LOS ANGELES – Three NBA draft picks currently playing in the league come from Cameroon: veteran Luc Mbah a Moute, and the two 22-year-olds Mbah a Moute helped discover.
The more frequently mentioned of those two younger Cameroonian players is Joel Embiid, the Sixers center bursting onto the scene now after getting selected third overall in 2014. The other is Pascal Siakam, a first-round 2016 pick who’s more quietly worked his way into the Raptors’ starting lineup.
When Siakam was in his early teenage years, he attended one of Mbah a Moute’s camps in Africa. Almost a decade later, Mbah a Moute said Siakam may not have known how much it meant to him to Siakam line up next to him for the first time in an NBA regular season game as the Clippers and Raptors tipped off Monday night at STAPLES Center.
“Very, very cool,” Mbah a Moute said. “Just really, really cool. I mean, I don’t even have words to describe the feeling I had tonight. Just seeing this kid…man...”
The typically soft-spoken and mild-mannered Mbah a Moute cracked a wide smile the minute Siakam’s name was brought up. After all, it's first time in NBA history two players from Cameroon faced off against each other, and they both happened to be in the starting lineup.
When Mbah a Moute first saw Siakam at his camp years ago, he remembers a kid athletic and talented enough to get selected to attend Basketball Without Borders, an NBA community outreach program that brings together the top youth players from an area to receive training from current and former NBA players and coaches.
Mbah a Moute started as a camper at BWB during the inaugural Africa camp in 2003, and he returns as much as he can, often to teach at the camp. Siakam, who was one of those campers Mbah a Moute taught, fondly recalls Basketball Without Borders as a “starting point.”
Siakam said many kids in Cameroon and throughout Africa just need an opportunity, and seeing Mbah a Moute and other NBA players return to the camp served as proof that the NBA dream was attainable – it allowed the opportunity to become more feasible.
“I don’t like to pinpoint an exact moment, but by that period of time, going to Basketball Without Borders, seeing guys like Luc Mbah a Moute, Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka – guys like that gave me the kind of thought that it’s possible,” Siakam said. “It’s definitely helpful to have that and I think it’s going to help other kids to see that it’s a reachable goal.”
Mbah a Moute, while knowing Siakam’s older brothers better, still always kept tabs on Siakam, who turned his opportunity as a kid into a standout career at New Mexico State, then turned that into becoming a first-round NBA selection.
Siakam said he spoke to Mbah a Moute after getting drafted No. 27 overall this year, then again when the Clippers and Raptors played in the preseason.
“He’s been really helpful, and it’s really great to have another Cameroonian in the NBA,” Siakam said. “It’s a special day to play against him, and with both of us starting.”
When Mbah a Moute thinks back to that 14- or 15-year-old Siakam at his camps, as talented as the kid was, he couldn’t have known where Siakam would end up today. Even for the best young athletes, projecting something like that is difficult.
“Even Joel, if you told me back then that Joel was going to be who he is today, I’d say, ‘Maybe’ – but you couldn’t tell,” Mbah a Moute said. “There are a lot of factors that go into how they develop, what school they go to, who’s their coach when they get here, how much playing time they get. There’s all those different factors that can go wrong not to be able to make it.”
But Siakam did.
And when they do, it’s difficult for Mbah a Moute to muster the words to describe the excitement.
His feelings reached an apex as Mbah a Moute took the floor next to Siakam in an NBA game Monday night. All they exchanged was a simple, “Hello,” at the time, but Mbah a Moute said it meant so much more than Siakam could’ve known.
“It’s pride,” Mbah a Moute said. “It’s excitement. It puts things in perspective, in a way. To me, I feel like somehow I was involved with him being here. It’s very gratifying.”
As Mbah a Moute finished getting dressed after a third straight win, he was on his way out to see if he could catch Siakam one more time.
“It’s one thing to kind of just make it to the NBA as a player, but it’s another thing to have been involved in another player making it to the NBA,” Mbah a Moute said. “It’s being a part of somebody’s dream coming true.”