(Intro adopted from Michael Lewis’ opening monologue from The Blind Side)
There’s a moment of silence when a basketball play begins. Players are in position and anything is possible.
One. Matt Nieto takes a pass from Chibueze Ikeh during the 14-second shot clock re-set.
Two. Anton Asistio uses the Ikeh pick to get the ball above the three-point arc with La Salle’s Kib Montalbo on him.
Three. Asistio uses another Ikeh pick to curl to the right then attack the baseline. La Salle center Ben Mbala helps out Montalbo on the hard show hoping to harry Asistio into a turnover.
Four. Asistio doesn’t pick up his dribble along the baseline and manages to get away from Mbala and Montalbo. With a clear path to the basket, Ricci Rivero helps out. Ikeh rolls towards the basket and receives the pass. A thunderous dunk ensues.
It’s 82-73 time down to 1:44 in Game 3 of the Season 80 UAAP men’s basketball finals. Ateneo goes on to win its ninth UAAP title (and 23rd overall counting the 14 it bagged in the NCAA).
In today’s basketball, more often than not, the best player is a team’s high-flying forward or hot-shooting swingman. But more often than not, any road to a championship has to come through its center, one who not only can score inside and out but also serve as a rim protector.
When Ateneo celebrated its ninth UAAP championship in December of 2017, Ikeh shared a joyful embrace with Angelo Kouame who was all set to take his place the next season. For much of Ikeh’s collegiate career with Ateneo, he was a quiet player who struggled under the enormous weight of expectations. However, in his final year in blue and white, he had matured enough, steeled himself enough to face the Ben Mbalas of this world and lead Ateneo to a championship.
Now, Kouame picked up the baton. And any road to a title -- more so with former Perpetual Help Altas star center Bright Akhuetie in UP, Prince Orizu in Far Eastern University, and Papi Sarr manning the slot for the Adamson Falcons -- it was up to the Kid to not only patrol the lane but to provide huge scoring sock inside for Ateneo.
He did and how.
Heading into the UAAP, Ateneo chalked up titles in the City Hoops Summer Classic, FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup, and the Breakdown Basketball Invitationals where Kouame picked up Most Valuable Player trophies in the latter two tourneys. Ateneo closed out its preseason with a sterling stint in the William Jones Cup. Then with all the pressure in the world, came back and annexed the UAAP title. And for his efforts, Kouame was feted the Rookie of the Year Award (some stupid quirk in the rules disallowed him to be named to the Mythical Five selection).
As the confetti rained down on the Ateneo Blue Eagles as they celebrated their 10th UAAP title, Kouame who reprised Ikeh’s heroics the previous title run, ran over to the stands where he hugged Raffy and Elline Veloso and their kids. To the casual onlooker, it might have seemed odd. But the Velosos aren’t just anyone. They are Kouame’s surrogate family in the Philippines.
In the book and film, "The Blind Side," a friend of the story’s protagonist, Leigh Anne Tuohy, remarked that something was odd as in the traditional Tuohy family Christmas picture as there was this large black man sitting next to their white as snow family. “He’s my son,” proudly pronounced Leigh Anne of Michael Oher, who they adopted into their family.
“I feel we are almost in the same situation,” noted Elline of "The Blind Side" and her family’s “adopted son” in Angelo who will celebrate his second Christmas in the Philippines and with his foster family.
The Velosos are actually accidental foster parents.
When Angelo first arrived in the Philippines, 13,760 kilometers away from his native Ivory Coast, he stayed at the Ateneo dorm (while going to Multiple Intelligence School also along
Katipunan). Being new to the country, he was confronted by a strange new environment and culture. “I couldn’t speak a word and I was shy,” recalled Kouame of those early days with a toothy grin.
When Marty, the youngest of the Veloso children first came over to Ange during Ateneo Team B practice, it was because no one was talking to him. “I thought I’d say ‘hi,’” shared Marty.
Although there was a language barrier, the two exchanged pleasantries and engaged in small talk during practices. After Marty was finally able to visit Ateneo Team B practice after being sidelined for close to two months due to an injury, he bumped into Kouame who was a bit more talkative this time around, “Hey, what happened to you? Are you all right?”
“I think he picked up some English and Filipino words because he could now talk,” laughed Marty at the memory.
Like the scene in "The Blind Side" where Oher didn’t have a place to go after picking up scraps following a volleyball, there was a Team B game where everyone was leaving and Kouame didn’t know what to do or where to go. “How about him,” asked Marty to his parents. The Velosos brought Angelo along to eat with them eventually, which led to Angelo spending weekends at their home.
“We didn’t have a bed that could fit him,” said Marty’s father, Raffy, so he slept on a comforter. “The problem was, the next day, no one could open the door because Ange’s feet were blocking the door to the room.”
After that, we had to put him in a bed.
Yet were life as easy as blocking shots and doors, Ange struggled with understanding a strange new culture, coping with school and a heavy work load, and having to learn two different languages (English and Filipino) at the same time. It was because of these challenges that Kouame was painfully shy during those early months of 2016.
“I was also homesick,” admitted Angelo. “But I wanted to come over here so I had to make this work. My family over here (the Velosos) have really helped me in understanding my world now.”
When the Velosos go out for lunch or to the mall, people invariably stare with some venturing forth to ask questions or make statements.
“The question we also get is, ‘How tall is he,’” said Gaby. “People don’t say it, but you know they want to ask, ‘Why is he with us. What is the relationship?’ We are now used to being with Ange even if when we have to talk to him we have to look up.”
Added Ramy, the eldest child, “We have people saying, ‘Ah, he’s Andray Blatche’ or “Nakita ko na siya naglalaro sa NCAA’ and others. Now, people don’t guess, but they already know who he is -- ‘Hey, that’s Ange Kouame! We want a picture.’”
And of course, there was basketball and all its challenges including players who liked to talk smack and get into his head. After one player said something particularly nasty to him, Ange’s comebacker -- a funny one -- quieted the other player.
Ange would oft seek Raffy’s advice. After all, Raffy is a former Ateneo player himself who won a UAAP juniors title. His kids -- Ramy, Gaby, and Marty have all donned the Ateneo jersey themselves making their advice indispensable. They talk before and after each game breaking it down -- what he did right, wrong, and how he can improve on his game.
Following the vitriol of Game 1 of the finals, Marty who the family lovingly calls “coach” (for his constantly working on and providing advice to his African brother) told Ange, “Don’t focus on the crowd and enjoy the moment. Make it yours. Everyone has your back and get that championship. Be aggressive and control yourself, my brother.”
And Kouame did just that finishing with 22 points and 20 rebounds to help clinch Game 2 and Ateneo’s 10th UAAP men’s basketball championship.
When Kouame ran to the stands to hug Raffy and Elline, it also helped answer a question the man of the house previously asked his wife. “We have always had visitors or guests staying over, but with Ange it was different,” pointed out Raffy. “I asked, ‘Why is this happening? Why are we these foster family to this boy from another country?’”
After a joyous hug in the stands, following the final buzzer, Raffy finally had his answer: “I guess, it is to help this boy not only with his future but also to help Ateneo win a championship.”
The championship means a lot to the Veloso kids. For Marty who always dreamed of playing for the Blue Eagles, he told Angelo that he was living his dream for him and he couldn’t be happier. Gaby won championships while playing in high school, but come college, the Lady Eagles were hard-pressed to get a win. “Ange’s championship and happiness, is also my championship and my happiness,” smiled Gaby.
“When my kids got bigger, I asked if we could adopt a kid but they (her children) didn’t want,” revealed Elline. “Strangely, we now have one in Ange who is a sweet kid.”
“They are my parents here,” said Ange of Raffy and Elline. “I call them dad and mom.”
“It is flattering (of the affection Kouame shows his Filipino family),” sheepishly admitted Raffy. “When it comes to these events for the parents of the players, we are reluctant to be a part of it. We’d shy away as we felt we didn’t belong even among some the parents of the players (Jet Nieto, the father of the Nieto twins, and Jiggs Mendoza, the father of Jolo) who are my contemporaries). But Ange asked us to accompany him and it is important to him.”
Things are looking up for Kouame. With his impressive play and terrific attitude, there is talk of naturalizing him to play for the national team (it’s all talk so far but we are told this might happen soon). “I never thought that I’d experience all of this outside Ivory Coast,” said Kouame. “Before I came over, all I heard were negative things. But it is not true. I think this is a beautiful country. I feel blessed to have come over and experience all these things. I am thankful for all of this.”
Right now, after the rigors of a highly-pressurized basketball season, it’s time to confront a different set of challenges -- school. And this Christmas, Ange will pack his bags for the Veloso’s home and perhaps join them for a trip out of town.