While whiling away the hours in his new cold and foreign home recently, Timberwolves rookie Shabazz Muhammad came upon an old movie filmed before he was born, one he hadn’t seen for quite some time.
Later, he innocently asked teammate Luc Mbah a Moute if he leads the same kind of life back home in Africa as the main character in “Coming to America.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I had it like that,” Mbah a Moute replied.
Like that, as depicted in the 1988 film starring Eddie Murphy, is a world where an African prince is awakened by a string orchestra every morning, where gorgeous women bathe and dress him and scatter rose petals in his path wherever he goes in a country whose money bears his likeness.
Life apparently was different for Mbah a Moute, a prince in a Cameroonian village because he is the son of an elected village chief. He grew up in what he once called regular middle class, a ceremonial family member respected in his village along with his seven other siblings because of his father’s status. He came to America as a teenager pursuing an education and basketball and ultimately achieved a better way of life following other Africans such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, who led the way to the NBA ahead of him.
Now he is giving back by sponsoring a three-day basketball camp back home every summer for the past four years that invites the country’s top 50 teenage prospects, five of whom now are playing Division I college ball in the United States. Another plays at an American high school.
Most famous of that group: Kansas freshman Joel Embiid, a possible No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft who was but a raw, fleet and gangly 7-footer with gifted feet from playing soccer all his life when he participated in Mbah a Moute’s camp in July 2011.
“I didn’t have anything like that when I was young, so I just felt like it’d be cool for kids to have something like that,” Mbah a Moute said, explaining his camp’s genesis. “I just wanted to do a camp to help the kids down there. There was not anything like that being done, so I just felt like I had to do it.”
Mbah a Moute was invited to the NBA’s first African Basketball Without Borders camp back in 2003, when he was 16 even though he was just learning the game.
Back then, the NBA was this faraway place — the closest he got to it was waking at 3 a.m. to watch games on television — that became much more real when he met Mutombo there that year.
His play in that camp helped trigger a journey that sent him to a Florida prep school — the same one in which he later helped place Embiid — and then UCLA on scholarship before Milwaukee chose him in the 2008 draft’s second round.
“It was important, just being around NBA coaches and being around the NBA,” he said. “The life-changing factor for me was that, within two years of starting to play, I was one of the top players in Africa. That’s what made me want to keep playing and see how far I could go with it.”
He went all the way to the NBA and a pro career, a path he hopes he can help other young men in his country follow. Embiid — out for at least the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament because of a back stress fracture — is foremost among the list of developing players Mbah a Moute has helped bring to such American colleges as Clemson, Rutgers, Coastal Carolina and California-Berkeley.
“It’s very encouraging,” he said. “In four years, if you can have that kind of impact on kids — not just bringing them here, but making a difference and giving them hope — it shows a lot about what can be done.”
NBA short takes
Start spreading the news
Phil Jackson did what he always does — spin a few tales — when the guy who has won 11 NBA titles as a coach was introduced as the New York Knicks’ president of basketball operations presumably for the next five years at $12 million per season.
He told a story about when he was drafted by the Knicks in 1967 and boss Red Holzman and his wife picked Jackson up at JFK airport.
Jackson rolled into town while riding shotgun in Holzman’s convertible with Red’s wife, Selma, in the backseat. Their drive back into the city was disrupted when someone on an overpass threw a rock that cracked the car’s windshield.
Jackson said Holzman looked up and told him New York City isn’t the easiest place in the world to live but added, “But if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Those words, of course, echo the now-famous song written a decade later for the film “New York, New York” and recorded after that by Frank Sinatra.
“That is where the phrase started, I swear,” Jackson said at his introductory news conference. “So we are going to make it here.”
That’s Professor Kahn to you
Ever wonder what happened to former Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn?
Well, for one thing, he’s teaching a weekend class next month at alma mater New York University on the art of negotiating the big deal in sports, entertainment and real estate. Insert your own line here.
All you need is three days of your life and $750.
The Wolves’ Week Ahead
Sunday: 2:30 p.m. vs. Phoenix (no local TV)
Monday: 7 p.m. at Memphis (FSN)
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Atlanta (FSN Plus)
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. L.A. Lakers (FSN)
Player to watch:
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix
Wolves didn’t see the other half of Phoenix’s dynamic all-point guard backcourt the first two times they played because of Bledsoe’s injury, but barring something unforeseen, they will this time around.
“When I saw him hanging on rim, I was like, ‘Is that J.J.?’”
Ricky Rubio on teammate J.J. Barea’s basket interference call after he tried a tip-dunk Wednesday at Dallas.