Eager to show love for his new home, Kouame sets sights on bolstering PH’s World Cup bid | Inquirer Sports
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Eager to show love for his new home, Kouame sets sights on bolstering PH’s World Cup bid

By: - Sports Editor / @ftjochoaINQ
/ 05:15 AM May 23, 2021

Ange Kouame remembers being in his home one day, watching on TV as Andray Blatche and Gilas Pilipinas competed in an international meet.

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“I was watching, I think, the qualification for World Cup, if I’m not mistaken,” Kouame said. “And I saw kuya Blatche playing against Canada, if I’m not mistaken. So from that point on, I was ‘Oh, I hope one day I’d [get to play internationally].”

He’s going to get a chance soon.

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President Duterte recently signed into law Kouame’s citizenship, making the Ateneo center eligible to represent the country in international meets. But even before things were official, Kouame already lived and breathed—and tasted—Filipino.

He’s already tried balut on the urging of a friend (“I love the soup, you know, but when I got to the chick …” he said, shaking his head and laughing). He’s played barefoot, 3-on-3 street ball (“I tried it in a beach in Coron, [Palawan,] with other Filipinos. It hurts so bad”) He is a frequent sari-sari store customer (“Three-in-one coffee, yeah,” he said, laughing).

Passion

But it is how he has woven himself into the country’s basketball fabric that has truly validated his identity as a Filipino. Apart from having his own PBA idols (“I like June Mar [Fajardo], I like Japeth [Aguilar]. I like Kiefer [Ravena]. I love Kiefer, you know”), Kouame has exhibited the kind of passion for the sport generally attached to Filipinos, who are known globally for their adoration of the game. Perhaps it has something to do with his basketball roots. The Ivorian beanpole took up basketball rather late, at 16, to help him get over a crushing event.

“I used to play soccer,” he said. “But after my dad passed away, basketball was a way for me to, you know, get away from the saddest part of my life.”

Pretty soon he made the difficult decision to fly to the country to play for Ateneo in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines. His mom was hesitant at first, not knowing how he would fare, or even how he would be accepted, in the Philippines.

As soon as he landed, though, Kouame felt right at home.

Excited coaches

“I think the way people are friendly here in the Philippines, that’s what makes me [comfortable],” he said.

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It also helped that Ateneo welcomed him with open arms.

“How [the Eagles] embraced the system and how they loved to be a part of a group of brothers, for me I really felt at home in the first day.”

Kouame’s naturalization gained approval—and generated excitement—from four former national coaches.

Meralco coach Norman Black said Kouame gives the country the size it has long pined for. “I mean, the Philippines knows me more about my defensive ability,” Kouame said. “I use my size, my length … to cover a lot of things on the court.”

TNT coach Chot Reyes said that being based in the Philippines makes Kouame a great fit for the national program as he will not just learn the system but get to really know his teammates.

“[M]y teammates, I love them to death,” Kouame said. “[We] have good chemistry. Jokes [all] around. It’s all love, you know.”

2023 World Cup

Jong Uichico, who coached Gilas Pilipinas in the last Fiba (International Basketball Federation) Asia Cup qualifying window, said the 23-year-old Kouame’s most tantalizing feature is his upside, especially as the country prepares to cohost—and compete in—the 2023 Fiba World Cup.

“That is the goal,” said the 6-foot-10 center. “Every player … wants to be [in the World Cup]. So if I’m able to be present in World Cup 2023, it’s gonna be a [blessing] to me. I pray to God that it’s gonna happen. And I’ll be prepared for it. All of the days [that] I’m practicing, [I’m] thinking about it.”

And most importantly, NLEX coach Yeng Guiao said, being here makes Kouame more emotionally invested in Philippine basketball. “It’s not all about money for Kouame,” said Guiao.

“It’s actually true,” Kouame said. “Money just helps you on certain things, but it doesn’t mean [everything].

“I’ve been here for five years. Every time, I feel love. So why would I not try to send the same love back, you know?”

The love he wants to repay, he said, is the main reason why he sought Filipino citizenship. And Kouame wants to give his all in representing the country by being the best that he can be as a naturalized player.

“It’s a long process, but I’ll try to get there in God’s time and focus getting myself better.” Spoken like a true Filipino.

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