, be dedicated, do the necessary sacrifices, makukuha mo ang what you deserve."

By standing his ground, Ravena remains at the vanguard of a new age where Filipino players can dream many dreams. Make no mistake, the PBA dream stays first and foremost -- even for Filipino imports who acknowledge that soon enough, they'll be back home and playing in Asia's first pay-for-play league -- but building more bridges leading outside the Philippines is far from a bad thing.

Actually, that proves that Filipino players are, indeed, world-class. When before, they only get to showcase their skills through international tournaments such as the Southeast Asian and Asian Games as well as ones organized by FIBA, they can now represent the country by representing themselves.

"Swerte pa nga ako na nagkaroon pa ako ng opportunity at 28 to play abroad," he noted. "Etong mga batang 'to, 21, 22 (years old), napakaaga nilang mabibigyan ng chances. I hope I, Thirdy, Dwight [Ramos], and Ray [Parks Jr.], can continue inspiring them that they can do it."

In this development, there are many more considerations than just financial matters. Ravena finds himself in an unfortunate situation and an unenviable position, looking for an unclear solution. What'll be the outcome of it all is yet to be determined. For now, he'll keep being a constant at the Mall of Asia Arena. He'll continue supporting younger sister Dani.

For now, he's going with Gilas, living up to being 'manong' to the likes of Carl Tamayo and SJ Belangel.