Sports

Karl Lindholm: The NBA African connection and the ‘Cameroon Crazies’

Karl Lindholm

“Peter, Duala is guarding Yaounde!”
That was the text to my son during the Philadelphia ’76ers-Toronto Raptors Eastern Division semi-final series in the recently concluded National Basketball Association (NBA) post-season tournament. 
How many know what I was referring to? 
Not many I bet — so I’ll tell you.
“Duala” was Pascal Siakam of the Raptors, who is from Duala, the commercial center and largest city in Cameroon, West Africa. He was checking Joel Embiid of the ’76ers who is from “Yaounde,” Cameroon’s political capital and second-largest city (population 2.8 million).
This was an exciting moment for us as our family spent the academic year 2013-14 in Yaounde (Yah OON-day), as my wife Brett had a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship at the national university there. Peter, 18 at that time, and Annie, 16, attended the American School of Yaounde (ASOY), where I found a half-time teaching gig. 
ASOY is built around a covered outdoor basketball court where Peter spent all of his free time at school, shooting hoops, playing pickup, and making friends. During that year, we became absorbed with Embiid’s story (he only began playing at age 15) and his impending entry into the NBA draft, perhaps as the very first player selected. 
Stimulated by a desire to report from Cameroon in this space, I explored the basketball scene in Yaounde in the spring of that year. With the help of Valentine, a basketball-obsessed student of Brett’s, and Richard, our indispensible driver and fixer, we spent Saturdays visiting the courts around Yaounde. Links to my hoop dispatches are at the bottom of this page.
Despite losing two years to injury, Joel Embiid is one of the most exciting players in the NBA, perhaps the best big man in the league. Last season, he averaged 27.5 points a game (4th most in the league) and 13.4 rebounds (2nd).  He is a remarkably agile seven-footer with an excellent outside shot. 
His inspiration in basketball — no wonder as they possess many of the same gifts — was the first African to play in the NBA and one the greatest players ever, Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon from Nigeria. In his accelerated education into the game, Embiid watched tapes of Olajuwon and tried to duplicate his dynamic moves around the hoop.
Pascal Siakam emerged for the NBA Champion Raptors in these playoffs as a bona fide star, averaging 19 points and 5.5 rebounds a game in the post-season. Last week, the NBA announced their top awards for the season and Siakam was named the Most Improved Player in 2018-19. 
The hero in the stories of both Embiid and Siakam is Luc Mbah a Moute (BAH ah MOU-tay), from Bafia, Cameroon, who has played 11 years in the NBA for six teams, most recently the LA Clippers.  Mbah a Moute played on great teams at UCLA that went to the Final Four three times. His teammate was another outstanding Cameroonian player, Alfred Aboya, leading the UCLA fans to call themselves the “Cameroon Crazies” (after the Duke University Cameron Arena cheering section): they held up signs that read “Moute kicks Boute.”
Mbah a Moute has been a mentor to both Embiid and Siakam. He conducts basketball camps in Cameroon every summer. Embiid attended Mbah a Moute’s camp in 2011 and Siakam in 2012: “Without that camp,” Embiid has said, “how does anyone find me?” 
If you find this Cameroon hoop connection interesting at all, do check out two terrific sources of information: a lively 23-minute video produced by VICE Sports titled “Joel Embiid’s Rise and the Prince that Fueled it.” You’ll find out that Mbah a Moute’s father is a village chief or Fon so his sons are princes and see lots of wonderful footage of Yaounde. Also check out an article in ESPN the Magazine in 2017 by veteran basketball writer Jackie MacMullan, “Cameroon Calling,” that traces the paths of Mbah a Moute, Embiid, and Siakam.
The first Cameroonian to play in the NBA was Ruben Boumtje Boumtje (certainly on the All Great-Name Team), who excelled at Georgetown, and played three years for the Portland Trailblazers and another seven years in Europe. Vermont hoop fans no doubt remember their Catamount stalwart from Cameroon, Germain Mopa Njila (MO-pa JEE-la), who starred in the most glorious victory in UVM history, their 60-57 win over Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament in 2005. In that game, Mopa Njila scored 20 points on 9-10 shooting, and had nine rebounds, five assists, and four steals. 
Now that’s just Cameroon: interest in basketball throughout Africa is exploding — and interest in Africa by basketball is likewise exploding. 
The NBA reports that there are “more than 80 current and former NBA players from Africa or with direct family ties to the continent.” Of course, it could be argued that a high percentage of NBA players have “family ties to the Continent” (over 70 percent of players in the league are African-Americans).
Nine Africans were selected in the two rounds of the NBA draft just a couple weeks ago, including 18-year-old Sekou Doumbouya drafted No. 15 overall, and Bol Bol, who went at No. 44. Doumbouya was born in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, and grew up in France; he has been playing high-level professional basketball in France since he was 15. Bol, who attended Oregon University last year, is the son of Manute Bol from Sudan, the tallest player ever in the NBA at 7-foot, 7 inches (Bol Bol himself is only 7-foot-3). 
The Basketball Without Borders Program, a partnership between the NBA and FIBA (the international governing organization in basketball), has maintained a site in Africa for the past 15 years. The NBA has played an exhibition game in Africa, Team Africa vs. Team World, since 2015. 
Next year, the NBA/FIBA is launching the Basketball Africa League (BAL) with 12 teams from nine countries. According to the journal Quartz Africa, “Former U.S. President Barack Obama, an avid basketball fan, is expected to play a role in strengthening the operations of new league.” 
I have often speculated, imagined, that if my tour in Cameroon had been longer, I’d have found a way to be involved with basketball there in Africa, which is still well behind, but gaining fast in interest on the world-wide sports leviathan: football (soccer in the States). 
Me and Barack. 
***
Follow the links to read Karl Lindholm’s 2014 columns from Cameroon
Does Kansas connect to Boston — through Cameroon?
‘Big game, small world’: Hoop in Cameroon, Part I
Hoop in Cameroon Part 2 — The City Game

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