Exclusive! Thirdy Ravena on the family 'dugout' and the future of Filipino basketball

Filipino basketball star Thirdy Ravena talks in-depth about "the chip on my shoulder" growing up, Japan, Kai "my guy" Sotto, and why they call the Ravena family home 'the dugout'
By Ken Browne

Thirdy Ravena is ready to show the world what he can do.

This 6'2" shooting guard is a household basketball name in the Philippines after his heroics for the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the 'Gilas Filipinas' national team.

A bit Rodman on the boards and a bit Pippen on the floor, Ravena is a hard-working, full-court player who can make huge defensive plays and hit that clutch shot in a big game.

Coming up in the shadow of his pro-ball playing father and MVP brother Kiefer wasn't easy, but now he's blazing his own trail and ready to fly the flag in the Japanese B-League with San-en NeoPhoenix.

"You kind of have this torch that you want to make sure that is beautiful and well lit well in Japan. I have to make sure that I represent not just myself well, but the whole Philippines as well." - Thirdy Ravena

In this one-on-one with Olympic Channel he opens up on how family, yoga, Dota, Japanese takeaway and the new home gym have helped him handle the coronavirus in Manila.

He also speaks on his excitement to see Kai Sotto play in the G League, "Kai's my guy," says Thirdy, "he's a funny person, I think he keeps forgetting that he's seven feet tall!"

And he lets us in to the family home everyone calls 'The Dugout' because it's always full of top national basketball and volleyball players like Alyssa Valdez and Dennise Lazaro, and we get to meet A$AP Rocky, one of the family's 16 dogs!

Lockdown in Manila

Thirdy Ravena should be training with the San-En NeoPhoenix basketball team in central Japan right now, getting to know his teammates and game-ready for an exciting new season.

But in a world put on pause he's stuck in Manila, waiting for that opportunity to show what he can do on foreign shores for the first time.

So how did Thirdy get through 'community quarantine' the first time, and what's he doing now that the Philippines is going into a second COVID-19 lockdown?

"For the lockdown, I guess it's getting used to working out at home," Ravena told Olympic Channel.

"Me, my brother and my family bought some equipment that we could use. So we had like a squat rack for a bench press and everything."

"So everything's sane, everyone is sane at home, we got to work out because we're all used to having our own respective practices and trainings just because, you know, my brother's a a professional basketball player, and my sister's a volleyball player for the university as well."

"So that's that's our way of trying to stay sane during the lockdown. And as well as spending time with family, of course, just because we're used to always being out. We all have different schedules, like everyone leaves in the morning and comes back at night. So we don't really get to spend time with each other. So that also helped us a lot, our family bonding."

Gaming has helped too.

"We play Dota (A strategy video game), we have two computers at home, so we play online with our cousins in the United States, so that's how we get along. We bond. We get to talk while we're playing, so you just ask each other about everything that's going on."

So who's the most competitive in this house of sporting high achievers?

"That is a tough question," says Thirdy.

"Everyone in the household is very competitive, everyone's an athlete. My dad was a pro basketball player. My mom was a national team volleyball player. So everyone is very competitive with every little thing that you could imagine." - Thirdy Ravena to Olympic Channel

"But just for the sake of it, I think I'd be the most competitive guy in the house!"

Yoga is helping too, "it's my first time trying out yoga that wasn't instructed by a team or anyone else and I loved it."

Physically, yoga is helping with flexibility, but mentally too he's ready to bring a new mindset to his game.

"When you clear everything in your mind, that's when everything starts to fall into place because you're not thinking about anything else. So I think that's what yoga does."

Thirdy Ravena: Ready to rock Japan

Growing up in the shadow of dad and Fiefer, now Thirdy is doing something that neither have done: Play internationally.

So what's he excited about?

"A lot. Japan, just because it's an amazing place. The B-League became a household name in just a matter of few years , and Neo-Phoenix. It wasn't such a great season last season, but that's the beauty of it, just because no one's going to expect anything yet, it's nothing but positive energy when you're in an environment like that just because everyone wants to win again. Everyone just wants to be better.

"I'm just excited to be around everyone, especially the Japanese guys and the Serbian coaches. And we have a couple of players from Serbia and America as well. So definitely looking forward to just meeting everyone, and at the amazing San-En NeoPhoenix organisation as well."

While the world around us changes every day, Ravena is keeping his eyes fixed on his next challenge. What would be his dream outcome this season with NeoPhoenix?

"Definitely winning a championship and helping the organisation achieve what every single team wants to achieve for the season. And that's definitely gonna be the perfect scenario for me, especially if we all play well as a team."

Naturally, he's looking forward to the food too.

Not just when he arrives in the country, but also during the Olympic Channel interview.

"My top three favourite cuisines of all time, Japanese is up there. I love eating sushi. I just ordered sushi bake, it's supposed to arrive at my house soon, it's kind of like a make your own sushi roll... You can see I love Japanese food very much! I'm actually excited to try the steak from Kobe too."

"It's been a minute since I last had authentic Japanese food."

While Ravena is stuck in Manila for now, technology is helping bridge the distance to Toyohashi city where his new team is based.

"All us players use an app where they put all the practice videos and drills on, so you get to see them. So everything is there ready for you to watch. The coaches have done a great job at creating that app and making it easy for the players to review the practises, even if, for example, like me, even if I'm not in Japan, I could see what they're doing.

"I'm updated with everything, from the drills to the plays I get to see them. So it makes it easier, I guess, for me to adjust and get used to the environment so I see what type of game that they're expecting or what type of system they're running. Even before I get there."

And how does he feel about being an ambassador for the Philippines in Japan?

"It's definitely a blessing," he says, "but at the same time, a responsibility because they see you as the guy from the Philippines. So you kind of have this this torch that you want to make sure that is, you know, beautiful and well lit well in Japan.

"So I have to make sure that I represent not just myself well, but the whole Philippines as well."

First love: baseball

As the younger brother, Thirdy had to carry a lot of weight of expectation around with him. A pro dad, a bigger brother Kiefer who was tearing it up as league MVP at Ateneo while Thirdy struggled.

"Ever since we were kids, dad would bring us to practice so, you know, we got to basically grow up in an environment full of pro basketball players. And I would, being the competitive kid that I am, I would challenge his team-mates to one-on-ones and try to see if I could beat them!"

But basketball wasn't his first love.

"It's crazy because baseball was my first sport. I picked baseball. And then due to health conditions, I couldn't stay under the sun for too long. So I had to switch to an indoor sport. And I chose basketball. So I went to try out for basketball and they cut me from the team because they said that my footwork was so terrible!"

"So I was like, okay. I had to choose a sport that would help me with my footwork. So I played badminton for a year and then I got my footwork right. And then I eventually tried out for basketball again the following year. And then they got me in the team. And, you know, the rest is history."

"Why aren't you as good as your brother?"

So did he feel pressure to live up to dad and his big bro?

"Oh, definitely. Growing up, ever since I started playing basketball, I would hear, you know, why, 'why aren't you as good as your brother or why aren't you as athletic as your dad?' So even if I personally didn't think about it, like as a kid that, you know, there was pressure and trying to live up to a name.

"All of the external factors kind of just got in my head and eventually I grew up with a chip on my shoulder. Always wanted to prove people that I could be as good as them, right? Or even better."

Thirdy and Kiefer even played together at the Ateneo Blue Eagles, Kiefer was killing it as a senior, won MVP that season, and Thirdy was the freshman finding his feet.

"My first year was terrible! That came off an MVP run in high school and then going to college, I think I averaged like two points per game, two minutes."

"So you can just imagine being in the same car after a game, with my brother, for example, scoring 38 points and me not even getting in the game. That was fun for my parents for sure (Laughs)."

The Thirdy and Kiefer connection

But the family has always been there for Thirdy and Kiefer. Father Bong and mother Mozzy have supported their kids at every step.

And Kiefer always looks out for his younger brother too, Thirdy's first ever bucket in college ball came off an assist from his brother, and now they connect for the national team together.

Sometimes Kiefer even looks for Thirdy when there are other players open! Like that highlight reel alley-oop against Indonesia - a game where Thirdy posted 23 points and 8 rebounds in an Asia Cup 2021 Qualifier.

"He always gives me a chance, especially when he has the ball," says Thirdy of his big brother. "He always makes sure that I get opportunities."

The Ravena family dugout

The Ravena family home is legendary.

"Right now there are only around eight to nine people in the house," Thirdy laughs.

"We have a gym, friends of ours come over to work out or just lounge around the house because everybody knows that our house is always full, people call it 'the dugout' just because, you know, people come work out and lounge around if they're not doing anything.

"Sometimes my friends would be here and I'm not even in the house! It's kind of like a great atmosphere around here, and everyone is very welcome to be in the house.

"I mean, like Alyssa (Valdez) comes here with her team-mates as well so it's a very athletic environment, I guess. And there's definitely times when everyone, you know, my friends, my team-mates, my brothers team-mates, his girl and his girl's friends, and his friends, and my sister's friends, when, you know, it's just chaos in the house!

"So, everyone's happy. I mean, everyone loves the food here, so we're all just having a great time with each other in the house. And we love bonding with our friends as well."

"16 dogs and one cat - It's all love"

The house isn't just full of people either, there's enough love for 16 dogs and a cat too.

"In the house, we have like five dogs, and eleven outside, says Thirdy. "We used to have a pig so I think you could say that we are animal lovers out here!"

"I think we have about eight Yorkies. Then we have a Great Dane. We have a Belgian Malinois. We have a Labrador Retriever. We have two two Corgis, the white one you met, a Jack Russell and a French Bulldog. So that's just the dogs that we have in the house, we also have a cat.

"But he's loved by all of the dogs. They all play with him. It's all friends here. It's all families, it's all love."

Coach Tab and being the best Thirdy possible

But getting back to basketball, going from "the twelfth to the last guy in the league in terms of individual ranking" in his second year in high school to three-time UAAP Finals MVP he puts down to one coach who helped him change everything.

"My second year playing in the UAAP," begins Thirdy, "one of the first things that the head coach (Tab Baldwin) did was talk to me, he opened up to me and he told me 'I know that you're experiencing this sort of feeling of always being compared to your brother or your dad. And I just want you to know that the only pressure that you should feel is the pressure of you being the best version of yourself every single day.'"

"I started focussing on myself and being the best version that I can be. That's when things did a 180 and completely turned around." - Thirdy Ravena

"And we had like a couple of hour conversation with Coach Tab that day. And then from from then on, I sort of just, you know, threw all of that feelings of the desire of wanting to be better than my brother or wanted to be better than my dad.

"You're not trying to prove anything to anyone, but instead just, you know, focussing on myself and being the best version that I can be. That's when things did a 180 and completely turned around. And I just started working on myself and not thinking about all the pressure that's coming externally, that's not coming from coaching staff or myself or my family. So I'm just, you know, I focus on myself.

"And ever since then, things just went uphill from there. So shout out to coach Tab, I wouldn't be here without him!"

"Playing for the country you love"

This Filipino baller also made some history when he became the first player outside the national pro league to be picked to play for the Philippines' national basketball team, whose head coach was also his mentor be Tab Baldwin at the time.

Playing for the Philipinnes is a source of great pride for Thirdy.

"Nothing feels better as a basketball player than playing for the country that you love. Being called up my first time for the men's division was actually a crazy feeling because number one it's like the first time that they've ever called up someone who is not in the professional league in the team."

"I was already in Qatar with the team, I'm with my roommate, our RR (Roger) Pogoy, we were just like lounging in the room, and they eventually sent the message that, you know, the line-up for the next day of who's playing. And when I saw my name, I just kind of broke down just cause I actually tweeted back in 2015, the World Cup in 2015.

"I tweeted what a great honour it would be to play for the Philippines in 2019. But I said, I think I put a hashtag like, just a dream."

"I honestly didn't even feel that I would be here five, four years ago, but here I am now. So it's such a great feeling. And I was I was very emotional that night."

Play in the Olympics? "Goosebumps!

"Playing for the country is such a great feeling, especially when you start singing the national anthem before the game," he says.

"That's when you kind of like overflow with pride and, you know, just just the feeling of being there, being watched by the Filipinos, not just in the country, but around the world as well.

"There's such a tremendous feeling and it's a feeling that definitely is something that's going to keep me going. And one of the things that makes me motivated to play basketball is playing for the country as well, because I get to represent the country when I do that. So, yeah, I get that feeling is indescribable for me."

And with basketball so deeply woven into the fabric of Filipino society, what would it be like to make an Olympics?

"I'm getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it, being in the Olympics has always been my dream... It would mean the world definitely to be part of the Olympics and one of the dreams that I've had would be would be crossed out from my list."

And to make the podium?

"That is definitely going to be a fantasy in real life."

Rui Hachimura makes Thirdy's top 5

"If I had the starting five line-up for an Asia team, I'd put Rui (Hachimura) there just because he's a great product of Japanese basketball. Rui is a ferocious player, you don't want to play against him. He's a winner. And he gets to the basket whatever way he wants. So, you know, very strong for us on the court."

And the rest of his line-up?

"That's definitely tough."

I think Yi Jianlian at No.1, it could have been (Hamed) Haddadi or Yao Ming, but I picked Yi Jianlian. At four, Ricardo Ratliffe, his name is Ra Guna from Korea and Rui. And then I picked (Mohammad) Jamshidi from Iran and Kuya Jimmy Alapag as a point guard."

It was a tough call for Thirdy, "but definitely those guys would make a solid team," he says. "And a fast team too."

Thirdy Ravena and Kai Sotto: "He's my guy"

It's also exciting times too for the Philippines' 2.2m (7'2 tall) phenom Kai Sotto, the 19-year-old who looks bound to become the first Philippine-born player to make it to the NBA.

"Kai is my guy definitely. I mean, we still talk through Instagram and I've seen him develop from a kid who still needed maturity to the young man that he is now, the work ethic that he's gained over the years is just incredible.

"I've seen him just laughing and playing around when he was here, but right now, Kai is all business and I'm definitely very proud to see him shine outside of the Philippines.

"So with Kai, I wish him all the best. I mean, I'm still in contact with him. So I'm always gonna be here. And it's great to see someone or someone else that's, you know, trying to find their way outside of the country."

Sotto used to train with the Ateneo Eaglets at the same gym as Thirdy and the Eagles, so they are close.

"Kai is just a funny person," says Ravena. "Kai is just this happy go lucky kid. Just I think he keeps forgetting that he's seven feet tall!

Kai Sotto - "He's a very humble kid"

"But he still is probably like a baby at heart, so was still a child at heart back then. And it was always just nice to see him, like he's a very humble kid," Thirdy continues, "he was brought up really well and he doesn't even talk about how big he is."

"In the Philippines, he was already a household name, but inside he's basically just a kid. You can see that even when he's practising around us or with the national team, he's still, you know, working hard, he gets along with everyone. Kai is a great, great guy to be with for sure."

Thirdy says that much of Sotto's success can be put down to his strong family base, and the values that he's got from his father Ervin and his mother Pamela.

"Tito Ervin is a great guy," says Thirdy, "I used see him everyday just because he was always watching their practices, he's very helpful, very approachable, very humble guy. So Tito Ervin definitely taught Kai well, as well as his mom and the rest of his coaches. He definitely was in a great environment growing up. And that's probably one of the reasons why he's excelling outside of the country as well."

Kai Sotto in the NBA: "Why not?!"

With Sotto tooling up to play in the G League, how excited is Thirdy to watch Kai play in what is a prep school for the NBA?

"More than excited. I've been waiting. You know. I just can't wait to see him out on the court. I'm not even expecting him to create, you know, waves that are huge right off the bat, but I'm more excited to continue watching his journey from the kid that he was when I saw him in Manila to the man that he is now. So more than the games, I'm more excited to see his journey in life and his career."

How confident is Thirdy of seeing Kai in the NBA one day?

"Why not?!"

"I'm very excited for that. It's. That's the dream. I mean, I'm very, very, very happy for him. And I'm very happy that he gets to represent the country at one of the highest levels of basketball that there is in the world. So, yeah, I'm very excited for Kai and everything that's about to happen."

The Future of Filipino basketball

Having an NBA player on the national team would be a huge boost, no?

"I guess," he laughs, "just kidding. Having Kai around, not just not just for his skills and height, but also as a great team-mate would definitely be a great addition to the team. Well, he has to be in the team for sure. I believe, whatever happens."

With Kai and Thirdy playing abroad, what other Filipino prospects is he excited to see coming up?

"It's hard to say that there's gonna be a next Kai Sotto just because he's 7'2, you know, you don't see a lot of seven foot Filipinos very often, but I guess there's Cholo Ananuevo.

"He's a high school kid from FEU that actually recently went to the States to train with Kai in hopes of, you know, chasing his dream. And that's basically who I am right now as well."

Thirdy is part of a young generation that's ready to take on the world, and the future looks bright for Filipino basketball.