In the Ish: Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

This article appears in SLAM 215, out now in all Titan outlets and major bookstores.

Ricci Rivero will never play for La Salle again. Why? How? Add it to the long list of college basketball controversies we may never know the truth about. Ricci however, knows the truth, he knows himself, and only he knows what’s next.

By Toby Amigo

“There is no Ricci without La Salle.”

Ricci Rivero tells me on a hot Wednesday afternoon in March. We’re sitting in a coffee shop, a stone’s throw away from the Athlete’s Den—the modest gym tucked into the belly of Fil-Oil Arena. For years, Ricci and his older brother Prince have huddled in that gym, sharpening their skills and strengthening their bodies, with the solitary goal of dominating the game they adore, the game that has carved its place into every aspect of their young lives, the game that has pushed them to tears, both inside this gym’s halls and on the center-court of our nation’s most storied arenas. The game, which as of that moment, they had been banned from playing.

Exactly one week later, Ricci announced that he had played his last game as a De La Salle Green Archer.

It didn’t come as a shock. When we talked, there was an unmistakable yet unspoken feeling that he had, indeed, donned the Archer uniform for the last time. Ricci rhapsodized Game 3 with forlorn sentimentality, as if deep down he knew it was something that likely wouldn’t happen again.

“Parang it was so unbelievable na I got the rebound. Then I got past this guy. Then this guy. In a Finals game. Against Ateneo. Parang it’s not gonna happen talaga. Sunod-sunod 8 straight points pagkapasok ko. Sabi ko, thank you Lord. It’s not really me playing right now. It’s You.”

I ask Ricci if his faith was a big part of his life. He says yes, which isn’t uncommon in the most predominantly Catholic nation in Asia. The difference between Ricci and the millions of his Christian countrymen is that belief—both in a higher power and in himself—was a necessity if he had any hopes of playing basketball at the highest level. He had to believe because nobody was willing to believe in him in the first place.

It’s a problem that’s plagued the younger Rivero for the longest time. When Ricci sought to play with his older brother, side by side wearing the green and white, he was met with doubt.

“Sabi sa’kin ng La Salle, ‘We’re gonna put you first sa Team B. And then, after Jeron’s time, pwede ka pumalit.’ Parang term [ng mga managers]: ‘Magpahinog ka muna.’ I was like: ‘Can I prove myself first? Can I try-out sa team? If I can fight naman for my spot. Why not?’

Ricci would go on to earn his place on the Archers. He forced his way into a full roster and was a member of the 2016 championship squad. Whether he played or not was a different matter altogether. In his rookie year, Rivero struggled with playing time and averaged five points and a rebound—hardly the debut we associate with basketball’s brightest young stars. The need to prove his worth and make his own team believe in him would set the theme for the offseason. By the end of summer training, Ricci had converted at least one new believer.

“Noong summer, sabi sa akin ni Coach Miggy [Solitaria], yung new assistant coach namin:

‘You know what Ricci, your name’s gonna be big this season. Summer pa ‘to. Sabi niya: ‘Kaya mong kunin ‘yung MVP.’ Sabi ko: ‘Coach ganyan kataas tingin mo sakin?’ Sabi niya: ‘Ricci kung gusto mo kaya mo.’”

For someone to see the fruits of all his labor, that was all Ricci needed. We know what happened next. Ricci would be named the league’s Most Improved Player and a member of the Mythical Five, with averages of 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 steals. He would be the sparkplug that would propel La Salle to a Game 2 victory in the Finals over Ateneo. And although they lost in the end, Ricci won the respect and the faith of basketball fans everywhere.

The good times were not meant to be however, as at the start of the year, Ricci Rivero faced the same problem all over again, albeit from a different, more dastardly angle. And this time, Ricci couldn’t dunk, rebound, or hustle his way to his doubters’ good graces.

In January, it was announced that Ricci, along with his brother Prince and their teammate Brent Paraiso, would be taking a leave of absence from the team, allegedly for breaking newly implemented team rules.

“First day meeting as a team with Coach Louie. Sabi niya: ‘We’re gonna talk about the rules and all.’ Then yun, sinabi na nila we’re gonna have this new rule na we can’t endorse anything on social media. Like any brands. Tapos nakatingin sila sakin.”

Ricci, in the off chance you haven’t noticed, has the dire misfortune of being very good at basketball, while also being very good-looking. And in the time-honored tradition of Filipino basketball heartthrobs, every brand imaginable has been itching to slap a picture of Ricci’s face on their ads.

“So siyempre sinabi ko kaagad sa parents ko and sa manager ko…Kasi I signed contracts na in December, I signed early January before the meeting… I asked the [brand] bosses: ‘Can I lessen the time, like kunyare instead of one year, six months na lang?’  Kasi kung ‘di ako makakalaro just because of endorsements, parang iisipin naman ng iba mukhang pera and all. I just wanna honor the contracts.”

I asked Ricci if there had been any developments since that first meeting. According to him, after practicing for just a week with the Green Archers, they had since been denied the permission to train with their former teammates. Significant efforts had been made to set a meeting with the team managers, but to that day, there hadn’t been a single meeting between the concerned parties. To put it simply, the three were in basketball purgatory.

I tried to take his mind off of La Salle. I brought up Gilas, where Ricci was just recently given the go-signal to train with the 23-For-23 pool. He gushed about the mentorship he received from Gabe Norwood and Troy Rosario. Ricci waxed on about Kiefer, who he sees as a once-in-a-generation talent. But the conversation inevitably veered back toward his standing with La Salle.

“It’s the dream of every athlete to play for your country, but…I don’t know what to feel now. Before ‘di ako pinayagan [to train with Gilas], and now I’m allowed to play but I don’t have naman a mother team.”

“Parang ‘di pa nagsisink in eh.Time flies so fast, Fil-Oil is about to start na, I don’t have a team yet. So parang it’s really different from what I was thinking before. Kasi siyempre right after this season, iniisip ko agad …not really revenge. Pero to prove lang ourselves. To prove that our team can win. And then now, I can’t na pala kasi I don’t have a team to play for.

You see it in the way Ricci talks—the constant desire to prove himself worthy. Yet somehow, the fact that Ricci has been denied the opportunity to do just that isn’t the worst part in all of this. As soon as the news hit that the three players were taking a leave of absence from the Green Archers, the rumor mill started spewing its nasty venom. People automatically assumed that Ricci had fallen into scandalous vices, like the mighty Samson falling under Delilah’s hypnotic spell.

Except, according to him, it wasn’t true. In an attempt to address the rumors, Ricci released a lengthy statement on Twitter, staunchly denying drug abuse accusations, which he backed up with a copy of a recent drug test—negative for fourteen different kinds of drugs. As Rivero explained the process to me, he pointed to his hair, which he had now grown into a man bun, a hairstyle grown out precisely because of said drug test.

“Sabi ko sa mom ko: ‘Mom, I’m confident naman that I’m going to be negative so let’s test my hair, sabi ko, para it’s clear. I won’t cut my hair kasi it covers 90 days.’ Mom was beside us when we got our hair removed. So sure kami na maayos. After that, when we got the results, sabi nila negative lahat, for all kinds of drugs. That’s why I posted that.”

To this day, however, some detractors maintain that drugs are the reason that Ricci, Prince, and Brent have been excommunicated from the Green Archers.

“From Greenhills kasi, parang the alumni are talking about it na positive kami sa drugs. So I was like: ‘If that’s the case, wala pa ngang final and they judge us na,’ sabi ko: ‘Can I just clear my name first?’ That’s why I made that letter.”

And just like that, Ricci was back to square one. Whatever goodwill he had built, playing the most hallowed of sports, battling for a sea of fans in green, that was as good as gone now. The hard-earned faith and support had been replaced once again by doubt and disbelief—except it’s not Ricci’s game they’re criticizing, it’s his character.

So how did we get to today?

Here is what we know for sure. Ricci is a star talent, equipped with the athleticism and the skillset needed to help bring any college team to where it wants to go. Despite that, La Salle has decided to move on without him. It’s hard to believe that a basketball program as powerful and influential as La Salle’s would let Ricci walk over an endorsement deal. A compromise, whether on La Salle’s side or more likely Ricci’s side could have been made somewhere, had their relationship not soured over the course of this debacle. The exact reasons for which remain murky, which is fine—that should rightfully stay between Ricci and his former alma mater.

Before he decided to formally leave, I asked Ricci if he would ever consider just walking away to play for another team. He says no, predictably. How could he, when La Salle has been all he’s known since high school. “There is no Ricci without La Salle” remember? I bring up Coach Aldin Ayo, a coach Rivero loves, who is now looking to bring his championship mettle to the boys in España—an obvious destination for Ricci then, made even more obvious now. But Ricci clarifies at the time of the interview that he and Coach Ayo have had zero communication since the coach transferred to UST.

“I was super down when he left. Kasi right after the championship and we lost, siyempre everyone was crying. I talked to Coach Aldin, sabi ko ‘Coach, please stay. Let’s get the championship next year. Sabi niya, kukunin natin yun together. As a team. ‘Yun yung nakahug kami after the game. Tapos after that, noong narinig ko yung story na magtratransfer siya, As in wala na. Wala nang replies.”

You can expect that silence to have ended by now, although Rivero clarified with me after his announcement to leave that he would be taking this year to focus on training with Gilas. Only time will tell whether Ricci decides to play for the Growling Tigers or any of the other college teams, in this country or in the States. On his current predicament, Rivero had this one last thing to say:

“I super didn’t expect this to happen. Parang walang makakaisip nito eh. But baka it’s God’s will. Baka I’m not really for La Salle. Baka makakasama pala ako for the team. Baka something like that. I’m just trying to look at things from the positive side. Im just praying for everything. No matter what happens, basta guide me lang Lord with whatever, whenever, wherever. I didn’t expect this to happen, but I’m certain may meaning naman lahat. It’s His plan.”

After all was said and done, it seems evident that even without La Salle, Ricci is still Ricci. Hungry, immensely talented, and unshakably faithful in himself and in the knowledge that things will work out for the better—not unlike Samson, when they cut his hair, deserted him and chained him to a pillar. The people that cheered Ricci on may have stopped believing, but that’s just fine. They weren’t there in the beginning anyway.

Rivero believes in himself. And to him, that’s all that matters.