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Karl Lindholm: 'Big game, small world': Hoop in Cameroon, Part I

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Posted on April 16, 2014 |
By Karl Lindholm



The big news in the basketball world last week was that 7’0” Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid (“jo-el em-beed”) will leave college and enter the NBA draft in June.

No great surprise there. I suggested in this space in January that Embiid was a name basketball fans would soon come to know and that the young Cameroonian was likely to come into a lot of money.

My interest in Embiid is enhanced by the fact that I am living this year in his hometown of Yaounde, in Cameroon, West Africa.

Here in Cameroon, the “Beautiful Game” of football (“soccer,” in the USA), is dominant, as it is throughout the world. But basketball is next in favor, as our Cornwall, Vt., neighbor Alex Wolff documented in his remarkable 2002 book, “Big Game, Small World,” a fascinating examination of basketball worldwide.

Embiid is not a hoop anomaly. Other Cameroonians are also making their mark in organized professional and big-time college basketball. Luc Mbah a Moute (bah ah moo-tay) is in his sixth season in the National Basketball Association, playing now for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Many Cameroonian players, now competing internationally, have American collegiate pedigrees, such as Albert Aboya, a teammate of Mbah a Moute’s at UCLA ’09, now playing professionally in Turkey; Alexis Wangmene, Texas ’12, playing in Slovenia; Gaston Essengue, UNLV ’07, now in Argentina; Victor Samnick, Georgetown ’03, playing in France; Steve Tchiengang Noubissie, Vanderbilt ’12, next door in Canada.

When Mbah a Moute and Aboya were starring at UCLA, the Bruins’ fans called themselves “the Cameroon Crazies.” UCLA was 97-17 the three years the Cameroonians were together on the team, and appeared in the NCAA Final Four each year.

These dedicated players, and others, represent the global reach of the game — and the passion here in West Africa.

Nor was Embiid the only star in the college game this year. Making a crucial contribution for venerable Harvard was junior Steve Moundou-Missi, also from Yaounde. Harvard (27-5) upset third-seeded Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last month, ruining many brackets, before falling to powerhouse Michigan State in the next round.

Moundou-Missi, 6’7”, 225 pounds, averaged nearly 11 points and six rebounds a game for the Crimson this year, earning second team All-Ivy honors. Against Michigan State, he scored 11 points and had 10 rebounds in Harvard’s tight 80-73 loss.

Moundou-Missi’s route to basketball success in America follows a similar path as Embiid’s. In fact, he preceded him at national prep basketball power, Montverde Academy in Florida. There, Moundou-Missi showed himself not only fit for a basketball future in college, but also a rigorous academic experience.

“School is first,” he told the Harvard Crimson newspaper, “basketball is second. When everything is right at school, then I can play basketball. I knew that in coming to college that my biggest issue would be time management.” His major at Harvard is Applied Mathematics.

Moundou-Missi’s parents, Jean-Paul and Annette, both played on the Cameroonian national teams in the 1980s. His dad is 6’10”, his mom 5’10”. They introduced him to basketball at age 13. Steve’s passion was soccer: “Growing up I wanted to be a soccer player. Whenever I can afford to play soccer, I do. Sometimes I even play with a basketball.”

University of Vermont basketball fans will remember well Cameroonian native Germain Mopa Njila, a stalwart on Coach Tom Brennan’s triumphant final club in 2005, the team that shocked the basketball world by knocking off national power, Syracuse, 60-57, in overtime, in the NCAA Tournament.

Against Syracuse, Mopa Njila scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and had six assists and four steals to lead the Catamounts in all those categories. A rugged 6’4”, he had been known for his defense and rebounding (averaging six a game), but hit nine of 10 shots to lead the Catamounts to the greatest win in school history.

His mother, Rose, a police officer in Yaounde, saw her son play for the first time on Senior Night, in the spring of 2005. A computer science and information systems major at UVM, Mopa Njila lives in Burlington and works at IDX as an engineer.

NBA All-Star Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, the son of 1980s tennis star and rock musician Yannick Noah, is another basketball notable with roots in Cameroon. The elder Noah is often here, where he has a tennis club and other business interests. Joachim is also frequently seen in Yaounde.

Players of obvious and uncommon hoop potential, like Mbah a Moute, Embiid, Moundou-Missi, and Ruben Boumtje Boumtje (another seven footer, who played at Georgetown and in the NBA), are quickly shuttled off to the States for an intense hoop education at special secondary schools designed for the specific purpose of nurturing precocious basketball talent.

What about the others, those who fall in love with the game but don’t predict sufficient greatness to be whisked away to hoop hotbeds in America?

My questions, here on the ground in Yaounde, are “how” and “where”? How do these players get started? How and where does this love of the game originate and germinate? Where exactly are their talents incubated and refined? Where do the good players play?

Stay tuned. The answers to those questions are in Part 2. 

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