Luc of the draw?

Luc of the draw?
Bucks hope Mbah a Moute becomes latest second-round gem
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

The Bucks draft Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with the 37th pick in the 2nd round of the 2008 NBA Draft. (Getty)
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July 9, 2008

MILWAUKEE -- When Luc Richard Mbah a Moute became a teenager -- one whose natural athletic abilities were superior to most of his peers’ -- he shared at least one dream with thousands of boys his age all over the world: to follow the bouncing ball as far as it would take him.

Nine years later, Mbah a Moute is still in hot pursuit. But he had no idea how far and wide his quest would take him when it began, and what dramatic changes were in store for him along the way. If someone had told him, he would never have believed it.

"I would have said, 'Oh, man. That's crazy,'" he admitted.

And no one could have blamed him.

On June 26, the Milwaukee Bucks selected the 21-year-old Mbah a Moute with their second-round pick in the 2008 National Basketball Association Draft, the 37th overall choice.

A mere nine years ago, Luc had yet to play his first organized game of basketball. The bouncing ball he chased back then was of an entirely different variety.

"In 2000, I was playing soccer," he said. "I had a dream and hope to be a professional soccer player."

That was only natural.

Luc's father, Camille Moute a Bidias, was once a standout club soccer player in Cameroon, a country with a population of about 18 million people that is located in the west central region of the continent of Africa. His proficiency in the sport earned him a tryout with the country's national team.

Camille Moute a Bidias emerged as a leader, too, and not just on the soccer field. He is the chief of a rural village of about 4,000 citizens, Bafia (Bia Messe), which is about 80 miles north of Cameroon's capital city of Yaounde. As a high-ranking government official, he manages Cameroon’s National Employment Fund, a national training and job-placement agency.

By heritage, Luc and his five brothers are princes, and their three sisters are princesses.

Luc's royal duties to this point in his life have been confined to participating in ceremonies, dances and festivals, at which he wears traditional royal garb. Someday, Luc's father will designate one of his sons to assume his position as village chief, just as his father once handed over that responsibility to him.

"I personally don't know how that will work," Luc said. "My father has his duties now, and those are usually passed on whomever the father chooses -- usually the oldest son. I have five brothers and sisters, and three of my brothers are older than me, so I don't know what will happen in the future.

"My father was the only living male member of his family when his father died, and that's how his title was passed down to him."

Luc's father has already passed down some things to him apart from his royal title: a passion for soccer and a relentless competitive drive.

And with his father's nudge, when he entered his teens, Luc’s passion and drive were channeled into a new sport. He had his brothers began toying around with a homemade basketball hoop that consisted of a basket attached to a stick, propped up against a wall.

Luc’s father understood that athletes with Luc’s physical gifts were rare, and that he could make an ideal candidate for a college scholarship. One day, he presented Luc with some videos of Michael Jordan in his heyday with the Chicago Bulls. As Luc watched them over and over again, he became hooked on hoops.

"I only started playing organized basketball in 2001," he said. "I wound up going to the African 100, which at the time was a camp for the top 100 basketball players in Africa. It was in Johannesburg."

That camp developed into what is now known as "Basketball Without Borders," an NBA-sponsored, global basketball development and community outreach program that uses basketball to influence positive social change.

Former Bucks head coach Terry Stotts and former Bucks assistant coach Brian James have participated in the program, which has launched American collegiate and professional careers for a number of promising African hoops prospects.

Mbah a Moute takes great pride in being one of the program's trail blazers.

"It is a great experience," he said. "I was actually in the first class the first year they started doing that camp. Dikembe (Mutombo) was there, along with Mamadou N'Diaye, Desagana Diop and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, after he came out of Georgetown and was drafted by Portland. There were NBA coaches and player personnel guys there, and some of them were scouting for the NBA.

"The program has really taken off. Back when I was involved, it wasn't as popular. It's been really good for African basketball. There's a lot of talent there, and there's new hope there now, too. As good as it is, it's still developing, and that's really going to help African basketball in the future."

Mbah a Moute's involvement in the program put his basketball career on a fast track, and he hasn't slowed down since he climbed aboard.

He began talking with his father about coming to the United States for high school, with the prospect of earning a college basketball scholarship. Through a friend of his father's, who was a friend of a high school coach in Florida, Mbah a Moute ended up at Montverde (Fla.) Academy.

As he learned his basketball by leaps and bounds, Luc also learned about the transition game of life -- all at warp speed. For a 16-year-old who spoke very little English, one who was not only away from home for the first time, but thousands of miles away, the challenge was mind-boggling, but he was ready for it.

"Right after the camp (in Johannesburg), I moved to Florida and started high school there in 2003," Luc said. "I played there for two years."

Luc did more than simply play.

In his very first season of organized basketball, he averaged 12 points per game for the Montverde varsity, and adapted to the American education system well enough to make the honor roll.

The next year, he led Montverde in scoirng (18.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) and averaged 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot per game. He shot 54 percent from the field --an attention-grabbing 51 percent (35-of-68) from 3-point range.

Montverde won 15 of its final 17 games, toppling Edgewater, which was ranked No. 1 in Florida's Class 6A poll, twice within a week. The team moved up to second in the Orlando Sentinel Super 6 poll and finished 21-6.

Mbah a Moute was chosen to the all-tournament teams in the Iolani Classic and Montverde Academy Invitational, played in the Commonwealth Classic in Richmond, Va., with a team of national all-stars against a Virginia all-star team, and was a finalist for the Nike Hoops Summit All-Star Game. He was a Street & Smith's Honorable Mention All-American, a Scout.com Top 150 pick and was ranked the No. 15 prospect in Florida by FloridaHoops.com.

Through it all, Mbah a Moute was admittedly homesick. But one of the lessons he learned back in Cameroon carried him over whatever hurdles confronted him both on and off the basketball court.

On might call it the family value of valuing your family.

"Definitely," Luc said. "Since I came here by myself, team was so important. The best way to play basketball is to buy in with your teammates -- the guys you're going to be around all the time.

"I'm fortunate to have a good, strong family, and I've learned how important that is, and the concept of team. Wherever I've gone, I've always considered my team my family."

Mbah a Moute chose to travel all the way across the United States when he selected his next team, his next family. And he is glad that he did.

"I was very fortunate to have the people around me that I had at UCLA," he said. "I've been very fortunate in that regard."

Everyone with ties to the storied UCLA program, which has enjoyed a dramatic resurgence since the arrival of coach Ben Howland, undoubtedly feels just as fortunate that Mbah a Moute traveled around the world and then cross-country to Westwood.

Obscure to most college basketball followers upon his arrival, Mbah a Moute took the Pac 10 Conference by storm and was named the league's Freshman of the Year -- no small feat considering he broke in with the likes of Washington's Jon Brockman, a 2005 McDonald's All-American; and Arizona's Marcus Williams.

Luc's continued homesickness – he would not visit his homeland until two years later -- was aided by the presence of Alfred Aboya, another native of Cameroon who was a fellow member of UCLA's recruiting class. As they continued to learn English, they communicated with each other primarily in French, and adjusted together to American cuisine.

During his freshman campaign, Luc led the Pac-10 champion Bruins in rebounding with an average of 8.1 boards per game, put up 8.9 points per game and peaked on cue during the NCAA Tournament. His layup clinched a UCLA comeback win over Gonzaga, and he collected 17 points, nine rebounds and two steals in a Final Four win over LSU.

Luc's sensational freshman year was an extremely tough act to follow, but he responded to the challenge. He helped the Bruins repeat as Pac 10 champs and earn return trips to the Final Four in each of the next two seasons.

One of the highlights of Luc’s UCLA days came last spring, when his mother, Goufane a Ziem Agnes Bertine, and his father saw him play for the Bruins for the first time. They traveled from Cameroon to attend the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, Texas, and witnessed history in the making as their son became the first UCLA player ever to start in three straight Final Fours.

Luc, who had collected 13 points and 13 rebounds in UCLA’s regional-final victory over Xavier, delivered another double-double with his parents in the house, totaling 12 points and 13 boards in the Bruins’ season-ending national semifinal loss to Memphis.

Following his junior campaign, Mbah a Moute received honorable mention in the all-Pac-10 voting and found himself ranked 15th on the illustrious program’s all-time rebounding chart with 775 boards.

During his three years in Westwood, Mbah a Moute developed something of a cult following among UCLA fans. He and Aboya inspired the creation of a cheering section calling itself the “Cameroon Crazies” (a spinoff of Duke’s “Cameron Crazies”), and the students devised a popular t-shirt bearing the motto, “Moute Kicks Boute” on the front and the number 23 and “Prince” on the back.

Luc wholeheartedly appreciated the students’ support, but true to form, he declined to wear one of the shirts himself because he would have considered that arrogant.

"I was very fortunate to have the people around me that I had at UCLA," he said. "I've been very fortunate in that regard everywhere I’ve gone.”

Shortly after his record-setting Final Four stint, Mbah a Moute made the decision to enter the NBA Draft. The league’s Draft Media Guide described his strengths as follows: “Uses blend of length, athleticism, quickness and effort to be effective on the glass and on the defensive end. Has the ability to guard any position on the floor. Continues to make strides on the offensive end.”

The high grades that Mbah a Moute earned from the scouts for his defense did not come by accident.

"I've really worked hard at it,” he said. “I've been fortunate that I've been coached by people who have really concentrated on defense, from when I started playing the game back home until I got to UCLA.

“When I got there, I saw how you've really got to dig in, because it's all about defense. You've got to have the will and be committed to it, and that's something I've always tried to do. I've learned to embrace it. It's something I really love doing."

One of Luc’s pre-draft workouts took place in Milwaukee, and he believes a couple of lasting impressions were formed there.

"I felt they liked me,” he said. “I felt I had a good workout in Milwaukee, and I also felt a connection with the coach, the general manager and the rest of the staff.

“I felt like Milwaukee would be a good place for me.”

The Bucks agreed, snapping up Mbah a Moute with their second-round draft choice.

He enjoyed his welcome and introduction to Milwaukee the following week.

"It's been great,” he said. “It's been great getting to know people here. I've been working out some, conditioning.

“I got to go to Summerfest, which was pretty good. Otherwise, I've been driving around town with some of the players and coaches. I've met Desmond Mason and Awvee Storey. We've been working out.

“I'll be playing on the Bucks' summer league team, and I'm looking forward to meeting the other players as well."

Mbah a Moute is bound and determined to become an NBA player. His motivation is a bit different than what drives many of his contemporaries, because it spans into a truly big picture.

“Hopefully with the position I'm in with the Bucks, I can work hard and have enough success so I can help my government and my people overcome those hurdles and any others they encounter,” he said. “I know I'm not the only one; there are lots of other people doing that, too.

“The biggest thing is to reach out and help, and I'm willing to work in order to do that. It's hard for some of the countries in Africa. They're younger countries -- my country just won its independence in 1960. It's hard for young countries to keep up with others, such as those in Europe and America, which have been around for hundreds of years. Things have changed a lot already, though, and I'm hoping I can work hard and have enough success that I'll be able to continue to help bring about change there."

Luc wants to make an impact in the NBA, and he plans to make an even more profound impact in his homeland, regardless of whom his father designates as its leader one day. An estimated 48 percent of the citizens in Cameroon live below the poverty threshold today, and life expectancy is just over 50 years for the average male.

"I look at myself as an ambassador, for my family and for my country and also the whole continent of Africa,” Luc said. “I always want to be able to represent Africa in a good way.

“My ultimate goal is to help people and help my country as much as I can, and help my country reach its fullest potential. I'll do anything I can to make sure that happens."