Next Man Up: The NLEX Road Warriors adjust to life without Kiefer Ravena

Kiefer Ravena spent his first game away from the Road Warriors right behind their bench. He arrived quietly during the third quarter of their match against Blackwater Elite, parked himself among team staff, and chatted with them about the game. In his unassuming all-black outfit and cap pulled low, you might have missed him—except nobody ever misses Kiefer Ravena.

Ravena has been in the public eye first as the son of two high-profile athletes, then as a superstar in the amateur leagues, then as a prized draft pick and ROY candidate who represented the Philippines in international competitions. When it was announced last Monday that Ravena was suspended for 18 months after testing positive for WADA-prohibited substances while playing for Gilas Pilipinas, it was a blow not just to the Road Warriors, his fans, and to Gilas, but to the Philippines’ basketball community.

But the immediate blow falls to the Road Warriors, who reached the semifinals for the first time in the Philippines Cup, only to lose Kevin Alas mid-series to an ACL injury. Now without both combo guards who gave them speed, scoring and leadership; a Commissioner’s Cup win-loss record that gave them little room for error, and Coach Yeng Guiao threatening to trade players after their last loss, the pressure was on.

After the news broke, the Road Warriors had banded together to show support for Ravena. Without being asked to by management, players and coaches had shared the “We Stand With Kiefer” poster on their personal accounts. Point guard Juami Tiongson, who has known Kiefer since they were kids, made an inside reference: “Going to bed wearing a Steph Curry jersey. Hope this brings you luck!”

Alex Mallari admitted he didn’t expect the suspension to be so long: “When I heard about it, I was making jokes. I thought maybe it’d be a couple of games, maybe a conference, but 18 months? God damn.”

All things considered, the mood in the dugout before the game was surprisingly calm.

“It’s never going to be easy, but we just need to put in more effort. I still think that with the materials we have, we can still make a good showing this conference,” Guiao told the team. “It’s during these times that we find out our character. We can dedicate our hard work to those who made sacrifices for us. Let’s give our best for Kevin and Kiefer.”

Asi Taulava, who wouldn’t end the game without playing a single minute, led the young starters in their pre-game huddle. The Road Warriors took a 9-0 lead to start the game, but the Elite had made it a tight one by halftime, cutting the Road Warriors’ lead to 42-40. In the dugout, Guiao was optimistic: “We have a chance to win a game today. Don’t lose that energy and desire. We just need to keep working.”

Outside, Ravena was cheering them on. “Naramdaman ko talaga ‘yung support ng teammates ko,” he said. “Lahat rin sila nag-message privately. Alam kong andiyan sila para sa akin.”

The Elite had taken an eight-point going into the fourth quarter, and were enjoying good shooting by the likes of Mike DiGregorio. But in the end, the Road Warriors had a 16-3 run capped by a breakaway and-one by Mallari to seal the deal. It was by no means a firing-on-all-cylinders win that we saw the Road Warriors pull off so many times last season, even against teams like Ginebra, Alaska, and Magnolia. But with 35 assists and quality contributions from the bench? It’s a start.

In the dugout, Ravena visited his teammates and passed around high-fives. They laughed, hugged it out, even found a way to make a dark joke about the whole situation: “Stay positive,” the guys told each other, and Kiefer made his exit.

Moultrie took home the Player of the Game plum, but Guiao picked several other players whom he wanted to praise on the team’s social media—a practice the coach has been doing since the team launched their official team accounts in February, as a way to continue his no-superstar approach.

“We got quality minutes from Jansen [Rios], Iggy [Kenneth Ighalo], Juami [Tiongson] also,” Guiao said, and the locker room erupted into applause. Rios, who’s part of the rowdy squad that plays mobile games with Ravena, would later say: “Siguro iniisip ko lang magtrabaho kasi nga wala si Kiefer. Sabi ni Coach Yeng ito ‘yung chance namin [sa bench] ngayong pinasok kami.”

“The thing about Coach [Yeng] is you can’t be afraid to take your shot. Not taking it is worse than missing,” added Mallari. “Next man up—that should be the attitude.”

Next man up, indeed. “I don’t expect the entire team to play well on the same night. But if we have enough people who play well at the same time, we’re good. Let’s focus our efforts on the Sunday game. If we win that, we’re back in the competition. If we win that, our troubles will feel far away.”

Seated next to Guiao, Emman Monfort began to clap, and the rest followed. As the Road Warriors crowded in the center of the room and raised their hands in unison, you wouldn’t have been able to see Kiefer even if he had stayed.