THE long hand of the clock struck six and Kiefer Ravena was up and about. At 6:30 a.m., he was already brushing his teeth and preparing to hit the shower. His normal routine, really, except that he wasn't preparing to go to NLEX practice at FCL Center on Xavierville Ave. He’s at Diversion 21 Hotel in Iloilo for the third leg of the 2018 PBA All-Star Week.
NLEX teammate Emman Monfort rose from the other bed and shared a smile with Ravena. The Blue Eagles turned Road Warriors were both looking forward to the rare chance to put a show before their fellow Ilonggos.
The weekend had started eventfully for Kiefer, who, amid the All-Star fanfare, was able to sneak in a round of golf at fabled Santa Barbara with TNT coach Nash Racela and Gilas Pilipinas team manager Butch Antonio. “Pangit,” he said of the 96 he scored, but was nonetheless happy to have played in the country's oldest golf course for the first time.
After the round, the group joined the rest of the PBA delegation for lunch at Breakthrough Restaurant, gorging in some delectable lechon, grilled squid and blue fin tuna. It was 2 p.m. when Ravena and Co. returned to the hotel, ready to take on one final task before the game: preparing and practicing the Visayas All-Stars’ performance in the pre-game dance-off.
The short hand struck three and Ravena, slumped in his bed, got the phone call he had long dreaded.
“You can’t play anymore. Go back to Manila,” the voice on the other end of the line said, firm in its urgency. It was SBP president Al Panlilio.
“Yes, sir,” Ravena answered with a sense of resignation, knowing his worst fear has come true.
Unbeknownst to many, the two-time UAAP MVP had been carrying a heavy burden for a while now, one he chose to hide from everyone but his family and a few friends. Just moments after Ravena posted 15 points and six assists in his first PBA All-Star Game in Digos, one popped out of his inbox when he went through his e-mails when he got back at the hotel.
“Kahit problemadong problemado ako, kaya kong itago sa sarili ko yung mga probema ko. Some will say it’s wrong to be that way, but ever since I was like that. People have their own problems and I don’t want to add to their problems. That’s how I take it. Kung kaya ko naman na di na ako problemahin ng ibang tao, bakit ko pa siya gagawin,” he said.
He read every word slowly, trying to digest everything from the e-mail. It was the Fiba response to the appeal fired by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) on his failed drug test - an 11-page decision that affirmed, with finality, the finding that he tested positive for higenamine, 1,3-dimethylbutylamine, and 4-methylhexan-2-amine – three substances included in the prohibited list of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – which he got from a pre-workout supplement called Dust.
As regret filled his mind, Ravena could only mutter to himself: “I should’ve stayed natural.”
The fact that he didn't stay natural was more because of a desire to get himself in the best shape possible for his PBA debut. The second-generation star felt that he needed another jolt of energy, one which he got from drinking pre-workout drinks, as he prepared to make the jump to the pros.
“I just felt like drinking it cause I could use more energy at iba na ang laro sa pro. Hindi na pwede na ganoon lang, na Milo o Chuckie lang.”
Picking up lessons from his foray into the NBA D-League (now-G-League), Ravena started drinking a pre-workout drink called C4 which he felt helped him maintain his energy in his debut conference in the PBA. He continued doing so even as he played with Gilas Pilipinas in the 2019 Fiba World Cup Asian qualifiers. But when the Philippines was about to face Japan in the February window, his supplies ran out. On the advice of a friend, he bought Dust which looked and tasted the same as C4.
Ravena said he had no idea that the replacement drink he bought contained the three substances on WADA’s ever-changing prohibited list. Heck, he can’t even pronounce the names of the substances to begin with. If it was sold over the counter in health and wellness stores, how can it contain something banned, he wondered.
Obviously, even high-profile athletes like Ravena aren't too discerning when it comes to the drinks they take, perhaps owing to their rigorous schedules. Kiefer wished he knew then what he knows now about these banned substances. But as they say, hindsight is always 20/20. So regret inevitably creeped in.
“Parang kaya ko naman maglaro on a high-level nung college na di ako umiinom ng ganoon. I took basketball for granted na di ako nagtiwala sa katawan ko, na kaya ko mag-compete without it. Hindi ako nakuntento sa binigay sa akin kung anong meron ako. If I was content, I wouldn’t do that,” he said.
Still, Ravena prayed that Fiba would listen to his story. That everything was an honest mistake.
“I was hoping that it would be that way, an ordinary case na mali lang naman. Hindi ko naman sinasadya and I hoped they’ll give me a pass."
A reprieve wasn't forthcoming.
The Fiba decision was final and as clear as day: 'A ban covering the period of eighteen (18) month's eligibility, i.e. from 25 February 2018 to 24 August 2019, is imposed on Mr. Kiefer Isaac Ravena...." the decision read.
Officials from the SBP already warned Ravena that he could no longer play in the succeeding games of the PBA All-Star festivities. But with the third leg set in Iloilo, the super-rookie wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. “I have to go to Iloilo. We’ll decide just then kung anong mangyayari: will I play or just be there for the sake of the All-Star Games?” he remembered saying.
Kiefer kept the bad news to his inner circle: his parents Bong and Mozzy, his girlfriend Alyssa Valdez, Gilas skipper Jayson Castro ("because kailangan kong sabihin sa kanya, as our captain") and roommate Monfort ("because I just had to share the load for a bit, knowing na kakayanin ko naman siya.")
Until early Sunday morning, it was still a go for Ravena. He’ll play with his fellow Visayans and give a treat to his fellow Ilonggos. “This is my hometown. I want to play in front of my people,” he said.
Panlilio’s call changed everything.
Reluctantly packing his backpack for the flight back to the capital, Ravena still had the presence of mind to remind Monfort about the dance steps he still hadn’t shared with his teammates. Then, as he left the hotel at about 3 p.m. carrying only a pair of extra clothing, he told his former college teammate, “Man, ikaw na lang magsabi sa kanila. Maiintindihan naman nila ‘yun.”
The flight from Iloilo to Manila was barely an hour. But for Ravena, it was one of the longest trips he’s ever had. From the car that took him to Iloilo International Airport to his flight back to Manila that was scheduled at 5:30 p.m., his mind was racing with anxiety and unanswered questions.
“I was wondering what will happen. This will create a lot of buzz, a lot of speculations, and it did. Ano ba ang nangyari? Bakit biglang umuwi?” he remembered telling himself.
Back at the University of San Agustin, PBA commissioner Willie Marcial broke the news to mediamen, saying a press conference would be held at 6 p.m. in Manila the next day. That no reason was given only served to spark wild speculation. Hasn’t Kiefer learned his lesson after finding himself at the center of controversy before? Was it marijuana? Was it drugs? Ravena’s phone started to blow up.
Believe it or not, Ravena’s foremost concern was how his fellow Ilonggos would take the news.
“Nandoon ako sa sitwasyon na paasa ako,” he said. “Mga kababayan ko sila. They put in the time and effort to vote for me to be part of the starting five, to be the only rookie to be in. Bakit ko sasayangin yun? The opportunity to be with the best players in the league for a week, doon ako nanghihinayang, but more than what I was going through, it’s more of the people, of how their efforts were put to waste. Yung iba bumyahe pa sa ibang bayan papunta sa Iloilo para mapanood kami, mapanood ako tapos wala naman pala ako. Hindi ko alam ang gagawin ko kasi hindi ko na siya kontrolado.”
That worry never left Ravena even when he got on the plane, taking his place at seat 1A. “First man in, first man out,” he told himself, pondering on what awaits him back home. But he didn’t go entirely unnoticed though. An old man seated behind him soon started asking curious questions.
“Uy, tapos na yung laro ninyo?” the man asked, knowing that there was a game happening at that moment.
“Naglalaro pa po sila. Nagkaroon lang po ako ng emergency. Kailangan ko lang pong umuwi,” Ravena answered, giving the best excuse he could come up as of the moment. That was the last conversation the former Ateneo star had with anyone for the day.
Seeking tranquility in the face of crisis, Ravena put his headphones on and tried to calm himself to sleep. He knew that the moment he opened his eyes and set foot in Manila, all hell’s gonna break loose.
And it did the moment he arrived in Manila at around 7 p.m. Messages, calls, tweets came pouring in as soon as he opened his phone moments after the plane touched down. It got to a point that he felt his phone was going to explode before the real news did.
As he got off the plane, he put on his white cap and tried to blend in with the airport crowd before getting picked up. “As soon as I can get myself away from the attention, the more I can avoid a lot of stuff, saying something wrong and explaining myself,” he said.
There was the urge to defend himself from the accusations, to explain everything. As he looked at his phone, a total of 123 messages remained untouched. He didn't answer a single message, not because Kiefer cared less, but rather, “there was a part of me na it’s fresh and I don’t want to talk about it.”
His mind was still in a swirl when he got home. But he knew that in a situation like this, the worst is yet to come.
The long hand struck six and he is up and about. The clock read 6:30 a.m., right on time as Ravena rose and did his usual morning routine. But every hour, every minute was an agonizing wait as questions about his situation continued to persist.
And then, at around 10 a.m., the pin dropped.
Kiefer Ravena failed drug test after Gilas' Fiba World Cup qualifier vs Australia, says source, the headline on SPIN.ph read, the first definite account that shed light on Ravena’s mysterious departure from Iloilo.
Shock was the first thing he remembered feeling the moment he saw the news article.
“Anong nangyari, bakit may ganito?” he remembered asking himself. He next started to doubt the few he entrusted the news to. “All I was thinking was kung sino ba sinabihan ko?“ After gathering himself, he could only murmur, "Shucks, here’s wave number one.”
What followed was a tidal wave of calls from mediamen whose duty it is to verify the story. The media-savvy Ravena had to resist the urge to respond. Instead he sat down by his lonesome, thought long and hard, then started typing.
“I made my own statement because I want it to come from the heart. I just wrote an explanation, trying to tell my side of the story,” he said.
That task kept Ravena preoccupied for most of the day until hehad to leave for the press conference. “Honestly, I just wanted it to get over and done with,” he said.
He left the house at about 4 p.m., wearing a black shirt and a white cap. Together with his parents, who just arrived and brought home everything he left in Iloilo, Kiefer got on the car and drove off, bound for Launchpad in Mandaluyong.
He didn’t need a pep talk, but Mozzy gave him the best advice of all: “Keep it true. Keep it real. Keep it factual.”
Mothers know best.
As much as he knew his conscience was clean, the mind has its way of doubting one’s self. He has time and again passed random drug tests in the PBA, although those tests were only for recreational drugs and not the banned substances that got him in trouble with Fiba. Still, Ravena was dying to shout to the world that he wasn't a drug addict and he was by no means a cheat.
“I knew deep in myself na di ako nagda-drugs, na kahit ilang beses mo ako i-test ngayon, di ako magpa-positive. I’m in this situation na people are perceiving me to be someone I’m not, but I know deep in myself na I’m not like that,” he said.
He hoped people will understand his situation, but granted not all will. Nonetheless he was also fully aware that he was responsible for the quandary he was in, “kasi at the end of the day, you are responsible on what you take into your body.” For him, all he could do was to say his peace and embrace the repercussions.
“There were consequences eh,” he said. “It could’ve been avoided, for sure, but it’s all in hindsight. So for me explaining my side in that press con, that’s the only way for everybody to move on as well.”
Ravena arrived at around 5:30 p.m. but was spared a long wait as the SBP officials got there a little less than 15 minutes later. Panlilio was first to arrive, followed by SBP chairman emeritus Manny V. Pangilinan and other top officials. They gathered in a small conference room, preparing to discuss probably one of the toughest challenges the famed guard had to deal with in his already colorful career.
The short hand struck six and Ravena took his seat in the head table, flanked by Panlilio and Pangilinan. The clock read 6 p.m, when he started to talk about the elephant in the room.
“As they say, the art of a sincere and heartfelt apology is one of the greatest skills you'll ever learn in life,” he started his statement as he dissected piece-by-piece what led to this moment. He stuck to the script he himself wrote. “I didn’t want people to think I was taking drugs. That was the main point of everything. And I want to say na di ko sinasadya.”
Throughout the press conference, Ravena stuck to his line: He did not use marijuana or shabu or any other kind of drug. He didn’t take any performance-enhancing drug (PEDs), for that matter. What got him were three substances which were in the pre-workout drink he took for the first time.
“I’m not a bad person who’ll try to cheat and use everything to my advantage para lang makalamang. Hindi ako ganoong player. I know deep in myself na wala akong ginawang masama. That was one thing that was going for me,” he said.
The consequences, of course, were harsh.
“It felt like I lost my love, lost something I really love,” he said of what he felt when the 18-month ban started to sink in. “Pag may nawala na mahal natin, iba yung feeling. Ang hirap isipin na walang basketball ng isa’t kalahating taon. Anong gagawin ko?
"At first, iniisip ko magtatrabaho ako. But it was so hard for me to watch my team suffer, lose, knowing that I can’t do anything. I talk about being hyper-competitive, but ang hirap na araw-araw I can’t play. Lagi kong sinasabing kaya ko ‘to. Pero dito, hirap ako. This is definitely one for the books.”
He braced for waves, but what he got was a tsunami. As reality set in, the former Ateneo star wondered what the hell he would do without basketball.
What will you do after? What are you gonna do now? Those questions hit Kiefer the hardest. Everything he’s worked for since he was a kid are now gone, for the next year and change at least. He can’t play in the PBA, he can’t train with his team, he can’t even watch games in the venue.
He didn’t have the answers. Up until now.
All Ravena knew was the moment he left the press conference, he has already said his piece and he can live knowing what the truth is, no matter how divided the public’s opinion was. At the end of the day, he found comfort in the thought that he is surrounded by people who love him unconditionally.
“This is me. This is what people look at me after this, whether they like me or don’t, fans or not, I’m blessed to be surrounded by the people who support me, mga nandyan para sa ‘yo. I can’t thank them enough for soothing a little bit of the pain."
“I’m not a bad person who’ll try to cheat and use everything to my advantage para lang makalamang. Hindi ako ganoong player. I know deep in myself na wala akong ginawang masama. That was one thing that was going for me."
The long hand struck six and he is up and about. The clock read 6:30 a.m., right on time as Ravena got up and did his usual morning routine. He wasn’t headed to the NLEX practice this time. Over the next few days, he wasn’t handing out assists on the basketball court, but rather, was distributing lists of WADA’s prohibited substances to fellow athletes as the new poster boy of Philippine sports’ anti-doping campaign.
The PBA rookie has been hooked to golf for a while, but now he has embraced the sport more than ever as it filled the emptiness in his life. “I play golf because it takes half of my day trying to forget that I’m not playing and I’m not practicing. I take time in the golf course to share stories, with my girlfriend minsan or with my friends. It takes time for me, five to six hours playing golf before washing up, eating merienda, and travelling all the way back home,” he said.
Through all this, Ravena’s faith never wavered. He’s not a saint and never claimed to be one. Rather he's someone who’s simply trying to be a better version of himself day-by-day. Deep inside, he found strength in the belief that God won’t give him a challenge that he can’t hurdle.
Not once has he questioned God’s will. He wasn’t going to start now.
“Wala naman Siyang binibigay na hindi natin kaya,” he said. “That was one of the lowest points of my life, and from there, I have nowhere to go but up.”
“Siguro sabi ni Lord, nawawala na yung gutom ko, na I’m not working as hard as I was working before. But I never questioned na bakit sa akin nangyari. Iba pa rin yung nananalig ka talaga. Kahit paano, masarap sa pakiramdam na di ka Niya iiwan.
"Ano ba naman ito sa pinagdadaanan ng ibang tao? Kung ako ganito lang, people have it worse. People try to live by the day and I still get paid and do the things I love to do. I have no right to complain at all. Of course, I miss the hardcourt and working out with my teammates, grinding it out on the court, trying to win as much games as you can. I miss all of that, but for now, I’m still thankful for everything.”
If there’s something good that came out of his nightmare experience, it was Ravena’s better appreciation of a sport that has been so good to him. The son of former PBA star Bong Ravena has loved basketball since he was a kid; now he loves it more than ever.
“You got to love your craft, just like you put time and effort on it, blood, sweat, and tears for it. Yan na yan eh. Yan ang maglalagay ng pagkain sa hapag-kainan ninyo. Someday, I’ll have my own family and I can’t be in this situation again when you have kids and people to feed tapos ganito. So you have to be careful,” he said.
Though he can’t join his team in any basketball-related activity, he still gets a chance to work out on his own, as well as taking in other endeavors such as hosting a web show centered on the next generation of basketball players.
As the countdown for his eventual return continues, Ravena is just praying that everything he went through in this - the biggest challenge he has ever faced in his life - will be for the better, not just for himself, but for Philippine sports as a whole.
“This is an issue that should be avoided at all cost," he said firmly. "Di na pwede mangyari ito ulit. If I’m the first, hopefully, I’ll be the last.”
He’s hoping to come out of this experience as an improved version of himself.
“Hopefully, with the experience and time I had with the ban, I’ll be a more mature, selfless, and hungrier Kiefer Ravena na may eight-pack,” he said with a grin.