<
>

Ateneo wanted it more than UP and Ange Kouame wanted it the most

Ange Kouame averaged a double-double in Games 2 and 3 to lead Ateneo to a fourth title in five chances. UAAP Media Bureau

In a parallel universe, Ange Kouame would not have been playing for the Ateneo Blue Eagles in UAAP Season 85.

Suffering a meniscal sprain and partial ACL tear last June, he was far from 100% in when the season started in October -- and that's an understatement.

Don't believe us? Here's how Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin put it.

"He had his last MRI halfway through the season ... And I'm still connected to people down in New Zealand so I sent his MRI to the All Black doctors, some of the most sophisticated doctors who see some of most traumatic injuries in sports, since they play rugby," he said. "And the doctor asked me, 'cause he didn't know anything about it, just the MRI, 'Is this kid playing?' And I kind of almost felt like it was an accusation. I said, sheepishly, 'Yeah, he's playing.'"

"There was a pause, then [the doctor] said, 'That's one tough son of a b----.' (The doctor) said (Kouame) will make a full recovery, but he's gonna need surgery as soon as he can get it."

Of course, the decision wasn't necessarily all on Baldwin. Koaume himself wanted to play. He wasn't letting his last chance of donning the blue and white slip away just like that.

And so, the 6-foot-10 big did play. And boy, were the Blue Eagles lucky he did -- and more fortunate that he did so all while avoiding re-injury, or worse, worsening his already-hurting knee.

Still, the Kouame in the eliminations wasn't the Koaume who was hailed as Season MVP seven months ago. In his run as top individual player, he had averaged 12.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.7 assists, and 1.0 steals. In Season 85's first two rounds, he averaged 10.3 points, 10.5 boards, 2.5 swats, and 2.1 dimes.

The naturalized center still had an impact, just not close to his potential.

Come the finals, though, it was another matter altogether. The true-blue Kouame showed up and stayed.

Zavier Lucero won Game 1 for the UP Fighting Maroons, but Ateneo's 25-year-old man in the middle wasn't far behind as the best player on the floor. In the next two games, there was no question about it anymore. Season MVP Malick Diouf, his primary matchup can't do anything about it. So can't Carl Tamayo and Henry Galinato.

Posting per game counts of 19 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 1.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in the must-win Game 2 and then the winner-take-all Game 3, Kouame made his presence felt at both ends. When there was a good look for him, he took it and made it. When there was a possession for the claiming, he went for it and got it.

The former Rookie of the Year left it all on the floor for his last three games for Ateneo. And it wound up in a championship and a Finals MVP trophy.

"It's not about Ange Kouame, it's about the whole team. I missed a lot of practices during this season because of my knee, but our other players, they still made me better, made all of us better," Kouame said.

Since this is the true-blue Kouame, individual accolades don't matter to him. What matters more is the title, their fourth out of the last five. What matters most is proving again that Ateneo's culture is a winning culture, a championship culture.

"It means a lot, man. It's the best season that I've ever had in my life," he said. "When I first joined Ateneo, they already had something there. We rebuilt this team. "

As Kouame set the standard, Ateneo's next men up will have to follow suit. After all, that's what Kouame did in following in the footsteps of Nieto twins Mike and Matt, Isaac Go, and Thirdy Ravena.

While that'll be a good day, Baldwin isn't looking forward to that time. He had rebuilt Ateneo into yet another champion team -- and next season, he'll have to do it again.

"I can't imagine coaching without Ange Kouame. I'll wake up tomorrow, and Ange won't be on my team," Baldwin said. "What do I do?"

Whenever Ateneo's next game will be, whoever the opponent will be, No. 34 will no longer be a Blue Eagle. With his collegiate career now over and as leaves Katipunan Avenue with yet another title, Kouame can finally take time to take care of himself.

"I'm getting surgery, and the rest, I'll leave it to God because only God has the answer," he said. "I'm going home tonight and it's still gonna hurt. I can barely walk properly, but that's all part of it. I enjoy the game. I don't see myself staying away from the game, but I have to do it next year. Whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen."