Kiefer Ravena is beaming.
Shortly before logging on Zoom at 9 p.m. local Manila time for this interview, the Filipino basketball player, along with the rest of his country, witnessed the Philippine national team dramatically upset Korea to clinch a spot in the FIBA Asia Cup. The Gilas Pilipinas team hadn’t beat Korea since 2013, but broke the losing streak with a buzzer-beating game winner
“There are only two things that will stop the whole country from doing anything: it’s either a Manny Pacquiao fight or the Gilas game that just finished,” Ravena says proudly. “Everybody was tuned in and you can see on social media how everyone was reacting to beating Korea by a winning shot. There’s no pro players on the team, and it was amazing to see these young guys pull it off.”
Ravena, who last played for Gilas in 2019, knows the pressure of representing an entire country in that country’s most popular sport. And now, he’s representing the Philippines on a new team with an even wider global audience, as the brand’s first Filipino athlete: Team Jordan.
“It’s not only exciting for Kiefer and the brand, but also for the country,” says Lorenz “Banjo” Albano, the East Asia Super League Head of Philippines and president of international basketball program Rise Hoops. Albano has had a front row seat to Ravena’s basketball career, from watching him do on-court drills at Kobe Bryant’s Filipino basketball camp as a child to witnessing Ravena’s run in the NBA G League. “It gives the next generation of Filipino athletes hope and something to aspire for.”
While it’s a long shot that Ravena will make it to the NBA, Albano says there’s still a lot of value that the player can bring to Jordan Brand overseas. Not only is he a multiple-time MVP and champion in Southeast Asia, he’s also a person that’s known to take care of the community through food drives and other fundraisers in the wake of national disasters like the typhoons that have ravaged the islands.
“On the court, he’s winning and producing, and he’s got the trophies to prove it,” Albano says. “Off the court, I think he’s able to represent the brand well and he’s done a good job of trying to open doors for other people and help out wherever he can.”
Being the first person to do anything is never easy, especially being the first athlete to rep a sneaker brand and icon that’s revered by the locals like the Pope. For example, jeepneys, a common mode of public bus transportation in the country, are hand-painted by drivers with Jumpman symbols and Chicago Bulls logos. It’s not uncommon to find a basketball court or makeshift hoop in any Philippine province you step in.
Even though Ravena is burdened with the responsibility of being the first Filipino-born professional to represent the Jordan Brand (Aleali May has worked with Jordan on lifestyle projects), he’s hoping that he won’t be the last.
“There are a lot of Asian athletes waiting for an opportunity like what I have right now,” Ravena says. “It’s going to be awesome to see this family get bigger in terms of expanding the culture of sneakers and the game of basketball.”
Here, Ravena talks about how the deal came together and how he became the sneaker plug for his entire family. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You grew up across the world in a time that just overlapped with Michael Jordan’s heyday. How did you come to learn about him?
I’m a ‘90s kid, so I was able to grow up and watch him finish those last three championships and be amazed about how this guy dominates the game. Of course, during the pandemic, The Last Dance came out and it gave me a deeper understanding of who he is as a person. It was a flashback for me watching as a kid and understanding how he helped basketball become global and reach a lot of borders, including here in the Philippines in the early ‘00s.
So, how did this deal come together? Do you remember where you were when you found out?
It all started with a conversation on the golf course. Someone broke the news to me that there was a plan for me to be a part of Jordan Brand. I was like, “Really?” Being a Filipino, I always had a dream to be a part of something as prestigious as the Jordan family.
How does it feel now that it’s official?
I never really thought of that until recently. Even now, people see me and ask how it feels and if I get all the Jordans I want or if I have the newest kicks. People around me are really into it, but I’m just proud to be the first Filipino, the first Southeast Asian, to be part of the brand and to be another one in the Asian community with Rui [Hachimura] and Guo [Ailun]. The brand and the sport is growing and evolving from a global standpoint and it’s great for everybody.
Were there a lot of family members and friends hitting you up for sneakers after they heard you signed with Jordan Brand?
You know how it is. You know the Filipino culture. They think that I work for Jordan and can just get any pair that I want. It’s funny, but it works out for my family because my dad, my brother, and myself all have the same shoe size. So when I get a pair, everyone can just borrow and wear them. My mom and my sister wear the same size as well, so it’s not that hard for us to get a pair and everyone can make use of it.
I remember the last time I visited the Philippines and seeing kids on the basketball court playing barefoot on the concrete or with slippers. Why do you think Filipinos have this deep connection with the game where they’ll even play without shoes?
Filipinos, as you know, are born and raised with the mentality of heart. “Puso,” that’s what we always say, right? We live by that whether we’re playing in tsinelas, barefoot on the streets, or in a nice pair of Js. You’d expect us to play just as hard on a wooden floor as we do on a concrete floor. I’m just proud to be Filipino and hope to inspire a lot more kids in the future.
What’s sneaker culture like in the Philippines? Is it the same as it is in the States?
It’s similar. Every time I go to the Manila stores, you see people camping out. Sneaker culture here is live. People are into their stuff. People know their stuff. You’ll be surprised by some of the collectors here. They’ve got their plug out in the US to get sneakers sent over here.
Speaking of plugs, I saw you got a pair of the Manila Jordan 4s and Trophy Room Jordan 1s sent to you, but if you could design your own pair of Jordans, which model would you pick and how would it look?
I would do a pair of Air Jordan 35 Lows. I’ve been wearing them the most right now. In terms of the design, I’d try to represent the country by putting a flag and a lot of light colors to represent the hospitality and the attitude of the people. Maybe a beach vibe, since we’re surrounded by islands. More than representing me, I want it to represent the flag and I want people to know that this shoe was made for a Filipino and for the Philippines. It would be awesome if I had one.
You’re the first to represent an entire country for Jordan Brand. Is that a lot of pressure?
It carries a lot of responsibility on and off the court. I’m in a family of superstars with Luka, Zion, Tatum, and all of those up-and-coming guys. My fellow Asian players in Guo and Rui. That responsibility is big and a lot of people look up to you, whether you’re playing or just strolling down the mall, so I try to carry myself the best way possible. I just try to be professional in every single way and hopefully I make the brand proud because everything I do is a reflection of the entire brand itself.
Have you gotten a chance to meet Michael or any of the other members of Team Jordan yet?
Not yet. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s really difficult to plan out with everything that’s happening right now, especially out here. I’ve looked up to CP3 ever since I was a kid and the reason I wear No. 15 is because of Carmelo Anthony, so it would be great to pick their brain one day, once everything settles down.
What would be the first thing you’d ask MJ?
I can’t even think about it right now. I’ll probably have my camera ready and make sure my phone is fully charged, just to make sure I get that photo.
You’re one of less than a handful of Asian players to sign with a brand in the last few years. Why do you think Asian players are getting these deals now?
It’s all part of evolution in basketball. You’re seeing Asian teams go play in the US or Europe to have training camps or tune-up games. It’s just good to see the game growing and moving into the future. That’s one thing the brand is doing right now. That’s what we want to do as Asians as well. To represent The Philippines, Japan, and China, so hopefully we grow even more.
Words: Gerald Flores