Years before they would square off for opposite sides in their current NBA playoff series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid made many of the same stops on their journeys from Cameroon to the NBA. Yet they didn’t know each other then.
They grew up in different cities in Cameroon. They attended two of the same important basketball camps, but at slightly different times, so their paths didn’t cross.
Cameroonian NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute remembers Siakam and Embiid when they were skinny teenagers with little experience in the sport at his youth basketball camp in Cameroon.
“Joel was very skinny, nonchalant and shy. He really stood out in drills, especially since he’d only been playing for six months,” Mbah a Moute said. “Pascal always had that motor, and worked really, really hard. I predicted they’d both be good, but I didn’t predict they’d be this calibre of NBA player, and have this kind of impact on their teams. I’m very proud of them. Everyone in Cameroon is proud of them.”
At Mbah a Moute’s camp, Siakam and Embiid each earned their invitations to attend the prestigious Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp in South Africa – Embiid for the summer of 2011, and Siakam for 2012.
Siakam wasn’t that interested in the camp invitation at the time and nearly declined it. But he thought it could help propel him to the United States, where his older brothers were already playing in colleges. Plus it was a free trip to South Africa to see his sister, who was living there. One of his counsellors at the camp was his now-teammate with the Raptors, Serge Ibaka of Republic of the Congo.
“I saw Serge, but I mean, I didn’t know what that meant and that he was a big deal,” Siakam said in a quiet moment at the Raptors practice facility while preparing for the 76ers. “I wasn’t very good back then. I know now that when Joel did the camp, he was like me – also not that great. We’ve turned out to be okay.”
Both would travel a similar path taken by Mbah a Moute, who had been a camper in 2003 at the first BWB camp in Africa. He played at a high school in Florida, at UCLA, and was drafted to the NBA in 2008, where he played 11 seasons, most recently with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Neither had played much basketball at the time, but had exceptional physical traits. Siakam was athletic, energetic, high-jumping and fast. Embiid had incredible height, movement and could dunk. They both got opportunities to play at U.S high schools – Embiid in Florida, Siakam in Texas. Each boy left Cameroon alone and went to learn a new language and culture.
Embiid landed a scholarship to a big-time NCAA program, Kansas, where he stayed one year, played with Canadian Andrew Wiggins and was Big 12 defensive player of the year. Siakam went to lesser-known New Mexico State, where he played two seasons – winning Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year, then player of the year.
The 76ers drafted the high-profile Embiid third over all in 2014. He has since been a two-time NBA all-star. The Raptors took Siakam 27th in 2015.
In his predraft workout in Buffalo, Siakam impressed the Raptors with his effort, desire and athleticism.
“Pascal outworked everybody, and it was an impressive workout to say the least. He left no doubt about his energy, pursuit and desire,” said Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors director of global scouting, himself a native of South Africa who has attended many camps on the continent. “A lot of people are driven to how exciting, and athletic Pascal is. He’s a Swiss army knife. You don’t have to be [really tall] to imagine you can persevere and work hard like Pascal. He makes kids dream.”
Siakam’s Raptors lead their second-round series 1-0. The 6-foot-9 power forward scored 29 points in Saturday’s 108-95 victory, displaying the slick scoring moves that earned him the nickname Spicy P, and made him a candidate for the NBA’s most-improved-player award. Philly’s seven-foot superstar centre had 16 points in the loss.
It wasn’t until last summer that the two Cameroonians finally got a chance to get to know one another. Embiid and Siakam both played for Team Africa at the third NBA Africa game in Pretoria, South Africa. During the extensive event, they went back to the BWB camp where they had been campers, to mentor and coach a new crop of kids.
Some 60 kids are chosen to attend the camp from all parts of Africa. Coaches and NBA stars such as Embiid, Siakam and Ibaka taught the kids basketball skills, life skills and team building. The NBA players also did community work, donning hard hats to dig and lay bricks, helping to build homes for Habitat for Humanity in Lawley, a township outside Johannesburg.
“It was crazy being there in the summer; it was like turning back the clock,” Siakam said. “When the kids looked at me, their expressions were so cool. The important part was hanging out with them and making sure they know that camp is a great opportunity, and to be grateful for it and to learn everything they can from it.”
Having Embiid and Siakam come back to the camp, just six and seven years after they were campers, made for meaningful connections with the kids, as observed by Raptors assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who helps annually at the BWB camps.
“The kids just wanted to talk to them and touch them, and it was so fun to watch. Pascal and Joel are very low key and really gave themselves over to those kids. They’d say to those kids ‘I was just like you in a camp just like this,' ” Mutombo said. “There is absolutely no complex of inferiority when you see Joel and Pascal. They share a common swagger, like ‘we are from Africa, our road was different, we had some adversity, we’ve made it here but there is so much more to us, so just wait and watch.' ”
The NBA is making a big effort in Africa: opening a headquarters in Johannesburg, an NBA Academy Africa in Senegal, and launching a new Basketball Africa League in January of 2020 in partnership with FIBA, the world governing body for basketball. NBA Africa has its own Twitter account and a new YouTube channel that highlights content on standouts such as Siakam and Embiid.
“The kids over there are all on Twitter and YouTube seeing what all of these players like Pascal are doing here,” said Raptors 905 coach Jama Mahlalela, who coaches in BWB camps and Masai Ujiriʼs Giants of Africa camps. “I think this playoff season could breed more NBA players from Africa, because kids there are seeing players in big-time matchups.”
The two compatriots have lots of respect for one another, and say they share texts during the season.
“He’s had a hell of a year. It’s amazing how far he’s come, especially considering where he was last year,” Embiid said when asked about Siakam at the morning shootaround. “I’m so happy and so proud of him. But we’re not going to be friends in this series.”
The gregarious Embiid is one of the NBA’s most well-known trash-talkers. But it was Siakam who waded into it first before the series, telling media about the banter among fans online about their rivalling hometowns.
“People on Twitter were like, ‘Oh, it’s Douala versus Yaoundé because I’m from Douala and [Embiid] is from Yaoundé, so at the end of the day, Cameroon wins,’” Siakam said. “And I’m like, nah, at the end of the day, Douala wins.”
Embiid naturally had a response to that.
“[Siakam’s] from Douala, I’m from Yaoundé. Obviously Yaoundé is the better city. It’s the capital of Cameroon,” the Philly big man said. “So I’m going to try to win it for Yaoundé.”