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How Thirdy Ravena and his evolution brought Ateneo back to the top

Thirdy Ravena threw the ball up in the air as confetti rained down on the Mall of Asia Arena court. He stepped on the advertisement board, faced the blue-and-white crowd, and let out a scream with his arms spread out and his three fingers showing what he had achieved in his collegiate career.

THREE-PEAT.

Thirdy cemented his legacy as a King Eagle, wrapping up his UAAP stint with three titles and three Finals MVP awards. It was a culmination of his hard work and tremendous growth in the last six years that he studied in Ateneo.

He soared high and owned the championship stage, just as he did in previous years. For his final curtain call, he averaged 24.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists to ensure that the Blue Eagles would remain undefeated and defend the throne.

Lost in Thirdy's historic accomplishments -- first three-time Finals MVP, first collegiate player to suit up for Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, first team to complete a 16-0 sweep -- are the challenges he faced in his early years in Ateneo just to get to this point.

Coming from a family of athletes, Thirdy grew up with the pressure of living up to the hype that comes with his surname. His father Bong and brother Kiefer both made waves as basketball players, and it was initially difficult for Thirdy to be himself in a sport that the older Ravenas had excelled in.

He entered the Blue Eagles' fold as a 17-year-old rookie, with his "kuya" as the leader and eventual two-time league MVP. Thirdy had a forgettable debut season, but the worse blow came behind the scenes. In his second year with Ateneo, he was ruled ineligible to play and even train with the team for failing to meet the school's academic requirements.

"During that time, I couldn't understand why it happened to me. It was really unfair," he recalled.

It was one of the lowest points of Thirdy's life. Drawing strength from his family and friends, he gradually picked himself up. He improved his grades and worked out on his own to keep in shape. Raring to prove his worth once more, he braced himself for the new kind of pressure that awaits him upon his return.

Then coach Tab Baldwin came into the picture.

Thirdy's comeback coincided with Baldwin's first year with the Blue Eagles. One of the earliest things that he had to work on with his new coach had nothing to do with basketball skills. It was about learning how to be the best version of himself, away from his brother's and father's shadows.

"He talked to me. He told me that the biggest pressure shouldn't be trying to be like my brother or my dad, but coming from myself and [being] the best player I could possibly be," Thirdy said.

"With that, I think I effectively removed myself from my brother's shadow and focused on how I could be the best player I could possibly be, not just for myself but for my teammates."

When he returned in Season 79, Thirdy changed his jersey number to "0" as a way of reminding himself that nobody can stop him from chasing his dreams. It also signified his fresh start as he went back on the court with a different mindset.

"It really is a testament that God has his plans," he said. "In the long run, I couldn't express my gratitude about what happened, that I learned from that and it served as a wake-up call."

A fitter, better, and wiser version of Thirdy soon re-introduced himself to the world. He barged his way into the Mythical Team selection at the same time that the 'Blue Eagles Band of Brothers' was born. The supposedly rebuilding Ateneo made its way to the finals but failed to slay the giant that was the Ben Mbala-led La Salle on its first try. It turned out to be the jumping-off point that the team needed to rise to the top in the next three years.

Season after season, Thirdy elevated his game further. His highlight reel would include vicious dunks, monster rebounds, nifty assists, clutch baskets, and title-clinching career-best performances. Every time he steps on the floor, it's impossible not to feel his passion for the sport. Baldwin is grateful that Thirdy chose to use his talents in such a way that the whole team would also benefit.

"Thirdy is an incredible competitor. He's a fighter, he's impetuous, he's emotional," said Baldwin. "He can go the wrong way as easily as he can go the right way. Fortunately for us, he so often goes, just by the weight of numbers, he goes the right way a lot."

Thirdy could easily dominate if he wanted to, but just like his teammates, he willingly committed to the no-superstar and next-man-up culture that Baldwin's system requires.

"We want to play for one another and we preach servanthood," he said. "The reason why we're strong and why the system works is that we do what we do not for ourselves but for our teammates and the guy beside us on the bench."

In the end, all their sacrifices paid off. Thirdy and his fellow seniors Mike and Matt Nieto, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong, are graduating with three straight championships under their belt. They will also move on from the team, confident that the young players are capable of continuing what they started.

"Every single one of us fulfill our roles to the best of our abilities, whether big or small," said Thirdy. "Whoever steps in our spot, we know that they will do what they can for their teammates. I'm very optimistic about it."

Before Thirdy decides on his next career move, he first wants to celebrate his fruitful UAAP journey and show his appreciation to the sixth man that cheered him and the rest of the Blue Eagles on.

"We won the finals for the community," he said. "It's not just us celebrating. It's the entire school, all the alumni, and it's the best feeling knowing in my head that people are happy that we won. That's the best we could do for all the love and support for us."

Thirdy will leave Ateneo, armed with treasures that go beyond the medals and trophies. In the last four years, he was able to carve his own path and step out of his family's shadow. Now, he will forge ahead with the greatest life lessons.

"For me, it's not even about accomplishments," he said. "It's about trying to work for something and not trying to be like someone. I'm just trying to be the best version of me."