The House committee on justice on Wednesday approved a measure seeking naturalization for the Ateneo Blue Eagles' Ivorian center Angelo Kouame, kickstarting a process that will hopefully allow the talented big man to suit up for Gilas Pilipinas in the February window of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers.
Kouame was named to the Gilas pool that recently swept Thailand in the November window of the qualifiers held in Manama, Bahrain but did not join the team on the trip.
Antipolo City 1st District Representative Deputy Speaker Roberto "Robbie" V. Puno, who sponsored the bill, welcomed the approval of the measure, which still has to go through second and third readings before being elevated to the Senate. Once it hurdles the Senate, the bill will lapse into law after 30 days, although President Duterte can sign it before the 30 days are over to speed up the process. At this point, a presidential veto will be the only way to stop Kouame from being naturalized.
"I am thankful that my colleagues in the House of Representatives recognize the potential Mr. Kouame, who gave a stunning performance in the 82nd Season of the UAAP, can bring to our national team as they prepare to compete in the 2023 FIBA World Cup," said Puno, who is the vice chairman of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP).
"He's just turning 23 years old before the end of the year, but no one can doubt the immense talent of Mr. Kouame, as shown in the recent 16-0 sweep of the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the recent UAAP season. I am hopeful that he will bring the same level of intensity as a member of Gilas Pilipinas. We just need to provide him with better opportunities to defend the Philippines internationally," he added.
Kakou Ange Franck Williams Kouame, better known as Ange Kouame, was the first ever foreign student-athlete to win Rookie of the Year in 2018, when he put in averages of 12.5 points, 14 rebounds, and 5.5 blocks.
For Puno, a pool of naturalized players will improve the national team's chances in the 2023 FIBA World Cup. FIBA Internal Regulations allows just one naturalized player to suit up per national basketball team, but there is no limit on the number of players a country can naturalize.
"Gilas Pilipinas is in need of a new breed of players, and I am hopeful that we will be able to include Mr. Kouame to their roster. But of course, we need more like him to ensure not only an exciting start but more importantly a strong finish in the next FIBA World Cup," he said.
After the 2019 FIBA World Cup, the SBP announced they were "moving on" from longtime naturalized player Andray Blatche. In August 2018, a bill seeking naturalization for Barangay Ginebra import Justin Brownlee was filed by party list representative Mikee Romero, but it has yet to gain traction.
Meanwhile, SBP president Al Panlilio extended his gratitude for the swift approval of the measure.
"We thank Congressman Robbie Puno for filing the bill and for being a constant ally of the Philippine basketball community. The SBP also thanks Senator Sonny Angara for filing SB 1982, the counterpart of the bill for the Senate," Panlilio said in a statement.
"Our Gilas Pilipinas Men's Team was able to jump start our preparations for 2023 with their inspired performance in Manama, Bahrain in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers and receiving this good news from the House of Representatives gives our program even more momentum. We remain hopeful that Kouame will be able to play as a Filipino at the soonest time possible as every FIBA window is an opportunity to build on the future of Philippine basketball."