He rattled off the names of his heroes, the pioneers of the path he wants to follow, a shiny ear-to-ear smile growing with each mention. Giannis Antetokounmpo first, then Nikola Jokic, then Joel Embiid.
With that last mention of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Cameroonian All-Star center, Bishop Alemany High’s Samuel Mbingazo clasped massive hands together to cradle a tiny invisible basketball, shimmying against air like he was Embiid putting a post defender in the blender.
“Basketball, for me, is my life,” said Mbingazo when asked what he wants people to know about him.
“When I [was] 10 years old, I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to stay in the office,’” the 6-foot-10 sophomore continued, working out the kinks of native-language French to English translation in real time. “I think I need to be, like, a millionaire in shorts.”
Few have had a more winding path than Mbingazo, who grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and played his freshman season at a high school in Iowa last season.
Now, after being drawn to Bishop Alemany by sophomore cousin Christian Tshina, two of Mbingazo’s childhood friends from Kinshasa — Michael Lindsay and Bourgeois Ntambwe — have transferred from San Gabriel Academy to the Mission Hills campus to form an unprecedented trio of Congo-born players.
After Bishop Alemany beat Long Beach St. Anthony’s 56-52 Sunday in their division final at the California Live basketball tournament, Mbingazo, Tshina, Lindsay and Ntambwe gathered outside for a picture, tossing jokes at each other seamlessly between French and English.
“It’s almost like a family affair,” said Bishop Alemany coach Mike Dulaney. “It’s a really cool dynamic.”
Mbingazo is a whirling bundle of arms and legs, still clearly figuring out his spacing and fit in Bishop Alemany’s system alongside a mix of tiny guards and big post players. His defensive motor — along with that of Lindsay and Ntambwe — adds a fearsome depth to the Warriors’ backline, capable of contesting shots anywhere on the court.
Mbingazo came to America a few years ago on a G-1 visa, seeking an opportunity for a better education and higher level of basketball, uncle Jean-Jacques Tshina said. The culture back home was different. Mbingazo’s parents didn’t want him to play basketball, he said; education and sports are seen as two separate paths, the youth often encouraged to become “a doctor or a lawyer,” the Congo-born Jean-Jacques said.
Yet Mbingazo was determined to be a millionaire in shorts. Determined to become an “ambassador,” as Jean-Jacques said, for children in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, to admire. Mbingazo’s priorities intensified a few years ago, he said, after his father died, leaving his mother as the highest pastor of the family’s local church in Kinshasa, now feeling he was the head of his family.
“I have to go, like, to NBA,” Mbingazo said. “I want to. I need to go.”
It consumes his mind, the kid a badger to Dulaney, the coach sometimes having to straight-up deny the young sophomore access to the Bishop Alemany gym when it’s not open.
He just wants to help, Mbingazo said. He used the word repeatedly. Help. Help his family. Help the kids back home who don’t see a future in basketball.
He turned to Jean-Jacques, his uncle, to help him translate from French.
“What is l’héritage in English?” Mbingazo murmured.
“Heritage,” Jean-Jacques answered.
“Heritage,” Mbingazo repeated.
California Live standouts
A few takeaways from the weekend’s California Live, an ambitious newly minted local high school tournament held in Orange County by the Southern California Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Assn.:
—The Corona Centennial boys graduated its back-to-back-to-back Southern Section Open Division-championship senior core of Jared McCain, Aaron McBride and Devin Williams, but has retooled with the addition of Carter Bryant, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Sage Hill who might be the most unique player in the Southern Section. Bryant’s father, D’Cean, coached Kawhi Leonard at Riverside Poly as an assistant, and there are shades of Leonard and Carmelo Anthony’s mid-range shot-making in Bryant, who also has poster-worthy athleticism and three-ball range.
“NBA guys look like this,” Centennial coach Josh Giles said of Bryant, an Arizona commit. “He’s a pro. That’s what he is.”
—The defending Open Division state-champion Harvard-Westlake boys return loads of depth, but struggled with shot creation at times in a final-day 55-53 loss to Richmond Salesian. Coach David Rebibo is looking for 6-foot-8 sophomore Dom Bentho to fill some of the role in the middle formerly occupied by now-graduated Jacob Huggins, but also-graduated Brady Dunlap’s steady shooting leaves a noticeable void. “Now we know we’re not invincible,” senior guard Trent Perry said after the loss.
—King/Drew impressed in the girls’ tournament in Roseville, going 4-0. Elsewhere, in Arizona, defending Open Division state-champion Etiwanda downed Mater Dei 78-54 to win the Section 7 tournament.
—In the world of local recruiting, Perry is receiving strong interest from USC, a program known in recent years for developing guard talent. UCLA, meanwhile, is targeting Corona Centennial’s Eric Freeny, a dynamic shot-maker who’ll be among the best scorers in the Southern Section this winter.