Hoop Dreams

By Kazadi, Sarah M. | Newsweek, March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Hoop Dreams


Kazadi, Sarah M., Newsweek


Byline: Sarah M. Kazadi

Two athletes bring their talent from Congo to the American court.

From a distance, she looks like a walking tower. Her slim, six-foot-four frame casts a shadow twice as large, moving in giant strides under a scorching Arizona sun. On most days, Emilie Muanandibu is accompanied by Lisette Longomo, a six-foot tower in her own right. Today, they're heading to their basketball coach's house to cook fufu na mbisi.

"When we took this walk in the summer, people would stop and ask us if we needed a ride," Muanandibu said. "No one could understand why we were walking in such heat."

The pleasure at the other end of this self-inflicted pain is worth it, though. Eating fufu, a mixture of corn flour and grains, with mbisi, sauteed or grilled fish, beats the monotony of cafeteria food at Arizona Western College. Once or twice a month, the two Congolese players on the Lady Matadors basketball team indulge in this traditional meal and reminisce.

"There are no barriers when it comes to fufu. Regardless of where you are you can eat it," Longomo said through a mouthful.

A little more than a year ago, eating fufu meant toiling in her mother's kitchen in Limete, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The run-down, concrete basketball court where she met Muanandibu was a short walk away. To escape the pitfalls of life in war-torn Congo, the tweens joined basketball club Hatari and began spending most of their time outside of the classroom honing their hoops skills.

In August 2011, Longomo and Muanandibu became two of AWC Head Coach Patrick Cunningham's chosen few. After seeing videos of the pair on YouTube, the women's basketball coach added them to his list of international recruits, making them the second and third Congolese players he has coached at AWC. Their adjustment to life in the U.S. makes them a small part of a large group of African athletes playing collegiate sports nationwide.

The NCAA doesn't track the growth in African players in American college athletics, but as sports website Overtime Africa reports, there has been a steady growth. Nearly 250 men's basketball Division I players hail from the continent. Cunningham stresses that bolstering a roster with foreign talent is nerve-wracking.

"You can't bring everybody, the girl has to be really good," he said. "With all our players, whether they're from the Congo or from the U.S., we're trying to get them to grow and advance their lives. To provide that opportunity is something that I'm fully for."

In 2009, Cunningham received a YouTube link of team forward Jolie Olingende's highlights from Madame Guy Kasenga, the part-time secretary and full-time team mom of club Hatari. After an ongoing cyberexchange, Olingende moved to Arizona and paved the way for future Hatari club members to follow.

"There's a big door that has been opened for us by a man who we only know on the Internet," said Kasenga, who cofounded club Hatari in 1996. For the past two decades, the former basketball player has scavenged Kinshasa's roughest neighborhoods for young girls in need of guidance. About 90 percent of her players are orphans, she says, stressing that playing a motherly role is crucial.

"I love them, and I want to show them that with school and with sports, they can win in life," said Kasenga.

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