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For Angelo Kouame, going through naturalization process 'feels like a dream'

Angelo Kouame has committed to go through the naturalization process.

"It's in the process and I really feel happy about it 'cause I've been working hard for it," he said. "I mean, it's also an opportunity for me to step up my game and go to the next level."

The 20-year-old Ivorian center has been endorsed last month by Antipolo first district representative and Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) vice chairman Robbie Puno, who filed House Bill No. 5951 in an effort to help grant the Ateneo center Filipino citizenship and add him into the federation's plans for a pool of naturalized players.

"I was shocked first and I was happy at the same time. And then they just told me, 'I think we're gonna naturalize you.' And then, for the first time I asked myself, 'This is really real?' But actually, it was really happening," he shared. "It feels like a dream 'cause I only dreamt (of) being on the national team. So this is real opportunity for me."

Kouame has been in the Philippines since 2016, when he started studying high school in Multiple Intelligence International School in Katipunan before entering Ateneo.

He has been an absolute force for the Blue Eagles in his first two years -- more so in UAAP Season 82, where the former Rookie of the Year tallied averages of 12.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, and 1.4 assists during the team's 16-game title sweep.

But that only played a small role in the decision of Kouame, whose level of comfort with the Philippines also convinced his family towards leaning into this decision.

"I like the culture. I like the vibe. It's always fun to be here with Filipinos, share the culture also," he said. "My mom was shocked at first, you know. I explained to her what the situation is, and she was a bit afraid. And after that, she told me she talked to the Ateneo officers and everybody, if it's a good idea 'cause all she was worrying about is if I'm gonna keep my Ivorian citizenship.

"But they said it's OK. So she said, 'OK, so go for it.' And also, it's what I want. At the end of the day, it's still my decision. So she said she will be happy for me, no matter what I choose."

Gilas program director and Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin said the 6-foot-10 big man is a "really good basketball option" who should provide the national team a steady inside presence as they go along the motions of building towards the 2023 World Cup.

"Ange would give us that opportunity to have a guy that's pretty much available until he goes pro, but that's probably a few years down the track," said Baldwin. "We want him to be one of the guys in the pool and if he continues to develop along the lines that he is developing, I think we're gonna have a really good basketball option, a really good character option, outstanding young man. Those are the kind of things that we hope we can pile up in the naturalized player pool."

"That's the hope, but obviously it's gotta go through the process with the government. It's in their hands now, so we'll just hope and pray that everything will go well."

Baldwin, though, said they're still looking at a few other names to supplement the pool that Kouame would eventually be a part of in the future, though he declined to publicize some of their options.

"[I]t's going to be, I think, a fairly long process both in terms of getting the commitment from the guys that we like, going through the processes with the government, with the Congress, and then the availability of these players," he explained. "It is a lot of complications these days with the naturalized player. Nonetheless, what we wanna do is we wanna have multiple players to select from. Step-by-step, we hope to take care of these issues."

"[T]here's no real reason to make them public, because we don't know what the outcome will be. So we don't wanna prejudice anything and create issues where there aren't issues."

A pool with other players of his caliber could provide Kouame some stiff competition, but the center said he's looking forward to taking on that challenge.

"[I]t's a competition," he said. "Right now, I'm at the level where I am trying to find identity. That's why I'm working hard for it. And when I see them, they're most probably NBA players and they (already are at a) high competition level. So I'll try to get to that high level, too. And it's an opportunity for me to show who I am. So it's all good for me. It will be fun for me to compete against them also."