At a recent press conference, a reporter asked UCLA coach Ben
Howland to somehow explain Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s ability
as a rebounder. Howland, who only seconds earlier had been praising
the recent play of freshman Alfred Aboya, sat up in his chair and
held his arms to out to his side. He was demonstrating that Mbah a
Moute’s wingspan, over 7 feet long, might have something to
do with it. With his arms stretched all the way out, Howland could
just as easily have been describing how large an impact Mbah a
Moute and Aboya have had on UCLA in only their freshman year, and
how much living in the United States and 8,244 miles from home has
impacted them. But leaving behind their nearby West African
villages in Yaounde, Cameroon and any semblance of a normal life in
2003 hasn’t been easy. Mbah a Moute landed at Montverde
Academy in Florida. Aboya deplaned at Tilton Prep in New Hampshire.
Neither was accompanied by anything besides his luggage and a few
phrases of broken English. “Good morning, good afternoon and
good night,” Mbah a Moute said. “That was about
it.” “When we came here we didn’t know anybody,
and when we wanted to do something we had no idea where to
go,” said Aboya, whose full name is Aboya Baliaba Alfred
Roland. Fans don’t realize each time they pack into Pauley
Pavilion to watch them play, that’s one more time than Mbah a
Moute’s and Aboya’s parents have ever seen their sons
play basketball. Public address announcers in opponents’
arenas are not sure where their first names end and their last
names begin. Even their own coaches aren’t sure where Mbah a
Moute’s nose for rebounding developed, nor do they know what
inspires Aboya to play so energetically. Their impact in only their
freshman season has been just as big a surprise. Mbah a Moute
currently leads all freshmen in the NCAA in rebounding with an 8.8
rebounds per game average, and has led the Bruins in rebounding an
astounding 21 times. Aboya was the only freshman to be projected as
a starter before the season and most likely would have filled the
role if not for offseason arthroscopic procedures on both of his
knees. “That just goes to show you the (basketball) pundits
aren’t always right,” Howland said. But amid all the
uncertainty surrounding Mbah a Moute, 19, and Aboya, 21,
there’s one thing that seems to be agreed upon. They
don’t look like freshmen. They don’t act like freshmen.
They don’t play like freshmen. Sophomore guard Arron Afflalo
sees it reflected on the court, calling Mbah a Moute and Aboya the
two most unselfish players on the team. Senior center Ryan Hollins
sees it in their demeanor, calling them “dignified” and
“honorable,” adjectives not usually applied to
basketball players. “It’s amazing, Luc and Alfred have
such a maturity to them,” Hollins said. They’ve had to
be in adjusting to life in the United States. Their driver’s
licenses became invalid when they crossed over the Atlantic Ocean.
Their usual diet of vipers, boa constrictors, deer, elephants,
cats, and yes, rats, has yielded to hamburgers, pizza, and Panda
Express. “It makes me hungry just thinking about food back
home,” Aboya said. But the toughest adjustment has been the
solitude. While most Bruins find their families and close friends
following home games, Aboya and Mbah a Moute aren’t afforded
that luxury. Instead they find each other, their friends, and their
friends’ friends after games. It’s a group that has
been steadily expanding since the start of the season in November.
“That would have been extremely tough for a person like
myself,” said Afflalo, whose family attends every game.
“I don’t see how they do that. After a tough game, I
like to be with my family. I guess they can make a phone call, but
you know, it’s different.” It’s something that
Mbah a Moute and Aboya have been accustomed to for two years. Their
friends in Cameroon, nine hours ahead of Los Angeles, follow their
games on the Internet in the middle of the morning. E-mails and
text messages are their most commonly used modes of communication.
Though Mbah a Moute misses the daily interaction with his family,
he credits his upbringing and the environment in which he was
raised to keeping the events in his life in perspective. “You
go deep into Africa, there’s some people dying for food. If
you go deep into downtown, you see kids don’t have things to
eat,” Mbah a Moute said. “You can find that in every
city, but you see it and hear it everyday (in Cameroon), in Sudan,
with people dying, and other places where people are suffering.
“We don’t look at things the same way. We don’t
take things for granted.” Howland certainly agrees.
“Luc and Alfred, they’re really good kids.
They’re the complete package in that they’re good
people, good students and extremely hard working,” Howland
said. “Anytime you come from a background where you come from
a foreign country, I think they have a different view on life than
your typical American kid because they’ve seen things that
your typical kid hasn’t seen, in terms of poverty and other
things. So I think they have a really good appreciation for how
lucky we have it here.” Here being UCLA, somewhere that Mbah
a Moute and Aboya questioned they’d ever get to, but from the
time they met Howland, knew they wanted to. While Mbah a Moute and
Aboya didn’t establish contact until their senior years of
high school when they participated in Nike Camp together (Aboya
blames that on Mbah a Moute not picking up his cell phone earlier),
they have been inseparable since arriving in Westwood. As they walk
down Bruin Walk or sit together on campus, Mbah a Moute and Aboya
are commonly confronted with an unusual request. They are asked to
speak Cameroonian by strangers unaware that the common languages
spoken in Cameroon include French, English and German. Their
prideful response is always the same. “We don’t speak
Cameroonian,” Aboya said. “We are
Cameroonian.”

The not so little prince In this town, the name
“Prince” usually refers to that guy with the original
dance moves back in the 1980s. But at UCLA, the royal term has come
to define a player who loves the dirty work and relishes that his
impact on a game can’t be measured by a box score, which has
made him into his own celebrity. Following UCLA’s victory
over Arizona on Saturday, Mbah a Moute commanded the largest swarm
of autograph seekers of any of the Bruins. He spent nearly 15
minutes wearing out his right hand and posing for pictures, all the
while with two bags of ice clutched to his knees. Like Lorenzo Mata
did last season, the freshman from Cameroon has inspired his own
Facebook group with Aboya as well as a T-shirt campaign, with his
No. 23 and the words “The Prince” emblazoned on the
back. Even Pauley Pavilion’s public address announcer is
catching on to the craze. After Mbah a Moute put back a missed
Michael Roll 3-pointer Saturday to quell an Arizona run late in the
second half, the PA announcer shortened his name to “Luc
Richard” for the first time all season. On the very next
possession, Mbah a Moute had already earned the celebrity status of
only needing one name, as he was only called “Luc”
after making a decisive 3-pointer to seal the game. “It feels
good when you hear it,” Mbah a Moute said. “I’m
getting a lot of love from everyone. I didn’t know I was
going to get that.” Perhaps that’s because he receives
more attention along with more bows from people for his on-court
abilities and title of “Prince” in Westwood than he
does in Cameroon. Mbah a Moute’s father, Camille Moute a
Bidias, is the chief of Bia Messe, a small village on the outskirts
of Yaounde. The Bruin freshman, along with his four brothers and
three sisters, carry the titles of princes and princesses until one
day when their father picks his successor. So what does a prince
do? According to Mbah a Moute, not much. “Pretty much
nothing,” said Mbah a Moute, grinning at the preconceived
notion that his title carries political and administrative
responsibilities. “I’m just the son of the chief. I
just enjoy it. If my dad wants me to be the next chief, I’d
do it. But I’m not thinking about it right now. I have too
much else to worry about.” Of the eight Mbah a Moute
siblings, however, it’s Luc Richard who is most closely
following the path of his father, who a generation before him left
Cameroon to pursue an education in France. Camille Moute a Bidias
imparted words of advice to Luc Richard long before he left
Cameroon for Montverde Academy. They seemed to resonate. Only Mbah
a Moute’s mother has come visit, and that was last summer.
His parents are planning to watch him play, but he’s not sure
when they’ll get the chance. “It’d be nice to
hear from them “˜Good game’ or something like
that,” Mbah a Moute said. “But as they were bringing me
up, my parents told me I was going to be on my own one day. My dad
told me, sometimes you’re going to feel lonely, but he told
me how to deal with it when I feel lonely. That helped me a
lot.” Aboya’s Campaign While Aboya was
waiting for his plane in Cameroon that would eventually take him to
Tilton Prep Academy in New Hampshire, his father had a slightly
different final message. “He told me to never forget where I
came from,” Aboya recalled him saying. To his credit, the
6-foot-8 freshman hasn’t. Aboya doesn’t need to look
into the stands at home games to see students wrapping themselves
in the Cameroon flag to remind him. On the desk in his dorm room,
he keeps a few cherished possessions he brought from Yaounde. In
his closet hangs his most prized piece of clothing ““ a yellow
homemade shirt, decorated with native flowers. Aboya only wears it
on special occasions, such as his first recruiting trip to UCLA and
his first team banquet. Game days at Pauley Pavilion don’t
qualify. “You just have to keep from becoming
Americanized,” said Arizona State junior Serge Angounou, who
also hails from Cameroon. “You have to find a way to keep
being yourself.” Some of the traditions he’s brought
from Cameroon even permeate onto the basketball court. After
grabbing a rebound, Aboya commonly screams in his native French
“Laissez-le.” “It means leave it for me,”
Aboya said. “It means that’s for me, not for
you.” Yet while Aboya surrounds himself with many memories
from home, he still longs for the real thing. He misses his family
and his friends, neither of whom he’s seen much of or
communicated with regularly since he left Cameroon. He remembers
the days as a child asking his parents if he could tag along to
town hall meetings where they would discuss politics. It’s
what piqued his interest in international relations, his field of
study at UCLA, and what he hopes one day will lead him home with
the title of Cameroonian President. “Who knows, hopefully one
day that might be true,” Aboya said. “But that’s
a far-off goal. I have intermediate goals.” Some of those
have to do with basketball, something his parents have never
actually seen him play. Though Aboya was recognized for his talent
with an invitation to play on the Cameroon national team while in
high school, it might as well have been his little secret.
Aboya’s father, Baliaba Aboya Casimir, didn’t even know
his son had made the national team until he heard it announced over
the radio. To date, his parents have yet to make it out to visit
him in the United States, and Aboya doubts if they’ll ever
have the opportunity to. That feeling of loneliness, which
seemingly contrasts with Aboya’s outgoing and charismatic
personality, contributed to many a tough night during those two
years in New Hampshire. Often times a phone call wasn’t
possible, and mail just seemed a tad slow to fill the emotional
void. It’s what spurred Aboya to turn to his high school
coach, Scott Willard, for support. “The times that other kids
were going on family vacations, that was really tough,” said
Willard, who recently had lunch with Aboya before UCLA’s game
against West Virginia. “Our relationship definitely became a
father-son type of relationship. We became close because he had no
one around to turn to.” But from the day he left Yaounde on a
plane destined for the United States, Aboya understood what such a
trip signified, and doesn’t regret the consequences it
entailed. To get the opportunity he wanted, a chance to put himself
through higher education and possibly pursue a basketball career,
required leaving behind what he treasures the most.
“It’s an opportunity that I don’t think
he’d ever thought he’d get in his wildest dreams
growing up in Africa,” Willard said. But it’s an
opportunity he now possesses. “It’d be really nice if
my family got to see me play, but a man has to do what he has to
do,” Aboya said. “I just adjusted and adapted to my
environment, and took the best out of it. “But I’ve
never forgotten where I come from.”