Big Ben’s Good Gamble
“Big Ben” cuts an imposing figure, dominating college basketball in this hoops-crazy country as the best of a wave of African imports on unlikely Asian journeys in search of their NBA dreams.
Benoit Mbala scooped up MVP honors as he led the La Salle Green Archers to last year’s University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) title.
To the 22-year-old, who played only football until a tremendous growth spurt forced him from pitch to hardcourt as a teenager, the fervor of a nation that treats basketball almost as a religion has been overwhelming.
“I never expected myself going to a basketball game [with the coliseum] super full and packed with people almost spilling onto the court,” Mbala says. “That’s really something crazy. The Filipinos are really fanatics.”
In a nation where few people grow taller than 6 feet, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Cameroonian is a scoring and rebounding machine for La Salle, where he averaged double digits for both statistical categories in his first year.
“He’s a big [forward] who can run. He’s fast, he’s agile, physically strong and mentally he’s sharp, and he has a good attitude,” says his coach, Aldin Ayo. “He’s the best player right now in the league … he intimidates other players.”
Mbala’s exploits has earned him a call-up to the Cameroon men’s team pool, alongside NBA stars Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Luc Mbah a Moute of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The youngest in a middle-class family, the burly Mbala took a strange route to basketball’s oldest Asian outpost and home to one of the world’s oldest professional leagues.
In 2011, Mbala won African MVP honors at a South Africa camp organized by Basketball Without Borders, a global program co-run by the NBA.
A few months short of 17 at the time, Mbala had hoped it would land him a college basketball scholarship in the United States, but visa problems wrecked his dream. “It’s bizarre, going to the States you need something like a godfather, someone backing you up,” he says. “Unluckily, I didn’t have anyone, so I just did everything on my own. Things didn’t go my way.”
So he headed to the Philippines instead, starting initially at Southwestern University in Cebu City.
But at an invitational tournament, Mbala shot the lights out against La Salle—whose team is financially backed by tycoon Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco and other wealthy alumni—and he was quickly recruited.
While serving his one-year residency with the Archers, however, Mbala was caught playing in a tournament not sanctioned by the UAAP, which lost no time suspending him for a year.
Mbala was among the early African recruits to the Philippines. Now, nearly every university has filled their quota of one foreign student with an African.
“They (African imports) raised the standards of the game,” says Ayo. “And the local players are learning to adapt to bigger opponents as well.”
Despite his achievements, Mbala remains a work in progress. He struggled to execute a spin dribble, a must-have skill for Filipino players, during a recent La Salle practice. With better ball-handling skills, Ayo believes Mbala could be at the level of a top-caliber collegiate player in the US, which is one step away from the NBA.
“There are some aspects of his game that he has to improve,” Ayo adds. “But physically, talent-wise, he can play. Had he started playing basketball at an early age all of his skills would have developed by now. But since he started with football, that affected it somewhat.”
Mbala, who idolizes Michael Jordan and LeBron James, makes no secret of his own dream of playing in the world’s top pro league. But he is putting as much effort into his business management course as his basketball career.
He says he is aware basketball is a “gamble” and an NBA career is no certainty, citing woeful stories of promising young men whose careers were prematurely ruined by injury.
“Unluckily, they didn’t get to finish college for backup. I want to have a degree just in case,” he says. —AFP