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Started From Yaoundé, Now He’s Here

How Joel Embiid came from Cameroon, a soccer country of 23 million people and just two indoor basketball courts, to become a top-three pick in the 2014 NBA draft

I’d like to tell you about Joel Embiid. After all, he’s the reason we’re here, running through traffic on a May morning in Cameroon, begging drivers to not run us over and, if possible, to also give us a ride.

I’d like to tell you about the court nearby where Embiid first dunked a basketball, about the men who had to plead with Embiid’s parents to let him play. About the way he used to cry when conditioning drills reached their sadistic apex, and how, when the workouts ended, he’d ask the coach to make him do them again. Embiid was just selected third overall in the NBA draft; he’ll be heading to Philadelphia even after foot surgery threatened to tank his stock. But before he made his way to Florida for high school or to Lawrence, Kansas, for college, or, now, to the 76ers, Embiid first picked up a ball here in Yaoundé.

Right now we’re hopping on the back of a motorbike. No taxis would take us — too much traffic, they all said — so instead we’re helmetless and soaring, rattling over rocks and slithering around Fiats and Peugeots, down alleys and across boulevards, all in search of a slab of concrete where, we’ve been told, basketball will be played.

And before we get to Embiid, while we ride I’d like to tell you about Melvin Eyabi. Melvin is up on the bike in front of us. He’s sharp-nosed and sinewy, and he’s sitting with the posture of someone who is clearly not about to piss himself out of fear — which is to say, in this moment, he looks absolutely nothing like me.

To understand Joel Embiid, or at least to understand this small slice of the world that helped turn him into the highest-drafted African-born player since Hasheem Thabeet in 2009, you need to know a little about Melvin. Melvin plays basketball. He is good. He’s a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, and he can slide over to the point when his coach lets him, and he plays for the Cameroonian national team, alongside guys who compete for Division I schools and, occasionally, alongside Luc Richard Mbah a Moute of the Timberwolves.

Melvin hops off his bike. I unclench my legs and loosen their ironclad Thighmaster grip from my driver’s hips, then stumble onto the concrete. We pay and start walking up the hill and toward the court, and Melvin launches back into the topic that has dominated the day. It’s not Embiid.

“Carlos fucking Boozer, man,” he says. Six thousand miles away, the NBA playoffs have begun. Melvin’s a Bulls fan. He’s displeased. “Get that guy the fuck off the court. I don’t care what [Bulls coach Tom] Thibodeau has done. Any coach that plays Boozer in a playoff game doesn’t deserve his job.”

There’s a reason why Melvin fills every silence with his observations on the NBA. It’s the same reason why the coaches we will soon meet under a tree introduce themselves by asking me to predict who will reach the NBA Finals. Cameroon is inhospitable to hoops obsessives. If you want to be technical, you’d call it the second most popular sport in the country, but technicalities are often lies. “It’s football, football, football,” Melvin says. “No one cares about basketball — not really. There is only one sport in Cameroon.”

Embiid might be the next great African big man, but if you ask randomly around his home country, you’ll be lucky to find anyone who even knows he exists. So out in the fields where boys in Samuel Eto’o jerseys kick soccer balls, and down in the streets where traffic convulses its way through rush hour, Joel Embiid doesn’t really mean anything. But Melvin is here to show me the sliver of Cameroonian society where basketball does matter, where Carlos Boozer causes justifiable outrage, and where Embiid is not just another member of the Cameroonian diaspora, but rather the culmination of several lives’ worth of work.

Click here for more on the 2014 NBA draft.

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We start in Yaoundé. It’s the capital and Embiid’s hometown, a French- and English-speaking city that sits in the center of the country and veins outward over and around seven hills. In the neighborhood of Nlongkak, on a patch of land tucked behind a row of apartments, we find the basketball court.

Oui, oui, let’s go!” shouts a man in a polo shirt and a baseball cap, wandering up and down the sideline. He organizes a group of teenagers, mostly boys but one girl, into formation for a three-man weave. Up and down the court they run.

This is the court where Embiid learned to play basketball. It’s beat to shit. It slopes. It cracks. In places it juts. Wayward dribbles bounce off course. Bounce passes travel according to the ravaged blacktop’s whims. It’s home to a few divots and more than a few empty beer bottles.

At center court stands Guy Moudio, coach of the Kossengwe Basketball Club. When I ask what would make his job easier, he says, “A gym.” Then he laughs. “But it’s not good for me to dream.”

Moudio takes a moment to think back on his most famous player, Embiid. Coaching him was easy, he explains. The hard part was convincing his parents to let him play. “People in Cameroon don’t understand what we do with basketball players,” he says. There are two ways for young athletes to approach sports in Cameroon. They can treat them as a hobby — running track for school, playing handball with friends — or they can dedicate their lives to becoming professionals.

Elite soccer players become consumed with training by the time they reach age 15, and many drop out of school to work toward earning opportunities to play in Europe. For Cameroonian parents, this seems like an acceptable risk. Their kid might not finish his education, but how badly will he need one if he makes it to the Barclays Premier League or France’s Ligue 1?

“Parents see [Cameroonian soccer stars] Samuel Eto’o or Alex Song, and they think, My son can do that,” says Moudio. “With basketball, they don’t see that. They might know Luc Mbah a Moute, but even he’s not famous enough — some people don’t know who he is.”

So Moudio, like most every other youth basketball coach in Cameroon, often has to take time to explain: No, this isn’t just a hobby. Yes, your child can benefit from playing this game. And no, taking it seriously doesn’t mean quitting school.

So it was with Embiid. His father, a military colonel, preferred that Joel stick to volleyball. Volleyball was casual and low-contact, something that would never threaten to interfere with his son’s education.

Years ago, back when basketball coaches in Cameroon were even more scarce than they are today, Moudio likely never would have been able to convince Colonel Embiid to let his son pursue the sport. Joel would have finished school, kept up volleyball, gone to a local university, and begun work toward a comfortable middle-class existence. No one would have questioned it. No one would have wondered if the 7-footer in the office next to them and in the house next door had ever played in the NBA. But fortunately for Joel Embiid, times have changed.

They have changed because of men like Joe Touomou. As a child in Yaoundé, Touomou was a soccer goalie. At least, that is, until construction began on a basketball court across the street from his home. For most Cameroonians, soccer is more convenient than basketball. For Touomou, the opposite was true. As a goalkeeper, he needed a friend to help him practice going for saves. As a kid who lived across the street from a basketball court, all he needed was a few hours of daylight and a ball.

Touomou had a cousin who lived in New Jersey who would send tapes of Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson back to Yaoundé. Touomou studied the great point guards, trying to make their moves his own. He played at home and at school, and at age 15, he earned an invite to a camp in Egypt. There, he was discovered by a Dutch NBA scout who helped him connect with a prep school in North Carolina. He moved to the United States. He kept improving. And soon enough, he ended up at Georgetown and became the first Cameroonian to play Division I ball.

Touomou has spent his career since then working in various capacities within the basketball industry — as a scout for the Indiana Pacers and a consultant for African federations, among other roles — always with an eye on Cameroon. He has organized camps and worked to develop coaches. He has rejoiced over the successes of Cameroonians in the United States — Alfred Aboya at UCLA, Steve Tchiengang at Vanderbilt, Alexis Wangmene at Texas, Kenny Kadji at Miami, and Luc Mbah a Moute in the NBA.

Yet even as the culture of basketball has grown in his country, the process of finding and nurturing talent has remained something of a crapshoot. “I didn’t care about basketball or even know anything about it,” remembers Tchiengang, the former Vandy forward who now plays professionally in Canada.1 “I was a soccer player. But then one day a coach came up to me and said I should play because I was tall. So I did.”

In the United States, coaches may recruit by luring basketball players away from other colleges or AAU teams. In Cameroon they recruit by luring them away from other sports. Even as the game has grown, hardly any boys in Cameroon grow up playing basketball. The ones who find their way to the sport all seem to tell stories like Tchiengang’s. They were soccer players or volleyball players or nonathletes until one day a coach spotted them and suggested they try hoops. “Think about all the kids we’re missing,” says Francois Enyegue, coach at the University of Yaoundé. “The only people who play are people who coaches find. How many talented players are there in other parts of the country where there aren’t any basketball coaches? None of those kids will ever learn how to play.”

We like to describe success as the result of talent and hard work. But that ignores a crucial third element: getting really goddamn lucky. Everyone in the NBA was lucky to have been born in a particular place at a particular time that allowed for their gifts to be discovered, cultivated, and eventually compensated. This sort of good fortune may be taken for granted in the United States, but it played a vital role in Embiid’s journey to the NBA. If he had grown up in a more rural region of Cameroon, or if he had walked around Yaoundé without ever catching a coach’s eye, he probably never would have picked up the sport that will make him a millionaire.

But once the coaches managed to discover him, and once they began trying to convince Embiid’s father to let Joel play, they weren’t going to let him get away. On a trip to Cameroon in 2010, Touomou went out of his way to meet with Embiid’s father, who explained his concerns.

“I want him to focus on school,” he said.

“If you let him play basketball,” Touomou told him, “he might not need to go to school. Someday he might be able to buy his own school.”

Embiid’s father relented. His son could play. The only problem, says Moudio: “He was terrible.” This brought up another issue often faced by Cameroonian coaches. If a kid doesn’t get coached until he’s almost fully grown, how much basketball can he learn?

Moudio brings this up while we’re standing on the periphery of the court in Yaoundé. The sun is slipping away, which means practice is nearing its end. Moudio points to his players, aged between 13 and 18. “They are playing hard,” he says, “but they have so much to learn.” An assistant, who introduces himself as Jordan, screams instructions in a combination of French and English.

“Deny, deny, deny!”

Appelez la pick-and-roll!”

“No fade! Vous n’êtes pas Kobe!”

Cameroonian coaches want to build programs for younger children, perhaps starting as early as age 6. But even if there are enough families out there willing to let their elementary-aged kids play, challenges would persist. “Where would we play?” asks Moudio. “Here?” Playing on this court means sprinting after air balls as they bounce into the street. For some players, it means commuting across town. And for all, it means, inevitably, patching yourself up when a fall to the pavement leaves you scraped and bloody.

Maybe they could find a gym. But in Cameroon, a nation of nearly 23 million people, there are only two proper gymnasiums. Again: two. One is a 5,000-seat arena in the center of Yaoundé, built in 2009 by the Chinese government. It serves as a concert hall, an exhibition center, and, occasionally, a place where people play basketball. The other gym is in the very same building, down in the basement. Even Melvin, a former college standout and a member of his country’s national team, has played the vast majority of his organized basketball outside.

All this is to say that Cameroon’s coaches have gotten used to working with teenage athletic marvels who have absolutely no idea how to play basketball. Embiid was no exception. “He thought he was Kevin Durant,” says Moudio. Embiid had never been taught to shoot, but that didn’t stop him from launching (and missing) 3s. He had never learned to dribble, but from the moment he picked up a ball he was trying to cross up defenders at every opportunity. And when those crossovers led to Embiid chasing the ball into the street, as they often did, he would just get back on the court and try the same move — with the same disastrous results — all over again.

In his first organized basketball game, Embiid faced a team running a full-court press. Unsure of his assignment, he floated to half court, where a teammate passed him the ball. Defenders swarmed. Embiid held the ball to the sky, maintained his pivot foot, and turned — to his coach. “What do I do?” he yelled at the sideline. “What do I do?”

“Pass!” yelled Moudio, so he did. Crisis averted. It could only get better from there. Two games later, Embiid bragged to his teammates that he was going to hit a 3. On his very first touch, busted shooting form and all, he did just that. Within weeks he was wrestling away most every rebound and lording over the paint, and now, if you look at the basket on the near side of this court, you can still see players shooting on a bent, nearly unhinged rim. That was Embiid’s doing. He dunked too hard.

Then came the video. It’s the most important chapter in the fast-growing body of Embiid lore — the tape of Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon that changed the way Embiid saw the game. In actuality, the tape included more than just Olajuwon. It was a supercut of 1990s centers, also featuring David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. Moudio had received it from a friend. He had never instructed players to watch tape before, but Embiid was growing desperate for any piece of information he could find on his new sport. “Here,” Moudio told him, “you might like this.

The tape didn’t come with any special instructions. While Moudio was concerned about Embiid’s fundamentals, the coach actually didn’t mind his young big man’s affinity for playing outside. The tape of Olajuwon wasn’t intended to be a lesson. Embiid liked to watch basketball, so Moudio gave him a video. That was it. “I never force big guys to play in the post,” he says. “I want everyone to know how to play every position.” If Embiid was going to be a swingman, that was fine. Moudio just wanted him to be a swingman who knew to keep his elbow in on jump shots and his knees bent when handling the ball.

But after one night with the tape, Embiid didn’t want to be a swingman anymore. “I want to be Olajuwon,” he told Moudio. From then on, every day was built around reaching that goal. He’d mimic Olajuwon’s Dream Shake, finding that even if he couldn’t put the ball in the basket, he could still move with a fluidity and grace that approximated Olajuwon’s moves. He’d strap on a weight vest and stand near the basket while Moudio lofted ball after ball to the sky, jumping to catch each one at its apex. Sometimes, he’d cry from the pain. He’d learn a move from coaches one day, then put it to use in a game the next.

Embiid wasn’t the best player in Cameroon — hell, he wasn’t even the best player for his own club — but Moudio had never seen someone improve so fast. Soon Mbah a Moute spotted Embiid while on a trip to Cameroon for a basketball camp. He invited Embiid to South Africa to compete in the prestigious, Africa-wide Basketball Without Borders camp. From there, Embiid headed to the United States to attend Florida’s Montverde Academy, Mbah a Moute’s alma mater and home to a number of Cameroonian athletes.

And here’s another bit of luck in Embiid’s story: He was allowed to enter the United States. For many Cameroonian players, this is the biggest challenge. They have the raw talent, and they have the connections, and they even have the American private school scholarships and host families waiting for them, but when it comes time for the paperwork, everything falls through. According to Melvin, that’s what happened to him.

When applying for U.S. visas, foreign nationals must convince immigration officials that they plan to return to their home countries when the visas expire. For Embiid, this wasn’t terribly difficult. He has a well-connected family waiting back home in Cameroon. If his basketball career goes bust, he’ll likely have a nice life waiting for him. Melvin wasn’t so lucky. He’s an orphan, and without an obvious, stable nuclear family situation, he could seem like a risk to overstay his visa. “They ask, what do you have here that’s going to make you come back?” he says. “I guess for me they think I don’t have anything.” Visa denied.2

When Embiid finally left, visa in hand and only 16 years old, his coaches and teammates weren’t sure where he’d end up. Says Moudio: “I thought if he kept improving, he could play in college. But it’s hard to even know what it means to be an NBA player. We see the players on TV, and we see Luc when he’s here, but without seeing them up close we can’t really know how good they are. So we couldn’t really know if Joel was good enough to make it.”

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He was. He went from Montverde to The Rock School in Gainesville, Florida, to the University of Kansas and now to Philadelphia. All in less than three years.

He might be the next Olajuwon, or perhaps the next Yao Ming, or maybe the next Greg Oden, but the fact remains: Embiid made it. He’s an NBA player — the third in Cameroon’s history, and chances are he’ll become the best player the country has produced. Before I leave Cameroon, Melvin wants to show me one more piece of the basketball scene here that Embiid left behind. We take a bus three hours west to Douala, Cameroon’s biggest city and economic hub. We ride in taxis and on motorbikes, and we eat fufu and chicken spaghetti, and we walk — through markets and down choking avenues, under Central Africa’s powerful sun — until sweat has turned my shirt from Tar Heel blue to navy. And then, finally, we reach our destination: the University of Douala, host of Cameroon’s university games.

We walk over one last hill, and down in the valley we see them: thousands of students from all over the country, dancing and flirting and drinking, all at least nominally in the name of sport. To our far right, we hear screams coming from a crowd that surrounds two wrestlers near the end of a match. To our far left, we see an expansive dirt clearing that’s been turned into a soccer pitch. And just in front of us, there are three courts: One for handball, one for volleyball, and, in the middle, one for basketball.

The University of Douala is playing the University of Yaoundé II. Some players look pretty good. Others look pretty bad. And that, really, is all there is to say about the basketball.

Instead, let’s talk about everything else. Let’s talk about the drummers, right down there in front, of an indeterminate number and an inordinate sound; and let’s talk about the dancers, stepping to choreography dictated by the beats of the drums, wearing pigtailed blonde wigs and backward baseball caps, moving with such precision, such certainty, that they make you feel embarrassed that you’re not dancing in a pigtailed blonde wig too. Amid the revelry, it’s unclear if anyone is paying attention to the game.

But if you look hard enough, you can find people invested in what’s happening on the court. There’s Kevin Ngwese, an assistant coach with the National Institute of Youth and Sports and, along with Melvin, one of the only domestic-based players on the Cameroonian national team. “I never thought Embiid was very good,” he says when I mention the reason I’m here. “He wouldn’t play big. He wouldn’t use his body. But I guess he learned how.”

Even as Embiid has flourished, back home few people know what to make of him. He left Cameroon so early in his development, and though the diehards here have no problem staying up until 5 a.m. to watch NBA games, the Big 12 regular season didn’t get much airtime on Cameroonian television. “It’s crazy that they say he’s this kind of a player now,” says Ngwese. “Maybe going number one in the draft? I guess we’ll see.”

Thursday night in Brooklyn, we saw. We saw Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins, bedecked in a flower-stencil suit, go no. 1 overall. And we saw Jabari Parker, perhaps the first man to ever want less money and less prestige all so he could play in Milwaukee, go at no. 2.

All the while, I was texting with Melvin, who was back in Yaoundé. It was after midnight there, and the draft wasn’t on TV, but he’d found a stream online. The connection was slow and the picks came with a delay, but there in his home, he watched.

“I think he will go to Lakers,” Melvin wrote. This, he said, was what Embiid had predicted in a Facebook chat. But Melvin didn’t have access to the Wojnarowskis and Chad Fords of the world, so when I told him people were saying Embiid might go to Philly, he seemed surprised.

Then NBA commissioner Adam Silver returned to the stage, stood at the lectern, and announced pick no. 3: Joel Embiid. All around Barclays Center, fans who had made the drive up I-95 cheered. In Los Angeles, video cameras caught Embiid smiling alongside his parents. And back home in Cameroon, the sliver of the population who care about these things checked their phones or their video feeds to see that their country’s best hope for producing a basketball star had just taken the next major step.

“Philly,” Melvin texted.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Not too bad.” 

Filed Under: 2014 NBA Draft, Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers, International Basketball, Luc Mbah a Moute

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn