Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Cameroon Calling--A Must Read

More than a decade ago, Luc Mbah a Moute created a path, which Joel Embiid took and Pascal Siakam followed. This is the untold story of the rise of Cameroonian ball.

On a sticky July afternoon in Cameroon, beads of perspiration dot a young boy's brow as he paces outside the Yaoundé Sports Palace, plotting his entry. The expansive, asymmetric dome with a sharply pointed roof was a diplomatic gift from the People's Republic of China, plunked into the city of Yaoundé like a spaceship from another galaxy. The 10-year-old, named Arthur, yells to the guard out front but is told that family and friends are not allowed inside. "But I want to see my brother!" the boy says, his infectious grin creasing his round, sun-kissed face. "You can just let me in, OK?"

The guard betrays a hint of a smile but shoos him away.
Cameroon Calling
It is the summer of 2011, and the boy's older brother, Joel Embiid, has been invited to Luc Mbah a Moute's prestigious basketball camp, an opportunity that baffles his family. Joel, already 6-foot-10 at age 17, is no hoops player; he's played organized ball for three months and is scheduled to leave for Europe and train as a candidate for the national volleyball team. His father, Thomas Embiid, a colonel in the military and a former handball champion, wants his eldest son to stick with volleyball. His mother, Christine, upon returning from a shopping holiday to France and learning of Joel's basketball audition, asks: "Have I been gone that long?"

Outside the complex, Arthur is undeterred, scaling the spiked metal fence that surrounds it, hoping in vain to sneak a bird's-eye view. He seems to be the only Embiid excited about what is happening inside. Even Joel has doubts, his father's words still ringing in his ears.

"Nobody plays basketball in Cameroon."

Luc Mbah a Moute, Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam have made it to the highest level of basketball in a country that has little history in the sport. And that journey has come with personal sacrifice.

LAST NOVEMBER Cameroon somehow had three players starting in the NBA: Mbah a Moute, age 30, at forward for the Clippers, Embiid, 22, at center for the 76ers, and fellow rookie Pascal Siakam, also 22, at forward for the Raptors. Embiid, of course, is his country's emerging star, an impossibly quick 7-footer with 3-point range and a far-reaching sense of humor; his whimsical musings, sly tales (he's concocted stories of traipsing through jungles and wrestling lions) and concert clips suggest a young man embracing his new life with gusto.

Prior to Mbah a Moute, Cameroon had boasted just one NBA alum: Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, who played 44 games with the Trail Blazers from 2001 to 2004, averaging less than one point per game. At the time of Embiid's audition at Mbah a Moute's camp, Luc was Cameroon's lone representative, affording him legendary status in the microscopic circle of his homeland. And so the story of Embiid's emergence, and that of a new generation of Cameroon basketball players, starts with him.

When Mbah a Moute was barely a teenager, he accidentally fell in love with the sport that now defines him. It began, of all places, on his way to soccer practice. Mbah a Moute had embarked on his usual route through his neighborhood of Etoa-Meki, northeast of Yaoundé, when he encountered a small group of boys shooting baskets at a tired, worn hoop on a dirt court. Luc had noticed the court before, but it was almost always empty, untouched.

He passed by the court three times the following week. On the third day, he stopped. Nobody was around. He looked about quickly, then launched his soccer ball at the netless cylinder. It sailed through, and Mbah a Moute experienced that universal surge of adrenaline that has enraptured so many before him.

In 2003, Luc, then 16, who had been training under coach Guy Moudio, was chosen to play in the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg. After Luc exhibited flashes of promise, Joe Touomou, the first Cameroon native to play Division I basketball, approached the family about sending Luc to America. It was no small ask.

Camille Moute a Bidias, Luc's father, is a powerful, worldly, dynamic force. He and his wife, Agnes Goufane a Ziem Moute, were born in Bafia, a rural village just beyond the Sanaga River, 80 miles north of Yaoundé. Camille is the chief there, a man of import. He has been the general manager of Cameroon's National Employment Fund since 1991, under the 35-year administration of President Paul Biya. He has built an enviable life for his family but has never forgotten the difficult life choice he once had to make himself. As a young man, he played two years of professional soccer, but his father believed athletics were an option only for those who could not succeed in life and urged his son to become a doctor, so Camille gave up the sport he loved.

With that memory in mind, he considered the opportunity in front of Luc. "I didn't want to do what my father did to me," Camille says. "So I say, 'Go. Let's see how you do.' I never thought in my mind Luc would be in the NBA."

In 2010, as Luc settled into his third NBA season, his parents reminded him of their expectations: His good fortune must be shared with their country. For as long as he could remember, Luc had seen his father donate money to help a sick child or destitute family. And Agnes had started a nonprofit, Pourquois Pas, which assisted families who couldn't afford to pay for their prescriptions. So Mbah a Moute set a goal: to raise the profile of basketball in Cameroon, to build courts so the national team wouldn't have to practice outside, to run coaching clinics so players could be trained at the highest levels.

That summer, Mbah a Moute started a pre-selection camp that would enable players from all over Cameroon to audition for five spots at the annual Basketball Without Borders camp. It was Mbah a Moute's effort to provide Cameroonian kids the opportunity to find success through basketball.

"Without that camp," Embiid says, "how else does anyone find me?"
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