Ricci Rivero immerses himself in UP culture
MANILA, Philippines – The grunts and screams by the players of UP's team B were being countered by the sound of shoes squeaking on the hardwood of the Fighting Maroons' new training facility at University of the Philippines on a sunny weekday in Dilliman.
As the clock closed in at 4 pm, reaching the period where the afternoon starts to fade away, the roster of UP's Season 81 team got ready for practice by putting on their gear on the sidelines while watching Team B, including Kobe Paras, scrimmage with intensity.
Among those watching the future and developing Maroons was Ricci Rivero, a new face on campus, but indistinguishable nonetheless. Like Paras and the other guys who were running up and down the floor, Rivero trains with Team B and participates in the non-UAAP tournaments that they join as he does his residency following his transfer from De La Salle University.
On that day, Rivero was a spectator due to a nagging ankle injury he had tried to play through prior but was too stubborn to not rest out. Fortunately, that allowed him to be more easily observed.
Even from a peripheral vantage point, it was easy to notice how much lighter and joyous the third-born of the Rivero Brothers looked – a far cry from the reserved and stoic personality which had taken him over while in the middle of drug-use accusations early in 2018.
"Right now I’m catching up by how it's done at UP compared to other schools I've been to," he told Rappler in an exclusive sit-down.
"Different types of people 'yung nasa UP. It's not just 'yung mga anak ng presidents. Kasi, knowing sa La Salle, 'yung mga ganoon."
He explained further, "Sobrang iba, pero in a way parang nagiging better version ako nang sarili ko. I get to know how to talk to different types of people."
(There are different of types of people in UP. It's not just the children of presidents. Knowing La Salle, there were many of those there. It's completely different here. But in a way, I feel like I'm becoming a better version of myself. I get to know how to talk to different types of people.)
For the longest time, Ricci Rivero was expected to be the future of La Salle basketball.
He was an athletic prodigy while being the face of La Salle Green Hills in high school. In his rookie season as a college player, he promised eventual stardom. By his sophomore campaign, in which he was the UAAP's Most Improved Player of the Year, he was so good that it looked like a foregone conclusion he would join the ranks of Ren-Ren Rituatlo, Mike Cortez, Mac Cardona, Joseph Yeo, JV Casio, and Jeron Teng in modern La Salle sports lore.
Fate, particularly away from basketball, provided a roadblock.
Rivero has since denied drug-use allegations, going as far as to post a negative drug test result on social media. But the noise wasn't limited to that. Whispers out of La Salle claim that Rivero was so caught up with endorsement opportunities resulting from his athletic prowess that it disrupted his commitment to the Green Archers and his academics.
The writing was on the wall before it became official. Along with his brother Prince and close teammate Brent Paraiso, Rivero was eventually let go from the team. What followed after was tons of speculation on where the once-in-a-generation type of talent would end up, which eventually turned out to be UP.
It was both surprising and unsurprising.
Surprising because the sheer thought that college basketball's finest would leave La Salle for a program like UP which hasn't made the UAAP Final Four in 21 years sounds absurd in theory.
But it's also unsurprising because keeping track of how much the Fighting Maroons have progressed over the past few years, and anticipating how much further more they can get, made it the logical choice for an alpha like Rivero.
"Sobrang okay pa naman ako. Wala pang problem. I have to fit in pa system and get to know my teammates well," he explained.
"Kailangan ko mag blend in dito sa Team B and sa Team A at the same time kasi para mas madalian ako in time."
(I'm okay here. There's no problem at all. I have to fit in the system and get to know my teammates well. I need to blend well with both the Team A and B at the same time so it will be easy for me.)
Sharing the spotlight
From his refined game to his unrelenting confidence, Rivero has all the makings of being "The Man," or however you'd like to put it it. UP, however, also has two guys in the upcoming years who are more than capable of filling that role: Paras and Juan Gomez De Liaño, whose play early in UAAP Season 81 have heads turning.
Rivero will have to share the spotlight, but anyone who knows him is aware that he won't be hesitant to do so. The trio created a bond during their time training with the Gilas cadets, and Ricci's relationship with Kobe goes all the way back to their early days at Green Hills.
"Iisipin mo talaga, 'Ano nanaman gagawin nito the following day? Or the day after tomorrow?'" Rivero said about Paras.
"Si Kobe 'yung type of person na iba-iba 'yung vibe niya. Minsan, sobrang vocal niya talaga. Minsan, sobrang laugh trip siya. Minsan naman, parang tahimik lang. Focus lang siya."
"Naalala ko lang 'yung back in the day - si Kobe talaga ‘to, magkasama na talaga kami ulit."
(You will think, 'What will this man do the following day? Or the day after tomorrow?' Kobe is the type of person who has different vibes. Sometimes, he's super vocal. Sometimes, he's a jokester. Sometimes, he's quiet. But he's always focused. I remember back in the day, this is Kobe and we're going to be together again.)
Like Rivero, Paras is doing residency for transferring from another college – in his case, from the United States. Like Rivero, Paras has something to prove when he officially puts on the same uniform that was once worn by his father, Benjie, who propelled the Maroons to their last UAAP championship.
The arrival of both guys makes UP a contender, especially given how well the Maroons are already playing this year with the insertion of Bright Akhuetie, the improved game of Gomez De Liaño, and the veteran guts of Paul Desiderio.
The possibilities of tomorrow seem endless.
But here's another prominent aspect in basketball: you're only as good as your last game.
It's a difficult belief to hold on to, especially when at certain times the grind can feel too taxing. Although in this game, it's often the case. Make no mistake about it, even the players are aware of the sometimes unjust expectations.
But, as the old saying goes, it is what it is.
And Rivero isn't shying away from the challenge.
"Every time I play, I don't think of anything not about the game," he said.
"I don't think of how I look like, how I dress, how my friends look like, how the audience looks like. Night before pa lang, day before sa training, iniisip ko na (The night before or day before training, I already think), 'What do I have to do to help my team?'"
As those words came out of Rivero's mouth, the sun shining brought over the UP Gym started to let up for clearer skies. With it came the arrival of a breeze, one that had the makings for a fresh and crisp evening ahead.
In many ways, it was an image of Rivero's career. The pressure and the spotlight has eased up on him, giving way in order for him to focus on his comfort zone: the game that he loves.
Like the presence of the sun over the UP Gym, the public eye will eventually stare down with pressure at Rivero once again.
But for now, he's going to enjoy the cool, calm air. – Rappler.com