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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Christian Koloko will never forget his first NBA bucket, even if it technically won’t count.

It was midway through the second quarter of the Raptors’ Oct. 2 preseason opener in Edmonton. Pascal Siakam pulled down a defensive rebound and brought the ball up the court before using a screen from Koloko, Toronto’s 33rd-overall pick in this summer’s draft.

As the rookie centre rolled to the rim, Siakam – the six-year veteran and all-NBA forward – floated a pass over a couple of Utah Jazz defenders and found Koloko for the layup.

The start of the regular season was still a few weeks away, meaning Koloko would need to wait to officially get on the board. But for him, Siakam, and so many others watching those two connect on the play, it was worth so much more than the two points.

“I saw a lot of people posting about it,” said Koloko, who hails from Douala, Cameroon – the same town as Siakam. “People from back home sent me videos and they were just happy, proud. That’s a good moment, a proud moment to be Cameroonian and my first basket in the NBA is assisted by someone from the same city as me.”

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Situated on the southeastern shore of the Wouri River on the Atlantic Ocean coast, Douala is the largest city in Cameroon, with a population of roughly three million. It’s also the country’s economic capital.

Koloko comes from a big, tight-knit family. As the youngest of five siblings, he’s always had four protective older sisters looking out for him.

“Growing up in Douala was amazing. I really miss it,” said Koloko, who hasn’t been back home since he left to attend high school in the United States in 2017. “It was really nice. Just coming back from school and dropping your backpack at home, you didn’t even eat; you just went to play soccer with your friends. I miss those memories. It was a really nice childhood.”

Like Siakam before him, Koloko grew up playing the nation’s most popular sport. School was always the priority, but whenever he could find time – usually three or four times a week – he would play soccer. He was either a striker or a goalie. At age 11, he hit his growth spurt and became too tall to keep up with kids who, in some cases, were nearly a foot smaller. So, he started playing basketball. At first, it was just a hobby, something he did for fun once every couple of weeks. When he was 16, he began to take it more seriously.

“I started falling in love with the game of basketball,” he remembers.

By the time he turned 17 he was all-in. Koloko had never left Cameroon before, but in the summer of 2017, he travelled to Johannesburg for his first taste of competitive hoops, attending Basketball Without Borders. He was raw, but at nearly seven feet tall he immediately stood out, qualifying for the all-star team as one of the youngest players at the event. It gave him the confidence boost he needed. It was also the first time that Raptors president Masai Ujiri saw him play.

Koloko moved to L.A., where he went to high school and stayed with his second-oldest sister, Stephanie, who had already been living there for 10 years. He had studied English in Cameroon and was comfortable speaking the language but being away from home for the first time was an adjustment.

“It was tough,” he said. “It’s always tough when you leave home at 17. I was fortunate enough to have my sister, so she gave me some advice on what to do and what not to do. Going to school, at first it was really hard. The accent of the people, the pace of the way they talk – I was kinda confused at first, but my teammates really helped me, just practising my English.”

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Christian Koloko and Pascal Siakam

Koloko was still living in Cameroon and had just started playing basketball when the Raptors drafted Siakam 27th overall in 2016. He’s not ashamed to admit that, at the time, he had no idea who Siakam was.

“People weren’t really talking about him,” Koloko said. “[In Cameroon], it was just soccer, soccer, soccer, soccer.”

“The interest level [in basketball] was rather non-existent,” said Steve Tchiengang, a player development coach with the Boston Celtics, who is also from Douala.

With the emergence of Siakam, as well as Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, who is from nearby Yaoundé, that started to change.

“One day [Siakam] was the G League MVP, he [became] an all-star, and then people started talking about him,” Koloko said. “They started [saying] there’s a Cameroonian player who plays for the Raptors, he’s an all-star, he’s an NBA champion, he came back home with the trophy. Now people [realize], okay, this guy is for real. People started following basketball more, and I feel like when I got drafted there was more buzz back home than [when] Pascal [got drafted] because basketball is growing, and people are paying more attention. Guys like him are showing the way and I think it’s amazing.”

Tchiengang, 33, followed a similar path – picking up the game as a teenager, attending Basketball Without Borders in 2004 and moving to the U.S. for high school. After four years at Vanderbilt, the 6-foot-9 forward played overseas until an injury prompted his transition to coaching.

He remembers what it was like growing up in Douala without many opportunities to develop as a young basketball player. There was only one indoor basketball court in the city, located at College De La Salle – the Catholic school that Koloko would attend more than a decade later. Typically, though, the court would be reserved for more advanced players. What if you were a younger player, or not yet good enough to use the gym?

“People would use bicycle rims,” Tchiengang said. “You would remove the middle of a bike and then nail that to a pole, and that would be a basketball goal in the street. I would practice on one of those when I got a chance. The older guys would basically have first dibs and you’d just hope that they’re not there so you could actually play.”

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Koloko can recite the end of Siakam’s Most Improved Player acceptance speech, almost verbatim.

Standing at the podium during the NBA award show in June of 2019, days after winning a title with the Raptors, Siakam delivered a message to kids in Cameroon and throughout the continent of Africa.

“I just want to tell you to believe in your dreams. Go out and work hard, and I promise you it will happen,” he said before quoting South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Koloko was already on his path, getting set to begin his first year at Arizona, but the sentiment spoke to him.

“It really meant a lot to me,” said Koloko, who played sparingly during his freshman and sophomore campaigns before finally breaking out in his third college season. “It just pushed me to keep working hard. It was real [for me] – everything seems impossible until it’s done, and now I’m an NBA player.”

“It’s a blessing, to be honest,” Siakam said. “When I got drafted or when I came into the league, I never thought I’d have that kind of impact. But as you go and you hear about those things, it just makes me proud and feel blessed to be in that position. And it just kinda makes you feel like, yeah man, I’ve gotta keep going. I’ve gotta be the best that I can be because I’ve got people watching me.”

The countrymen first met in the summer of 2018. Koloko was working out at a gym in L.A. when he spotted Siakam, who was there doing some off-season training. Koloko, an 18-year-old high schooler at the time, was understandably nervous but eventually worked up the courage to go say hello and introduce himself.

“I’m Christian Koloko and I’m from Douala, Cameroon,” he told Siakam.

Siakam asked if he spoke French and then, after some chit chat en français, he told Koloko to take down his number. The problem? Koloko was in workout gear and didn’t have his phone on him. So, Siakam’s agent, Jaafar Choufani, snapped a photo of the two Cameroonians together and Siakam told Koloko to send him a direct message on Instagram. The problem? A lot of people send Siakam DMs on Instagram. Koloko reached out and didn’t hear back. Still, he had a cool story to tell.

“It was really nice meeting him and having somebody like that, in that position, giving me some advice,” he said. “He was definitely cool. I really appreciated it. He didn’t have any ego.”

Siakam thinks back to the first time he met Luc Mbah a Moute – the former NBAer from Yaoundé, who he looked up to. Over the years, Mbah a Moute has told Siakam that there wasn’t much communication between African players during his 12-year career. That’s something Siakam has taken to heart.

“I just want to make sure we change that,” he said. “We’re at this level and this is a blessing for us, so we’ve gotta stick together.”

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When Arizona was making their run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament this past spring, Koloko – coming off an excellent junior season – received a text from Siakam, who had gotten his number from Choufani. He congratulated the young centre, wished him luck, and told him to keep playing hard and good things will come.

Their next conversation came on draft night in late June; Siakam called him after learning they were going to be teammates in Toronto.

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Tchiengang recently launched a non-profit called Vision Cameroon, which aims to change lives through basketball and provide young players back home with valuable opportunities for growth and development. He hosted 100 kids for a three-day camp at College De La Salle over the summer. It had been 17 years since he first left for the U.S. and a decade since he had been back. He was blown away by all the talent and passion on the court but saddened to see the infrastructure hadn’t changed.

After all this time, there was still just one concrete-floored basketball gym, and despite the rise in interest, the playing conditions in Douala had not improved.

“Sadly, there’s not much progression,” said Tchiengang. “There has not been any evolution in that aspect of the game of basketball despite the amazing success that we’ve had on the international level. There hasn’t been much progress by the government itself to bring that awareness and bring about different opportunities to grow the game.”

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Siakam attends Basketball Without Borders

He’s not alone in his mission to inspire meaningful change. Ujiri’s organization, Giants of Africa, has been hosting camps, building courts, and facilitating community outreach initiatives to empower youth throughout the continent for two decades. The NBA has also made an impact with Basketball Without Borders and the 12-team Basketball Africa League, which is going into its third season.

Siakam returned to Douala in 2019 and then again this past summer, hosting basketball camps during both visits. With more experience under his belt, and with the help of his foundation, the 28-year-old has committed to making a difference back home.

“It’s there for us, it’s there for the taking,” he said. “And we have eyes on this now. Before, there really wasn’t that much interest in it but now the interest is there, and the talent is there. We’re bringing [the infrastructure]; it’s not there, it’s nowhere near there, but we’re trying. I’m trying. That’s one of the things I work on every single day, trying to do my part. The more we do and with all the help we get, I think we can do something special.”

Koloko is already looking forward to the day he can go back home and contribute to the cause, but Siakam has encouraged him to be patient. Siakam’s advice to his young teammate is to take his time, focus on getting better and establish himself in the NBA, like he did. That’s made it easier to balance basketball with his philanthropic efforts. And as Siakam knows firsthand, Koloko is already making an impact, even if he doesn’t realize it yet.

“The kids see that it’s possible to reach that level,” said Tchiengang, who was teammates with James Siakam, Pascal’s older brother, at Vanderbilt and considers Pascal family. “It’s great to have [those guys as examples] because you know that one of yours, from your roots, worked hard and overcame obstacles and got to where he’s at now. That’s just a reminder of the immense opportunity and possibility with the game.”

Their stories alone could inspire the next Koloko or Siakam. And with the Raptors teammates playing together and thriving on basketball’s biggest stage, there’s no telling what that will mean for the sport in Douala, Cameroon and throughout Africa.

“The odds of that happening were very, very, very slim to none, to be honest,” Tchiengang said. “To have two guys in the NBA come from the same small city, on the same team, you could not write a better story. And so, for Christian to have his first basketball score, his first bucket [assisted] by a fellow Cameroonian, a hometown brother, it’s special. Things like that, no one could have crafted that story 10-20 years ago, and if someone did, [you] would have laughed at it. That’s how special that pairing is.”