It all began in 1995, with the creation of the Toronto Raptors. That’s when an Ottawa kid first fell in love with the game of basketball.
I started playing competitively at age 9, with the Gloucester Wolverines. Every weekend, we’d hit the road for tournaments in the GTA, bringing me closer to Vince Carter and the team I idolized. (There was even one player in the age group above us whose dad was a shooting guard for the Raptors named Dell Curry — his son happened to be Steph Curry).
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Obviously, I was hooked on the game, and also on the places it would take me. By high school, I was already getting farther afield, first to a specialized sports high school in New Mexico, and later to colleges in Texas and Arkansas.
Today, I am in Kinshasa representing Congo in the 2019 AFROCAN, a qualifier for the 2020 Olympics. I am a proud son of Congolese immigrants who came to Canada fleeing poverty.
So this latest adventure is kind of a homecoming.
I had never been to Congo before 2017, when I first got the invitation to play for my country of origin at AfroBasket.
When I landed in Kinshasa I was soon surrounded by my many uncles, aunts and cousins. The highlight was meeting my cousin Jean-Jacques for the first time. We are the same age and had talked on Facebook, but had never met.
He walked seven miles with no shoes to come see me. We both broke down crying. I now understood the sacrifices my parents made, because that could have just as easily been me.
That year, Congo made it to the AfroBasket quarterfinals for the first time since 1960. That sent the country into a frenzy, with 80 million people calling us heroes, or in the local language of Lingala, “Djogoes.”
Our country does not have a huge basketball tradition, but the love for the sport is deep. We have never won an international title, but starting July 16, I am hoping to help rewrite that history on this latest stop on my journey, which began so many years ago in Ottawa.
Everyone knows there’s no guarantee that your passion for sport will turn into a professional career.
That’s why, when I finished my college journalism degree, I was feeling uncertain. That changed with a phone call, landing me my first professional contract in Hamburg, Germany. I packed my bags for what I thought would be a dream job.
Come Christmas, that dream had turned into a nightmare as the reality of being a pro player settled in. By December our team had a record of one win and 13 losses. The coach who brought me in was fired and the club was threatening to terminate my contract. Combined with the language barrier, the strange food and sub-par play, I was ready to call it quits.
Bear in mind that professional basketball in Europe is very different than in the NBA. Contracts are not guaranteed and players get fired left and right. It takes a lot of mental strength to go into a game knowing if you do not perform you will be on the first flight home in the morning.
I still remember the date — January 13, 2013 — the game that saved my career.
We were facing the best team in the league. We had a new coach from Serbia who didn’t like foreigners with an American style of play like me. He was ready to fire me but I had something to say about that. I pulled out 36 points, 19 rebounds and a win to save our season and my career.
Since then, professional basketball has put a lot more ink on my passport, from a brief stint back in Ottawa with the now-defunct Ottawa Skyhawks, to Luxembourg, Serbia, Denmark, Spain, France, Slovakia and even Iraq.
In fact, Iraq was one of the toughest gigs I’ve had. I was provided with an apartment in Basrah, with food delivered three times a day. Sounds pretty sweet, but the reality was, I couldn’t leave my apartment without my assigned bodyguard/driver.
And there was the culture shock to deal with, too. There was no alcohol, no pork. In the stands at our games, there were no women. I was alone a lot and that was difficult. But it also allowed me to grow as a person.
One thing I have learned through all this is you have to be open minded. It is challenging to play with a coach who doesn’t speak your language. It is hard being away from family for nine months of the year. It is hard adapting to a new culture every few months.
But it is also rewarding to see so much of the world, doing what you love.