MANILA, Philippines – The Angelo "Ange" Kouame that we see putting up monster double-doubles and making mean dunks hasn't always been as dominant. Back in Ivory Coast, he didn't even play organized basketball.
So how did he end up here?
This is his story:
Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 2012.
It's been 4 years since Ange's dad passed away.
Growing up in a country dominated by football, it's no surprise to see a 14-year-old Ange kicking a ball around and playing some pickup matches along the streets with some of his friends.
But Ange knew from the get-go that football wasn't meant for him as a career, and he continued to search for the thing – whether a sport or another interest – that he would enjoy and fill in the void of losing his dad at a young age.
"I wanted something like to make use of my free time, so I found basketball," Ange shared with Rappler.
Even as a young teen, Ange was already towering over his peers, so it was obviously easy for him to shoot some hoops. Eventually, Ange just found simple joys in casually sinking baskets and playing with his peers along the streets. It did the job of taking his mind off things that worry him.
Ange kept shooting and playing halfcourt games while sharing some laughs with friends in high school, but it was just that – a regular street basketball game.
"I played 3-on-3 and some stuff like that. It wasn’t that kind of serious," said Ange.
"I didn’t play for any team, I played for my high school in Ivory Coast but it’s not that serious just practicing and stuff like that."
A few years later, the idea of making a career out of basketball wasn't far-fetched anymore for Ange, who fell in love with the sport. Scouts would be present in Africa from time to time and eventually one of his friends from Cameroon, Aaron Njike, was recruited to the US.
How important is this guy to Ange? Njike was the same person who kickstarted Ange's journey to the Philippines.
"He knows boss Epok (Quimpo, Ateneo team manager) then he contacted [him]: 'I have some guy, do you want [him to try out]?'" recalled Ange.
Although it wasn't as prestigious as getting recruited by American scouts, Ange took the risk, left his mom and 5 siblings and headed to the Philippines.
Manila, Philippines, 2016
Setting foot to a new country can make anyone feel nervous and uncertain, and that was what Ange felt.
"I was nervous, so nervous then I was asking myself a lot of questions like how it's gonna be, how will my life be here," recalled Ange.
When Ange arrived in Ateneo, he didn't even know that he was already trying out for the team when he was suddenly asked to join the juniors team and the Blue Eagles in practice.
"I remember I started dribbling skills and post moves with coach Yuri Escueta before practice. Coach (Tab Baldwin) was in his office and was looking out at me practicing. He went down after and asked me some questions like how old I am and where I'm coming from."
At that time, the former Gilas head coach served as a team consultant to the Blue Eagles, who haven't returned to the top of the podium for 4 years since their five-peat UAAP reign.
Ange obviously had the perfect height for a center playing in the Philippines, but Baldwin saw something else in the aspiring college baller.
"There was first of course, the wonderful character in the young man. He’s just a guy that exudes humility and has a great desire to achieve. But beyond that, he’s tall and has great ability – he pursues the basketball, he’s hungry for the basketball," Baldwin told Rappler.
"His work ethic is certainly outstanding and [he's coachable], so if you have great raw materials to work with, you get excited about these raw materials and I think that’s what he really represents."
Baldwin knew he had a lot of work to do.
"Dramatic," said Baldwin, describing Ange's need for improvement.
"You know we’re talking about a young man who has a lot of gifts physically, but he had very little training and fundamentals of the game of basketball. It was a big job."
The Ateneo coaching staff still agreed to take in Ange as his positives outweighed the challenges of developing a UAAP-level player from scratch.
"The process is going to bless him and for all of us, and I know that he is grateful and appreciative. But certainly as the coaching staff, we feel blessed that we have the opportunity to work with him," added Baldwin.
In a basketball-loving country like the Philippines, any young player who dreamed of playing in the UAAP knows how tough it is to crash into the ranks.
Unfortunately, Ange wasn't as competitive as most high school varsity players in the Philippines due to his lack of exposure. He didn't even know how to speak English when he first settled in the Philippines in 2016.
"I started learning how to play 5-on-5 here in the Philippines, so it was different for me because basically on systems and everything was complicated for me because of English. They were talking about different English terms and stuff like that," said Ange.
This did not stop him from proving his worth on the court even if it meant starting from the bottom of the food chain.
"Coach Tab taught me every single thing that’s basic – how to [pronounce], how to say different English words – and he told me that if I’m not going to work hard, [I'm] going to lose," said Ange.
But Baldwin said it wasn't just him who sharpened Ange's basketball skills as the entire coaching staff and even the players helped Ange adjust.
While Ange would put a lot of work on the court, the hard work doesn't end after basketball practice as he persevered to study English for a whole year before attending Grade 12 at Multiple Intelligence High School.
But even then, Ange can already be found sitting quietly at the patron area behind the Ateneo bench since Season 79. The 18-year-old got to witness how La Salle's Cameroonian star Ben Mbala dominated the league and bagged two MVP plums in both years he played in the UAAP.
"We all know that Ben Mbala is a machine, so even when I was here in my first year [in the Philippines], I wanted to feel [what it's like playing against him]," said Ange, noting that he didn't get a chance as Mbala had left the UAAP before the Ivorian's rookie year.
"It’s kind of like experience for me to learn, but I didn’t get that so sayang (it's a waste)."
Just from the body build, Ange's long and lean frame cannot be compared to Mbala's muscular and stocky physique. It goes the same for their style of play and Ange knew that he would be bringing something different to the table when he makes it to the UAAP.
For anyone residing in another country for a long time, it's normal to feel homesick and Ange was no exception to that.
"Of course I miss home. I miss the food, I miss the people there, I miss my friends, I miss my family, especially my little sister," said Ange who is the second to the youngest in his family.
But the family culture of the Ateneo Blue Eagles helps lessen his homesickness.
Apart from enjoying his Filipino favorites like beef caldereta, sinigang, halo-halo and kare-kare, it meant a lot to him that he found a new family in Ateneo.
"Of course with coach Tab, we all know his mentality – the band of brothers – and then you know when you become part of some team like that, how can you not feel like you’re not at home?" said Ange.
"Because everyone shares love in that team. Example, you know when I’m here, my teammates will call me: 'Hey, where are you? Do you wanna eat with us? Do you want to go to my house?' I feel I’m really at home. It’s how it is here."
With the absence of a father figure for 10 years, it was just by instinct that Ange found a dad in Baldwin, the Kiwi-American mentor who likewise has been away from his own family.
"If you do something wrong, he’s going to be mad like a real dad... but at least he’ll understand why [you did] that," shared Ange.
"But I’m really close to him. If I have any problems, I just go to him. He’s like a dad for us."
For Baldwin, he admitted that he personally took the responsibility to coach Ange both on and off the court. But for him, it never really felt like work.
"He’s such a great young man that I don’t think anybody really thinks that we’re having work when we’re spending time with Ange. It’s just easy to do and the reward from him in terms of his willingness to listen, his friendship, his openness to teaching. That’s enough of a reward when you’re a coach and assume those responsibilities," shared the multi-titled coach.
"It doesn’t feel like a job to me. I think Ange is a kid that I enjoy being close to and I look forward to the day that we can all look at him and see a great success, and be excited about the work that we put into him over the years."
Filling in the position left by Chibueze Ikeh, Ange immediately impressed Ateneo fans in the preseason with his end-to-end game, even leading the Blue Eagles over La Salle in the Filoil Flying V Preseason tournament.
"During those competitions, we learned a lot from the other teams because we played national teams, we played even the UAAP teams, so I mean we know it’s going to be hard but at least we have to learn from every game, every single moment, every single details," said determined rookie. (WATCH: Rappler Talk Sports: Ateneo Blue Eagles on 2018 Jones Cup campaign)
After an impressive preseason stint, however, the 6-foot-10 slotman suddenly drowned in nervousness in his first two UAAP games, particularly in the opener against Adamson where he only scored one point to go with his 11 rebounds.
But Ange's lack of offense didn't last long as he built his confidence as the Blue Eagles rode on a 5-game winning streak, and later, erupted for a record double-double of 27 points and 33 boards against Far Eastern University at the historic Big Dome. (UAAP: Ria Nabalan, Angelo Kouame make history)
Tagged as the UAAP's own Joel Embiid, it was no surprise that MVP chants resounded in the coliseum walls.
But just like his fellow Blue Eagles, Ange isn't thinking about the individual awards at all. He just wants to defend the title with the rest of his brothers and win his first major championship in his basketball career.
And that doesn't sound too far-fetched anymore. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as Bee, Beatrice Go is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Philippine sports governance, national teams, football, and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.