Yaounde, Cameroon – After Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid finally achieved his dream of becoming the NBA’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) earlier this month, he said he wanted to inspire people across his native Cameroon and the wider continent.
“I have always felt like I was a role model, especially to my Cameroonian and African people,” he told reporters. “Just looking at my story they can look at it and be like ‘wow, he did it.’”
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The 29-year-old was awarded the 2023 MVP title on May 3 ahead of Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić – the 2021 and 2022 winner – and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the 2019 and 2020 prizes with the Milwaukee Bucks.
It was a huge moment for Embiid, who had finished second to MVP Jokić two years in a row. His 33.1-point-per-game average this year proved far superior to the Serbian – the second time in a row Embiid capped off the regular season as the top scorer.
Embiid’s MVP title triumph means the player who left Cameroon in 2012 to pursue basketball in the US is just the second African to have been awarded the distinction after Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.
The achievement highlights Cameroon’s success in the NBA, where Ruben Bertrand Boumtje-Boumtje laid the foundation with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2001.
At the same time, the Cameroon national side has underperformed and it seems unlikely that Embiid will play for the Indomitable Lions.
‘He’s motivated us’
Now a 7-footer (2.1 metres), Embiid’s attributes were in demand by American basketball coaches and scouts thanks to his Cameroonian precursors.
One of them is Joe Touomou, who formed a seamless partnership with the 2001 MVP Allen Iverson as point guards in their playing days at Georgetown University in 1994.
Touomou was able to convince head coach John Thompson that Cameroon had a big talent pool. This is how Boumtje-Boumtje joined Georgetown University from Cameroon in 1997 and went on to play college basketball before he was selected in the second round of the 2001 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.
“Joe didn’t have the chance to play in the NBA because of injuries but he opened the door to Cameroonians in the league,” said Yves Tsala, a former player who was the head of communication at the Cameroon Basketball Federation until 2022.
Embiid’s journey to the NBA was meteoric. Initially, he wanted to become a volleyball player and only started playing basketball at 15 when his uncle Didier Yanga, a former basketball player with Forces Armées et Police (FAP), who was on vacation in Cameroon from Ivory Coast where he had been leading a basketball team, saw the young Embiid.
Tsala, an old teammate of Embiid’s uncle, said Yanga told Touomou he had a big nephew who could be a good player.
Embiid registered with Touomou’s Kosangwe Academy, formed in 2003, where Tsala was a vice president in 2011.
“It is after that season that we had the Luc Mbah a Moute camp where Embiid was selected and invited for the Basketball Without Borders programme in Johannesburg,” Tsala told Al Jazeera.
Embiid moved to the US in 2012 when he was 16 and was drafted two years later by the 76ers.
From Embiid’s draft, to Pascal Siakam’s in 2016 by the Toronto Raptors and Christian Koloko’s pick by the Raptors in the 2022 draft, Cameroon is now one of the most represented African countries in the NBA.
James Amasoka, a 19-year-old small forward with Onyx Yaoundé in the Cameroonian men’s national basketball championship, saw more opportunities to play in the NBA after Embiid’s MVP award.
“It’s a huge inspiration to us Cameroonian basketball players,” said the 1.98-metre (6-foot 5-inch) teenager who helped Cameroon qualify for the 2023 FIBA AfroCan, a national team tournament reserved for Africa-based players.
“Joel has really motivated us. We now know there is a bigger opportunity for more Cameroonians to play in the NBA.”
Leila Mbiyzenyuy, a four-time winner of the national women’s basketball championship, said Embiid’s MVP gives her the courage to dream big.
“Seeing an African, especially a Cameroonian, becoming the best basketball player in the world gives me more courage at this stage of my basketball to push forward. I may one day play in a pro league or WNBA in the US,” she told Al Jazeera.
The 24-year-old 1.66-metre (5-foot 4-inch) forward for Overdose Yaoundé has participated in a couple of basketball camps aimed at selecting younger talented players for NBA Africa Academy. Leila has not made the cut yet, but believed she can still break into elite basketball.
“My projection for the coming years is to show my talent out of the country. I know only talent and consistency can take me there,” she said.
But despite of its potential, Cameroon does not have a lucrative domestic basketball league. Its men’s and women’s basketball leagues barely provide the basic financial need of its players.
“So many kids who love and play basketball come from struggling families, so they struggle with nutrition because they have to practise two times a day,” Ebaku Akumenzoh, a former FAP power forward who played for the team from 2013 to 2022, said.
“The pay package cannot guarantee [the players] three square meals a day. They are always looking for a way to survive, like some players will skip practice to do other jobs to make ends meet.”
National league matches are often played on rented courts and government-built structures like the Yaoundé Multipurpose Sports Complex which hosted the 2015 and 2021 Women’s Afrobasket. Teams themselves do not own facilities to train or host matches.
Akumenzoh believed the Cameroon Basketball Federation must step up the development of the game.
“If the game can be made lucrative by the federation, then sponsors and the government can do more like building courts and assigning them to teams,” Ebaku said.
Meanwhile, Cameroon has never won the men’s FIBA Afrobasket and failed to book a spot in the 2023 Basketball World Cup, and Cameroonian NBA superstars such as a Siakam and Embiid have never played for the national side.
With Embiid finally obtaining the MVP title he had craved, many Cameroonians are eager to see if he will play for his country of birth.
In 2018, Embiid told L’Equipe he would pick between playing for Cameroon, France – where his family lives and he often visits, and the United States, and in 2022, Embiid took French nationality. There was talk of him joining France’s national team before the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but he has not yet joined Vincent Collet’s Les Bleus, who won silver in the 2020 Olympics.
The NBA has remained a powerful, closed organisation whose teams wield a lot of influence over whether their employees represent their country’s national teams or not. Embiid has said that, while he was “patriotic” and his first choice would likely be the Indomitable Lions, the 76ers have spent a huge amount of money on his contract and would not allow him go into an “environment without a good medical care”.
Cameroon will play in the 2024 Olympic pre-qualifiers in August in Nigeria.
While Alfred Aboya, Cameroon’s coach and former college basketball player, told Al Jazeera he thought it was unlikely Embiid would don the country’s colours – although he has not given up hope.
“That is up to him [Embiid], whether he thinks he can play for us. As coach, I am hopeful he can join us one day.”
“It is hard to believe we have these players and we are not winning,” said Aboya.
Tsala said ultimately it was also down to the players.
“You know, we had Luc Mbah a Moute play for Cameroon when he was in the NBA. It is up to the players to decide.”