Already a fan favorite after his two prior stints with the Star Hotshots in the PBA, Ricardo Ratliffe endeared himself even more to Filipino basketball fans by lending Gilas Pilipinas a hand on the final day of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
Aside from needing to beat Kazakhstan in its last game, the Philippines also had to hope that either one of Japan, Jordan or Lebanon lost their final assignments to book a return trip to the World Cup. The first two, however, handily dispatched their foes, leaving Filipinos rooting for Korea -- already bound for the world stage itself - to beat the Lebanese in a non-bearing game on the road.
In a recent episode of the 2OT podcast, Ratliffe, now a naturalized player for the Koreans, said some friends from the Gilas team and the PBA messaged him early that day to check on his team's priorities.
"They were just asking like, 'Yo, man, are y'all trying to win? If so, we'll appreciate it.' I was like, 'Man, you know I got you. Don't worry about that. Even if we lose, I'ma go out there and give my 100 percent just for you guys.' But my teammates followed my lead and we ended up winning the game," said Ratliffe, who is known in South Korea as Ra Gun-ah.
Ratliffe would insist otherwise, but he was superb in leading Korea to an 84-72 win over Lebanon. Down four at the break, the Koreans turned it up in the second half to help assure Gilas of a ticket back to the World Cup after it dispatched Kazakhstan in an impressive win of its own. Ratliffe paced the team with 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting to go with 11 rebounds and four blocks.
"I think I had maybe about a thousand DMs thanking me. Right before the game, I posted the Filipino flag on my story with a heart just to let everybody know that I was gonna go out there and give my all and I did. I thought I played pretty decent, I didn't play my best game. But I gave it all I had and we ended up winning the game," he said.
However, the 31-year-old big man said Korea's win also had a lot to do with the country's embedded culture of trying to win every single time.
"We'd go to the Jones Cup, we'd play in tournaments that don't count, tournaments that don't give money. At the end of the day coach is like, 'We're gonna keep our foot on anybody's neck.' That's just Korean style. They just wanna win all the time, even if it doesn't count," Ratliffe explained.
That type of mentality may have also stemmed from the Korean's culture of respect and discipline, according to Ratliffe.
"We respect our elders in the States and stuff, but here it's like another level. It's like you really have to," he explained. "They have so much respect for the coach. Whatever he says, they're going to do it and they're never going to go outside of what the coach says.
"If a coach says run a set like this, everybody's gonna buy into it. Whereas in the States, sometimes a coach may say something but the point guard could say, 'Nah coach, it's not gonna work. I don't think this is a good idea.' In Korea, it's like everybody's, 'Yes sir, we're gonna do that.' So I think the fact that they respect their elders so much, they're a disciplined country, their culture -- it translates to their sports."
More often than not, that tough, respectful and by-the-book approach has been the reason why the Philippines could not exactly crack numerous puzzles posed by the Koreans.
Take for example the Filipinos' last matchup against their nemesis in the 2018 Asian Games. Even with a legitimate NBA caliber talent in Jordan Clarkson anchoring Gilas, Korea -- led by Ratliffe's 30 points and 14 boards -- still came out on top to deal the Philippines a 91-82 heartbreaker.
"All the players were like, 'Oh, I'm not afraid of Jordan Clarkson. I'm gonna play defense on him. He can't guard me.' I was just like, 'You know he's one of the best sixth men in the NBA? He can't guard you or you're gonna stop him? I'm pretty sure that's not gonna happen, but I like your mindset, your mentality,'" Ratliffe recalled saying.
"I've gone into games where the players are scared to death, but when we play against you guys, it's different. But maybe it's just because they've got some wins, so now they're just like, they can't lose against the Philippines," he added.
Ratliffe also outlined the contrast between Philippine and Korean basketball, saying that the Filipinos' brand of game is more akin to that of his home country's style of play.
"The Philippines is like new school. Korea's more so like old school," he noted. "It's flashy, it's more entertaining, I'd say, because Filipinos try to cross each other, they try to dunk on each other, and they try to dunk on and cross the imports. And then Korea is more so like, I think, an old-school style game. People don't go out (of) their element, they penetrate and kick. If you're a shooter, you just shoot. If you're a passer, you just pass."
This stylistic difference might have also been why Ratliffe -- a four-time champion, three-time All-Star, three-time Player of the Year and one-time Import of the Year in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) -- couldn't win a title with the Purefoods franchise in his first two runs here.
"I feel like if I would have been the import from start to finish, we would have won maybe at least one of those two stints that I was there. I always came in as a replacement. So I had to adjust. People don't know the styles of Korea to the Philippines are so different. It's a total adjustment from just playing from one country to the next," he said.
"So I have to have a different mindset coming into playing in another country. You kind of gotta be like, 'All right, I'm not in Korea so I got to play a different style of basketball.' But I feel like if I've been there from the beginning in the preseason and finish through, I feel like I would have helped those guys get another championship."
Playing in the Philippines
Ratliffe, already a decorated international star by 2016, was just what the doctor ordered for the Hotshots, which sorely needed an imposing presence in the middle to snap a mini-title drought of its own. "It was like a match made in heaven," he said of his move to the Philippines. "My Korean agent actually got me there the first time. He was telling me like, 'Yo, man, you can go to a team that is probably like the Lakers or Celtics in the NBA. They got a really storied franchise, but they've just been down as of late.' "When I went there, I think in my first practice I was like, 'Man, these guys are like super good. How are you guys having a down year?' But I talked to some of the guys and they were just like, 'Man, I think that we're kind of down just because we're missing someone like you, a good import.'"
Right off the bat, Ratliffe's excellence came shining through. In his PBA debut against TNT in the 2016 Commissioner's Cup, the hulking center was a positive and chipped in 23 points, 13 rebounds and four dimes in 38 minutes.
"I just went out there and did what I do, played hard and they ended up liking me after my first game. The coach was like, 'I could see you being our import for a while,'" Ratliffe recalled.
Ratliffe failed to win a title and got booted by San Miguel in consecutive years in the playoffs, but he left lasting images that would normally warrant a return to the PBA. In Game 2 of the 2017 Commissioner's Cup Finals, Ratliffe even grabbed 35 rebounds -- fourth-most in league history and second-most in the playoffs -- solidifying what type of output is the norm for him.
"They fell in love with me, I fell in love with them, so that's why I think it was a match made in heaven. I'm appreciative of the organization, the fans, the whole country," he said.
"It kind of felt more like me being home in Asia. And my teammates were so nice. They appreciated me. They let me know that. The fans are great, like it's actually a basketball country -- which it's not here, and I'm trying to help them be a better basketball country here. It was great for me. If they (Korea) would drop me today, I would be trying to get a contract in the Philippines."
Duty with Korea
As much as he'd like to chase another title with the Purefoods franchise, Ratliffe's contract as a naturalized player for Korea, which began when the country's federation brought him in back in 2018, limits him from doing so.
"As of now as, I think I signed like a six-year [contract]," he said. "But it's not guaranteed, so they can drop me anytime they want -- if I regress or anything, they can let me go at any time. But as of now, I think I have another three years. So after that, I guess I'm pretty much free."
Korea's stance on naturalizing foreigners appeared rigid until it reached an agreement with Ratliffe, who became the country's first-ever naturalized basketball player. Before him, Ratliffe said there had actually been other candidates that did not pan out.
"When I asked people why it didn't work out before, they said it's because the Koreans, they didn't want it to work out. For me to say they went through this tough process of getting me naturalized and a year later, I'm naturalized, is mostly kind of like mind-blowing to me that it actually happened," he said.
"I thought we would fit well. We got so many good shooters. I think that to make Korea go to the next level, they just need more toughness, and I think that's what I could bring to the team -- toughness on both ends," he added. "It's been working for us, I think we've been playing some pretty good basketball as of late."
Playing for Korea, according to Ratliffe, will help him pad what is already a pretty solid legacy -- and perhaps, pave the way for future naturalized players that could even take the country to greater heights once he decides to hang it up one day.
"I just wanna be somebody that makes my family proud -- my wife, my daughter. For the fans, I wanna be remembered as a super, super hard worker, somebody that never quit, never gave up. My story now is pretty good. I got like three basketball Player [of the Year awards] and four championships, but I want to be known as somebody that's like, 'He has a good career, but he's still playing like he's never won anything.' And me being the first person, first American to be a naturalized player, I figured that it'd be good for somebody in the future.
"Now, they got a chance because it's been done before. So their process will be a lot easier, maybe takes a lot less time," he added. "I think it's all positive and I look forward to even seeing what's in store for me next."