"Just how did the African republic of Cameroon end up a centerpiece at the Final Four?" USA Today
Richard Mba a Moute, the confident swagger; Alfred Aboya, the ferocious determination; Joakim Noah, la rage de vaincre
NCAA basketball championship ends today with the finals pitting UCLA Bruins against the Florida Gators. To those unfamiliar with the NCAA tournament, it is the national basketball competition that brings together 64 college (i.e., university) teams. The 4 regional champions (West, East, Midwest and Southeast) compete in the annual NCAA Tournament which is also called the March Madness because the three-week-long event is usually organized in March. The winner of the tournament is crowned the national champion.
This is not just another university tournament like what we’re used to in Cameroon. It is a high stakes endeavor with huge financial returns where the crème de la crème of college basketball show-case their skills to the nation and to hundreds of scouts looking for potential draft picks for the NBA. It generates as much passion among Basketball aficionados as the African Nations Cup. To quote one observer,
"The NCAA tournament, "March Madness", or should one say "March/early April Madness", has been for years among the top echelon of American sports events which includes, among others, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and the College Football Championship. It is also one of network television’s most cherished events”
This year, March Madness has had a very African flavor thanks to three outstanding players of Cameroonian origin who have graced the tournament with their skills and who are coincidentally pitted against each other in this evening's epic championship game.
Luc Richard Mba a Moute - “The Prince of Bellwood”
First on the UCLA side, you have the kid with the unpronounceable name, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, aka "The Prince of Bellwood", who was voted the Pacific Ten Conference (Pac-10) freshman of the year (Best new player). Luc has, according to ESPN, “turned the NCAAs into his personal coming-out party". As the network put it, "Moute kicks Boute"(Moute Kicks butt). That Luc is today a basketball star is what fairy tales are made of. According to the same ESPN report:
"To this day, the story still lights the face of UCLA freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. And how could it not? Life was good back then. He loved soccer. His family. And eating boa constrictors. Dad was the chief of the local village in Cameroon, and he was one of the princes. Everything made sense -- that is, until his brother started coming home from school, bragging about this new game he had learned.
The rest, as they say is history.
Alfred Aboya, the big man in the shadows
Richard is ably assisted on UCLA's forward line by the ferocious Alfred Aboya who played basketball with him on the rough playgrounds of Yaounde. Even though he was plagued by injuries during the season, Aboya was still a key component in UCLA's journey to the final four. Aboya attended the Tilton, NH Prep Academy. He led the academy to its second consecutive New Hampshire Class B State Championship appearance in 2004-2005. As a junior in 2003-04, he led Tilton to the New Hampshire Class B State title.
Both Richard and Alfred have faced the same challenges here in the States, challenges that are familiar to thousands of immigrants. According the UCLA daily,
"But leaving behind their nearby West African villages in Yaounde, Cameroon and any semblance of a normal life in 2003 hasn't been easy.
Mbah a Moute landed at Montverde Academy in Florida. Aboya deplaned at Tilton Prep in New Hampshire. Neither was accompanied by anything besides his luggage and a few phrases of broken English.
"Good morning, good afternoon and good night," Mbah a Moute said. "That was about it."
"When we came here we didn't know anybody, and when we wanted to do something we had no idea where to go," said Aboya, whose full name is Aboya Baliaba Alfred Roland.
Joakim Noah, the "African Viking"
The third element in the Cameroon connection plays for the Florida Gators and like Mba a Moute, he has towered over his opponents during this tournament. He is Joakim Noah, son of Yannick Noah, the famed Franco-Cameroonian tennis star, currently the “psychological trainer” for Cameroon’s national football team, the Indomitable Lions. His mother is Miss Sweden 1978, Cecilia Rodhe. According to Brandenton:
A year ago, Noah and his passion were on the bench, a gawky 6-11 freshman who just didn't fit in -- the ultimate project who always seemed one step too slow physically and one step behind mentally. He was Bambi on ice.”
However, today he is described as “the fastest and most athletic big man in the country” and a potential NBA draft pick. Noah credits this change to a trip he made to Cameroon last summer to visit his grandfather, Zacharie Noah:
''After being on the bench all year I knew I needed to work on my game,'' Noah said. ``But it was important to make that trip to Africa. I needed that mentality, to go there. My grandfather told me to be humble, and to stay strong, and to keep working hard. He said he would pray for me. I am so much better for making that trip.
"A piece of my heart is always back in Africa. When the national anthem goes on, my mind goes back to Africa. It is a part of me.''
It is unlikely, however, that Noah will play for the barely functional Cameroon national basketball team. According to the International Herald Tribune,
Joakim does not yet have a French passport, but he clearly has the French coaching staff's attention after his dominating display (21 points and 15 rebounds) last weekend against Villanova - though it's not as though Yannick's son did not have their attention already.
"We've been following him for a long time," the French national team coach, Claude Bergeaud, told L'Équipe this week.
"Last year, I already said he was a player of great ability who we would certainly never see playing in Europe because his destiny was the NBA.
One for the history books
A fascinating tale of three players with three different stories with a Cameroonian connection; a connection that has spurned a group of fanatical supporters on both coasts who call themselves the "Cameroon Crazies".
So who will you root for tonight? For the two young men from Cameroon who miss eating boa constrictors and vipers, and whose American journey mirrors that of thousands of Africans? Or for the Franco-Cameroonian-American-Swedish kid who wasn’t obliged or even expected to care about his Cameroonian heritage, but who has not missed a chance in the past three weeks to remind the world of his roots in the heart of the African jungle?
Whomever you choose this will be a final for the history books!