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March 14, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Basketball has been an international game for a long time but it is still an emerging sport in some countries.
One of those places is Cameroon, a country of some 20 million people located in west central Africa. The game is gaining in popularity there and the caliber of play is improving. It might surprise people that the foreign country with the most players in the ACC this year is Cameroon, with three.
Those players are Kenny Kadji of Miami, Arnaud William Adala Moto of Wake Forest and Landry Nnoko of Clemson. Kadji is a senior and the other two are freshmen.
Kadji, a 6-foot-11 forward, hasn’t lived in Cameroon since he was 15, but he retains great pride in his country and feels basketball is a way to represent it. He’s 23 now, but people back home know a lot about him.
“People have pictures of me cutting down the nets and they are very proud of me there,” he said. “I get messages from them. I’m pretty sure people recognize my hard work.”
Kadji’s play is one of the reasons the Hurricanes earned the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament. They will open play Friday at noon against Boston College. Kadji is averaging 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds and made second team All-ACC.
“I’ve been playing basketball all my life, starting in Cameroon,” he said. “It was more of a fun game there; it wasn’t really organized basketball. I also played soccer and tennis and never thought I would try to be a professional at anything.”
But when he began to grow taller and get good at the basketball, Kadji’s parents decided to see how far it could take him so they moved to France. Although he was initially homesick, his game improved and he played on some travel teams that gave him exposure. That led to a scholarship at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and from there he signed with Florida.
His experience with the Gators wasn’t a good one – he didn’t play much as a freshman and got hurt and missed most of his sophomore season. He transferred to Miami, sat out the required year, and finally got back on the court last season under new coach Jim Larranaga.
“When I came here the game was way faster, with better athletes,” he said of basketball in the U.S. “Overseas it’s more skill sets; over here the athletes jump higher and run faster.”
He has always been a good shooter but Kadji has become a better post-up player, driver and ball-handler. He has also tried to become a more physical presence.
Many players from Cameroon don’t get started in basketball until their teen-age years. There’s not a long list of notable players from there – the two best have probably been Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, who graduated from Georgetown in 2001, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, former UCLA standout now in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.
But there are signs Cameroonian basketball players are getting better. One of this year’s top high school recruits is 7-foot Joel Embiid from The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., who has committed to Kansas.
Wake Forest’s Adala Moto, a 6-6 forward, played soccer until the sixth or seventh grade, but when he began to grow his friends “dragged me into basketball” and he liked it right away. He knew something about the sport because his brother, Parfait Bitee, played point guard at Rhode Island and is still playing as a professional overseas, currently in Angola.
Adala Moto also came to the U.S. for high school (Episcopal School in Virginia). As the Deacons entered their tournament game against Maryland tonight, Adala Moto was averaging 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds and had earned a spot in Wake’s starting lineup by mid-season. He’s long, athletic and quick and when he refines some aspects of his game he could become a very fine player.
Clemson’s Nnoko is a cousin of Mbah a Moute but just decided to start playing basketball one day on his own. He grew to 6-10 and landed at Montverde Academy in Florida and from there he signed with the Tigers. His defense is ahead of his offense, and heading into Clemson’s game Thursday night against Florida State he was averaging 1.0 points and 1.4 rebounds.
All three players have overcome the obstacles of learning to live in a different country. At home, Kadji grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s families. Adala Moto, the youngest of five children, lived in a crowded, busy city. French is their native language but here they had to learn English. The food was different and their family and friends were far away.
“It gets lonely sometimes,” Adala Moto, “especially Parents’ Weekend when everyone is there with their family. But the guys (teammates) are always here and they’re like my family now, and all the coaches. That’s the way I look at it.”
Adala Moto said he uses Skype to communicate with his parents, usually on Sundays when it’s late at night in North Carolina. His parents have never seen him play since he has been in the United States. In fact, he said his mother isn’t that big a basketball fan. She used to be a teacher and, he said, “is all about academics.”
Deacons coach Jeff Bzelik remembers talking to Adala Moto’s mother during the recruiting process and she was unaware of what ACC basketball means in the U.S.
“All she made me promise was that he’d get a great education, which he will get at Wake Forest,” Bzdelik said. “School is a four-year investment in the next 30 to 40 years of his life. That was her only concern.”
Adala Moto understands his mother’s feeling about him going to college in America.
“As long as I’m going to school and doing well and if I’m healthy and playing well, she’s fine with it,” he said.
Kadji, Adala Moto and Nnoko don’t know each other well but they sometimes will talk in French after their teams play each other. Kadji didn’t get a chance to talk with Adala Moto because Wake Forest fans stormed the court after the Deacons knocked off Miami in Winston-Salem.
“I know people that know them because Cameroon is a small country,” Kadji said. “Arnaud came on a visit to Miami so I talked to him a couple of times. One of Nnoko’s friends sent me a message on Facebook telling me all about him.
“I talked to Nnoko after our last home game, told him what to do and how to be successful in the ACC, things like that. I want to get to know these guys; it’s always great when you have support from your country.”
Kadji wants the younger players to be able to come to him for advice. He feels, in some respects, that he carries a banner for Cameroon.
“Seeing athletes from home be successful here and playing well, you always want to see that,” he said. “Our continent doesn’t have that many good basketball players, we’re not as well represented as people from Europe and South America.
“When I see someone like that I always try to give them some advice and I want them to come talk to me so we can get better and be successful.”
And the advice?
“How to work hard, what you have to do in practice, give 110 percent every day, just keep your head up and work hard,” Kadji said.
And that’s what helps to make a good basketball player from any country.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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