When you first see Gabe Santos, a third year Development Studies student from Ateneo, you wouldn’t notice anything particularly striking about him. He stands at about 5’7”, with a relatively stocky build that is far from an elite athlete’s profile. Whether it be in the basketball court or just outside the streets, Gabe would be mistaken as just another guy.
If you were to come out with a first impression out of Gabe, it would probably be this subtle angas that he brought, kind of like his idol Kobe Bryant.
The first time Gabe encountered Kobe against Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic, he had that first impression most people had about him. “At first, sobrang nayabangan pa ako kay Kobe,” shared Gabe. In that same game Gabe watched, Kobe ate the Magic alive in the clutch. He was still cocky, sure. But Gabe couldn’t deny that he had fallen for Kobe in that very moment.
Kobe was talented, no doubt about it. But that wasn’t the thing that stuck with, because Gabe believes there are other players much more talented than Kobe. But there was something special with Kobe, and it was what caused Gabe to fall for his new hero. “What differentiates him from others? Work ethic,” shared Gabe.
When talking about Kobe Bryant, we’ll always talk about how clutch he was, and how cerebral he was as a player. But even more impressive was how he worked. He was a tremendous worker, bordering on maniacal. “The people were exposed to how hard he worked, even though he didn’t become the best,” shared Gabe.
Kobe was probably the best player for a couple of years during the late 2000s. But he isn’t like LeBron James or Michael Jordan who were able to really cement their place in the game. Jordan? Greatest of all time, literally changed the culture of basketball. LeBron? Best all-around player, someone who showed how to use one’s freakish physical tools and Basketball IQ to stretch the limits of a position. In terms of purely Xs and Os, Kobe didn’t present anything that was incredibly memorable. Even Gabe himself, probably the craziest Kobe fan I know acknowledges this.
But Gabe still treats Kobe as God, much like other fans do. “Kobe was like Hercules. He was a God, but at the same time, he was also a human,” said Gabe regarding Kobe’s greatness. Being human is something treated as kind of an insult in the sports world. Players want to be branded as something super, an extraordinary talent who could not be stopped by mere mortals. Kobe was somewhere in the middle between mortal and God.
“He made people believe that you can achieve great things if you work hard,” shared Gabe. Sports in itself, is something seen as great, bordering on unattainable for most people. The belief for many is, you have to be born with the particular kind of talent and physical tools in order to succeed. But Kobe bridged the gap between human and God. “He made us feel we can do this too. You just have to work hard to be the best version of yourself.”
Even before as a kid, Gabe already knew he wasn’t as talented as his peers. “I can confidently say that I’m not the most talented out there,” shared Gabe. In our batch as early as Grade School, you could immediately spot who the special talents were. The Nietos were obviously viewed as the premier talents for sports. Then, there were the ones who were excellent students, capable of balancing their academics and co-curricular work.
As a college student, Gabe wanted to do just that: get to balance his school work while getting to be good with his extra-curricular activities. He may have been lacking in supreme talent, but he was willing to shoot his shot and make a run at the Executive Board of his organization in school.
There was a problem though: the month of March was hell month for most Ateneo college students, Gabe included. He had to balance not only the classes he was taking for the semester, but also the requirements needed to run for the Executive Board of his org. It was a tedious process, considering how he had to balance out studying, running required papers for elections, and even having to prepare a presentation for his Miting de Avance.
Admittedly, Gabe mentioned he had moments where he just broke down and felt burnt out. “I was so burnt out I couldn’t even cry. You can’t even express yourself, because you’re so tired,” shared Gabe. Surely, Kobe also had those moments. As ruthless as Kobe may be on the court, he’s also human. There must have been moments of doubt. Moments of just blanking out because of all the hardships and difficulties. But it’s not the hardships which shape you as a person. It’s how you respond to this which matters.
That’s what Kobe did. Gabe just followed the footsteps of his hero.
“I don’t have the time to be tired, because I have so much stuff to do,” passionately shared Gabe. “It was more about conditioning my mind, telling myself, ‘Hey, you can do this, it’s going to be so hard, but if you really believe in yourself, it’s going to be worth it.’” He didn’t necessarily have the talent to make things easier for him. All he had was himself, and a goal in mind that drove him each and every day. He didn’t just say it, but he did it. In the words of LaVar Ball, he spoke it into existence.
At the end of the day, everything went according plan for Gabe. He was able to survive his academics, but most importantly, he got the position in the Executive Board of his org that he wanted so bad. All thanks to the hard work he put in over the course of the process.
Congratulations to the CADs Executive Board for SY 2018-2019!
Poster by Poj Gaerlan pic.twitter.com/JwDXyKTDje
— CADs (@AteneoCADs) March 25, 2018
He channeled his inner Mamba Mentality by stretching the limits of who he could be as a person. Kobe is an inspiration to people like, not necessarily because of his talent or how he jumped higher than everyone else. He pushes mortals like Gabe to get out of their comfort zones to push the boundaries of their very being. With struggle, comes great things.
Before the series of game winners, clutch shots, and the Kobe snarls whenever crunch time was about to come, Kobe was branded a choker. Kobe faltered in his very first Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz. He had a total of four air balls, much to the joy of the doubters and haters.
Kiefer Ravena, branded ‘Blue Mamba’ as early as High School, was also a choker early in his career. Before the series of game winners, clutch shots, and the different types of celebrations (the Kiefer snarl, Kiefer big balls dance, Kiefer popping the jersey out), Kiefer Ravena fumbled in the clutch.
It was 2002, with the Ateneo Grade School going up against La Salle Greenhills in the SBP Finals. Kiefer was playing, but not with the side you expected him to be with. Nine year old Kiefer was a La Sallian, going up against Von Pessumal and the rest of the Ateneans.
La Salle was facing a two point deficit with only a couple of seconds remaining, and they were set to inbound the ball from the baseline. The play designed was for someone to get open in the paint for a quick deuce. It was a safe basket, one that would have tied the game for LSGH. The Greenies ran the play, and the ball found itself in the hands of the young Kiefer. There was one problem, however.
“I missed a wide open alley-oop layup from a baseline inbound,” recounted Kiefer. “ I was in front, and I just missed! Lumabas lang talaga.” It was probably the easiest basket Kiefer’s had to make in that entire game. Think about it: He was wide open, in the paint, and all he had to do was to shoot the ball towards the board, so it could comfortably meet the net. But instead, by every definition of the word, he choked.
Ateneo went on to win the SBP championship, while Kiefer and LSGH were left crushed at the defeat they had faced. “For me as a young kid, that was tough to swallow, tough to experience,” lamented Kiefer.
Most kids would have quickly forgotten that loss. But not Kiefer. He was following some big footsteps.
“Starting from his draft day talaga, I was a Kobe fan,” shared Kiefer. When Kobe was drafted, he was a brash kid who believed he was the best. Others considered it cocky. But Kiefer found a hero in Kobe, someone he could emulate as he grew up. “Then on, parang sabi ko, ‘Okay, if I have this mentality (like Kobe’s), it’s only a matter of time about what I’m saying will happen. I’m the best, I’ll be the greatest player I can be. I’ll just work hard, just keep doing what I’m doing.’”
So Kiefer responded like how Kobe would respond: by being defiant and working hard.
“After that, I didn’t go home. I stayed in the village court, practiced that same shot until my parents forced me to go inside the house,” shared Kiefer. At first look, it’s weird for Kiefer to practice such a simple shot. But Kiefer didn’t treat as something basic. It was of importance to him, an experience he wanted to learn from.
“Although you practiced it before, if you do it in a game situation and you missed, with all the factors surrounding you while doing it, gives you a sense of relief. ‘Ah I did this before, I missed, this time I’m going to make it.’” shared Kiefer. Looking back at everything that had happened, Kiefer could only be thankful for all of the lessons.
“Looking back, it was one of my greatest ‘Buti na lang’ stories in my career,” shared Kiefer. “If I would have made that, we would have ended up champions, perhaps. I wouldn’t have even transferred to Ateneo, in hindsight. Yun yung mga bagay na napapasalamatan na lang natin. It developed me, made me stronger as a player.”
Kiefer remained hungry even after experiencing success in high school and becoming “The Phenom” in college. He continued to work even harder as his career progressed. But an even bigger part of that was the mentality — the #MambaMentality if you may — that he brought upon himself day in and day out. He brought this mentality with him in College, and it was for better or for worse.
Kiefer took the Blue Mamba nickname to heart, taking and mostly making the biggest shots for his team. He had that game winner versus UST. There was his outrageous duel against Roi Sumang. Remember how he showcased his big balls versus UE again.
It was legendary, bordering on unbelievable. But reality struck for Kiefer, and his #MambaMentality took an ugly turn.
Ateneo, the first seed in Season 77, found itself down two points with 9.3 seconds left in the game against NU, the fourth seed. All season, Ateneo had struggled against the size of the Bulldogs. It wasn’t over, they still had one last shot to salvage the game.
Kiefer received the ball from Chris Newsome after the initial inbounds. He drove to his weak side with zero hesitation, of course he was going to take this shot to save Ateneo. Problem was, he was up against an Alfred Aroga who not only had the foot speed to keep up with Kiefer, but also the length. The result was a blocked shot. NU was headed to the Finals. Kiefer and Ateneo, were headed to Boracay.
When looking back at that memory, fans will always say, “Dapat kinickout ni Kiefer kay Newsome!” Kiefer, being a student of the game who makes it a point to watch tape, agrees with that sentiment. “He (Newsome) was Aroga’s man, and Aroga was the one who helped,” remembered Kiefer. But there was a second thing that came into his mind as he reviewed the tape. “The second thing was, it was for the win, it was all the marbles. I would have taken a three.”
We can see that for Kiefer, #MambaMentality wasn’t necessarily about making the biggest shots. It’s about missing them, but learning from them these mistakes so he can become an even better player and even person. It’s embracing his role as a student of the game, continuously learning new things as little as they may be. From mastering a simple lay-up that he missed in a varsity Finals game, to looking back at better decision making in a Final Four match-up, the lessons continue for Kiefer Ravena.
With every airball comes five rings. With every missed alley-oop shot comes a Phenom who’s made his mark in Philippine Basketball. Kiefer and Kobe, both chokers at one point, vilified but hungry to learn and bounce back after every mistake.
Gabe and Kiefer represent thousands of young people who looked up to Kobe. Not all of them end up becoming basketball players. A significant amount may not even play the game at all. But all of them idolize Kobe. Not because he’s the GOAT (Although, his fans will argue until death that he is). Not because he’s the most talented, or athletic or won the most trophies.
An entire generation, give or take, love Kobe because with hard work, he bridged the gap between possible and impossible. He learned from his mistakes and continued to get better. Because underneath the hashtag is a mindset that if you worked relentlessly, slowly but surely you’ll achieve your goals.
Kobe may not have significantly changed the landscape of basketball. But he changed the lives of Gabe, Kiefer and countless other people.
Photos from the author, Kiefer Ravena and Getty Images
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