Ravena is ready to return and eager to prove he was worth the wait

Kiefer Ravena knows he will have to prove himself that he belongs on Gilas' roster after his long suspension. KC Cruz/ESPN5

Kiefer Ravena looked excited when he arrived at the FCL Gym in Quezon City on his second week back in basketball training. He had a jam-packed day ahead, with NLEX practice in the morning, Gilas Pilipinas practice in the evening, and a sports show guesting in between.

He began warming up on the court while the rest of his teammates were in the next room, studying film for their upcoming game. It's been some time since he last had a basketball-filled schedule, and he's relishing every moment of it.

"This is it, the long wait is over. I finally finished a long hiatus from basketball," said Ravena.

In a few weeks, Ravena will return to the court and play the sport that has been a constant source of joy and pride ever since he was a little kid. While he's not yet allowed to compete and even watch official games, being able to step inside a practice facility is a luxury that he's gladly embracing. At last, the most agonizing period of his life is nearly over.

Ravena was overwhelmed when he joined Gilas for his first basketball practice in more than a year -- FIBA allows a suspended athlete to train with his team in the last two months or final quarter of his suspension.

"I've never looked forward to practice [like that] in my life ever," said Ravena. "Now I have to work and prove to myself that I deserve to be part of the team."

Road to acceptance

Ravena's career took a sharp twist in February 2018 when he tested positive for WADA-prohibited substances, which he says he ingested from a pre-workout drink. After a thorough investigation and a series of appeals, FIBA suspended Ravena from any basketball-related activities for 18 months. It was a bitter pill to swallow for a young superstar who was just starting to make waves in the professional ranks.

As a PBA rookie, Ravena helped the Road Warriors advance to the semifinals for the first time in franchise history. As a Gilas guard, he helped the Philippines win three games in the first two windows of the World Cup Asian qualifiers. Unfortunately, right smack in the middle of his stellar campaign for both teams, FIBA handed down its decision.

"The first two to three months that I couldn't do anything related to basketball, that was the hardest," he said.

The gravity of the situation did not immediately sink in for Ravena. It felt like a nightmare that haunted him night after night. He had been waking up every day with no practice or game to go to, but he still refused to believe that it was real. He only started accepting his fate when Gilas went to Taiwan for the third window of the qualifiers without him.

"That's when I really felt that I could not play anymore," recalled Ravena. "I told myself that it would have been nice to play there. That's what I really missed. That's when I accepted that I would be out for a while."

Ravena sprained his ankle in college and fractured his foot when he was younger but he never had an injury that sidelined him for more than two months. That's why being away from basketball for over a year -- when he was at the top of his game and healthy -- was extremely frustrating.

"Bear in mind, it's not because of an injury, which makes me a little bit more frustrated because I'm capable of playing and helping the team but I can't," said Ravena. "When you're injured, you really can't play and you have to make sure that you're 100% recovered so that you don't aggravate anything. Two different scenarios, but definitely, this one is a lot worse."

Keeping in shape

Once he accepted that his basketball career was temporarily on hold, Ravena had to find other hobbies to keep him busy. He mostly turned to golf to calm his mind during his period of recovery.

"I wake up early to play golf in the morning, have lunch, go to a workout. Then if I have more time, I'll play golf again or go to the driving range, head home, have dinner, talk [to family and friends], watch a movie, and then sleep," he said of his typical day.

Ravena had to watch his diet so he can maximize his workouts, which mostly included weights, strength and conditioning exercises, and swimming. He also developed a habit of sleeping early and taking care of himself better.

"For someone who has nothing to do for quite some time, you get careless sometimes," said Ravena. "You know how Filipinos indulge in food, right? For me, [keeping track of my weight] was one thing that I really had to take seriously."

Ravena learned the hard way to be cautious of what he eats and drinks, so he decided to steer away from pre-workout drinks or any colored drink for that matter. "To be honest, I never drank anything with color since I got suspended except Gatorade. It was a traumatic experience to say the least," he said.

After losing 22 pounds in the last six months, Ravena thinks he's in an even better shape now than his rookie year in the PBA. It was a difficult process to reach his desired weight and conditioning especially with a less active routine, but he hopes to maintain the same kind of discipline in the long run.

"I'm proud of what I've done," he said. "It's something that I can get used to growing up throughout my career. Of course when you get older, your metabolism will not be as fast, so I want to start young and continue to feel and be in tip-top shape."

Staying motivated

Ravena got his basketball fix by monitoring all of NLEX's and Gilas' games. Sometimes, he even rewatches games that he played.

"All I could do was remember the things that we've gone through together as a team. I always did that so that I won't miss the team as much," he said.

As he fought through missing out on the rest of the PBA season and the World Cup qualifiers, Ravena leaned on his family, girlfriend, fans, teammates, and friends.

"They really helped me go through everyday that I'm struggling and getting envious of the other players who can play," he said. "They were telling me that one day I'll be back. Every now and then, they message me that they miss seeing me play. It's very encouraging and it actually makes me more motivated."

Injuries to other key NLEX players, including his backcourt partner Kevin Alas, added to Ravena's frustration.

"Sometimes, a little bit, I blame myself because I can't help them," said Ravena. "They're put in a tough position to play without me and Kevin. Before Jericho [Cruz] came in, there were other injuries that happened so it was really a bad combination for everybody."

Were there specific moments when he wished he was on the court with his teammates?

With NLEX, he remembers a game at the Mall of Asia Arena in February when Phoenix's Calvin Abueva blocked Bong Galanza's potential game-winner. Known for his clutch plays, Ravena said he could have helped his team in close games that boiled down to the last possession.

With Gilas, he wanted to be there when the infamous brawl with Australia happened at the Philippine Arena last July.

"I've been asking myself what I would do," he said. "I guess the only way to find out was if I was there in that kind of situation."

Ravena also wanted to be there when his younger brother, Thirdy, competed for Gilas in the final window of the qualifiers. They would have been the first brothers to suit up for the national team together, but he believes more opportunities will come for them in the future.

Besides, Ravena enjoyed being in the sidelines while witnessing his siblings shine in the past year. Thirdy starred in the championship run of the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP. Months later, his younger sister, Dani, also won a volleyball title with Ateneo.

"They're used to watching me play when they were younger," said Ravena. "For me to be able to step back and watch my siblings rise to the occasion, it's nice. It's a good feeling and I'm very proud as an older brother."

Impending comeback

After over a year of waiting for his prized guard to return, NLEX and Gilas coach Yeng Guiao was not disappointed with Ravena's performance in his first few practices.

"For somebody who's been out for more than a year, he's in excellent shape," said Guiao. "I think it's just gonna take a few more days, not even weeks for him to get back to 100%. He just needs to feel the actual competition, which he cannot do yet as of now. But as far as practice is concerned, as far as his conditioning is concerned, he looks really good."

Guiao was so impressed that despite the long layoff, Ravena was still his top option to take over the point guard role vacated by Gilas veteran Jayson Castro, who begged off from competing in the World Cup in China next month.

"It won't exactly be a seamless transition because nobody, no matter how good that player is, can immediately fill in the hole that Jayson left," said Guiao. "There will be adjustments ... but with the leadership qualities of Kiefer -- not only Kiefer but all the veterans who will share in the responsibility -- I think we can make up for it although not instantly."

Guiao knows that Ravena would have made a huge difference for both of his squads in the past year that he was gone, but he refused to dwell on something that's beyond their control.

"Kiefer is a game-changer," said Guiao. "But I don't want to think about that anymore because that's over and done with. Nothing you can do but regret it, and to me, that's a negative thought. Just look at the future, be positive about everything, and just be thankful that he's still there and he's able to play, probably even better."

Ravena agrees that there's no use looking back on what could have been. But was there a part of him that wished the suspension happened at another time so that he could at least finish his rookie year?

"It would have been a nice feat to win a Rookie of the Year award like my dad," said Ravena. "But again, everything happens for a reason. Something better might come in exchange, like a championship with NLEX, hopefully."

If there's one good thing about the timing of the suspension, it's that Ravena is just 25 years old. His career is still on the rise. He has plenty of years ahead of him to bounce back from this setback. His time away from the sport put things into perspective and taught him to never take anything for granted.

And now he's determined to work even harder so that when the countdown to August 24 ends, a new and improved version of Kiefer Ravena will show up and get back on the court like he never left.

"In my hunger [to play], I'll probably gain back the 22 pounds that I lost," Ravena said while laughing. "I want to return to wherever I was before and even improve myself, make myself a better teammate and a better all-around player. I want to help NLEX win again and help the national team make history."