Bucks rookie living a "dream"
Born and raised in Yaounde, the capital city of the Republic of Cameroon in west-central Africa, Mbah a Moute wasn’t some precocious phenom discovered in middle school, coddled in high school and polished in summer camps. He didn’t tour with an AAU team or make Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.”
Mbah a Moute’s game was soccer and he was pretty good, tall and gangly but fast and athletic. When Cameroon won the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games, he stayed up all night, celebrating in the streets with his friends.
If he wasn’t playing soccer, he was helping plant corn or cassava on his grandparents’ farm in Bia Messe, a village on the outskirts of Yaounde, or hunting rabbits or swimming in the river.
To go from there—halfway around the world, living in a country where 48 percent of the population is below the poverty threshold and 30 percent are unemployed—to here—22-year-old rookie starter for the Milwaukee Bucks, making more money in one year than his childhood friends will make in their lifetimes—well, it boggles the mind.
“It’s a dream every day I wake up,” Mbah a Moute says. “For me to come all the way from where I came to be here, it’s unbelievable. There’s a lot of people who never would have imagined this could happen. Even my friends back home, when I talk to them, they’re like, ‘I can’t believe it.’
“It gives a lot of people hope. All my friends were poor. I grew up in a neighborhood where guys had nothing. So for me to be here, it gives them hope. They say, ‘If he can make it—a guy we played soccer with, a guy we grew up with—then we can make it.’ “
Halfway through his rookie season, Mbah a Moute, a 6-foot-8 forward, has established himself as a bona fide NBA starter. Though his offensive game is a work in progress—he averages 7.7 points and takes just 6.4 shots a game—he has proven to be the team’s best defender and an excellent rebounder.
Still, Bucks fans probably don’t know much about him, other than the widely circulated story that he is a prince in Bia Messe (more on that later) and that he started on three consecutive Final Four teams at UCLA, though he never averaged more than 9.1 points per game.
Mbah a Moute is described by friends and teammates as mature beyond his years. He attributes that to his upbringing in Yaounde, a city of 1.4 million. His father, Camille Moute a Bidias, worked for the government and always had enough food on the table for his eight children.
“My dad did a very, very good job raising us,” Mbah a Moute says. “Even though we weren’t poor, we were raised like we were poor so we would appreciate what we had. Pretty much all my friends were poor. I went to public schools and all my classmates were poor.”
Many of his friends dropped out of school to toil on farms for $1 a day.
“In Cameroon, you’re taught as a boy to be tough, like a man,” Mbah a Moute says. “You’re told, ‘You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be strong.’ You face a lot of situations. You see people dying because they don’t have medicine or they don’t have food.”
Asked if he witnessed friends die as a youth, Mbah a Moute nods in a way that does not invite follow-up questions.
“Cameroonian people,” says Jules Thierry Mounda, Mbah a Moute’s uncle and a student at the UW-La Crosse, “are very strong people mentally.”
Mbah a Moute started playing basketball when he was about 15, a development that came as a surprise to an older brother, Armel Minyem, the family’s basketball pioneer and the first of three siblings to attend college in the United States (Mbah a Moute’s twin brother, Emmanuel Bidias a Moute, is a junior forward at Texas State University).
Minyem was a 6-9 reserve forward at Rider University in New Jersey when he learned that young Luc had gravitated toward basketball.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Minyem, who manages a health club in the Washington, D.C., area. “When I came here, he wasn’t playing basketball. He was playing soccer.”
Within a couple years, Mbah a Moute was good enough to be invited to Africa 100, a camp in South Africa for the 100 best players on the continent.
At about the same time, Kevin Sutton became the head coach at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, an international college preparatory boarding school about 25 miles northwest of Orlando. Sutton found out about Mbah a Moute through a friend who had seen him play in Africa.
Against his father’s wishes—Camille Moute a Bidias wanted his son to study in Canada—Mbah a Moute accepted Sutton’s offer and joined Montverde’s basketball team as a junior.
“He was very raw, but he was athletic,” Sutton says. “He obviously had played soccer. You saw the athleticism in his lateral movement and quickness. He was very raw, but for me he was a blank slate. He was a blob of clay that I could mold. He had not played a lot of organized basketball, but what was great about it was that he did not have any bad habits.”
Mbah a Moute averaged about nine points as a junior but blossomed as a senior, averaging 18 points and nine rebounds. UCLA coach Ben Howland, in Orlando for the AAU national tournament, made a side trip to Montverde to watch Mbah a Moute work out.
Howland came back the next day, and the day after that.
“I think he was hooked the first day, but he came back to make sure it wasn’t a fluke,” Sutton says. “It was Florida in the summer and my gym at that time was not air-conditioned. Ben said he found a hidden gem in a hot gym.”
Mbah a Moute went on to start 106 games for UCLA but never put up big offensive numbers and was overshadowed by teammates Arron Afflalo, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook.
“Luc cares about winning,” says Alfred Aboya, who roomed with Mbah a Moute for three years and still plays for the Bruins. “We all learn at UCLA that defense wins championships and every player has a role.
“The Bucks have Michael Redd, (Richard) Jefferson, people who can score. They need somebody who can do the dirty work, and he’s not shy about doing that.”
Still, to say Mbah a Moute has caught the NBA by surprise would be a huge understatement. The Bucks drafted him in the second round, 37th overall, and even they didn’t know what they had.
“I wish we could say we knew all along that he was going to be what he is today and be able to play the kind of minutes he’s playing for us,” says general manager John Hammond. “We didn’t think that. He slid into the second round and we liked him when he was available.
“A lot of times it comes down to the player being in the right place at the right time. Obviously, Luc was in the right place at the right time. We needed what he could give to our team.”
Which is to say, defense, defense and defense. Mbah a Moute’s arrival coincided with that of coach Scott Skiles, whose first priority was to change the culture. For years, the Bucks had been known as a soft team comprised of jump-shooters who paid lip service to defense.
Skiles pays lip service to nothing. From Day 1, he demanded that the Bucks play hard-nosed, in-your-grill defense and Mbah a Moute caught his eye almost immediately.
“He really impressed us in training camp, the way he defended Richard Jefferson,” Hammond says. “I remember we on the personnel side and the coaches thinking and saying the same thing: How good can this guy be defensively in this league?”
The answer is very good. A tenacious on-the-ball defender, Mbah a Moute routinely is assigned to guard the opponent’s best player, regardless of size. In his first two months in the league he hounded Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh and Paul Pierce, to name a few.
“Inside of you, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m guarding LeBron,’ “ Mbah a Moute says. “But at the same time you can’t let that affect you. Once the ball is up, you start playing. Me, personally, I just try to make whoever I’m guarding have a tough night and hopefully my team wins.”
Is it possible for a rookie to lead by example and influence veterans to follow? The Bucks are allowing 96.9 points per game, down from 103.9 last year.
“Not only is it possible,” Hammond says, “but it’s happening.”
The bonus is that Mbah a Moute is a ferocious rebounder (6.3 per game) who is so strong on the offensive glass that opponents are playing him differently than they did earlier in the season, face-guarding him more often.
“I think the ball just follows him wherever he goes,” says Aboya, who also is a native of Yaounde but didn’t know Mbah a Moute growing up. “I always told him that. I said, ‘How do you do it? You don’t even fight for rebounds.’ The ball just comes to him. He’s like a magnet.”
Mbah a Moute laughs when Aboya’s comments are relayed to him.
“Yeah, he would always say, ‘Man, I’m working so hard to box people out and then the ball just bounces right to you,’ “ he says. “I’ve always had a nose for the ball and a feel for where the ball is going to be.”
His Bucks teammates have taken a liking to the quiet rookie.
“That’s my guy,” Jefferson says. “I love him. I think he’s doing an amazing job.”
“He’s a great kid,” Redd says. “Humble. Coachable. He listens. Those three things are more important than anything. And caring.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Much of this season has been a blur to Mbah a Moute, who can hardly believe his good fortune. He loves Milwaukee, though he is trying to adjust to foreign concepts such as whiteout blizzards and wind-chill advisories.
“It feels like being in the freezer,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
He hasn’t been home in two years but is planning a summer visit to Bia Messe, where his father is the village chief. That makes Mbah a Moute a prince, though it is just an honorary title.
“My dad is kind of like a mayor,” he says. “He presides over ceremonies, weddings and festivals that we have in the village. If there’s an issue going on the village people ask for his opinion and he makes a decision.”
Mbah a Moute is in the process of starting a foundation that he hopes will eventually award scholarships to keep young Cameroonians in school. He also is interested in establishing a Boys and Girls Club in Yaounde.
“We’re trying to work with the government,” he says. “I have a lot of charity stuff I want to do back home. I have plans.”
He also has become famous in his homeland, where kids stay up until 4 a.m. to watch NBA games on satellite TV, and someday could join soccer gods Samuel Eto’o Fils and Roger Milla as Cameroon’s biggest celebrities.
“Like I said, every day I wake up I’m living a dream,” Mbah a Moute says, smiling broadly. “And I will make the best of it.”