Out of Africa: Clemson trio of hoopsters appreciative of American opportunity

  • Posted: Monday, February 17, 2014 12:57 p.m., Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 2:12 p.m.

CLEMSON - When they sit at a roundtable to discuss their past, the three men from half a world away wearing the same Clemson basketball uniform seamlessly carve their own identities.

MEET THE GUYS

LANDRY NNOKO, 6-10 sophomore center

Age: 19

Major: Pre-business

Hometown: Yaounde, Cameroon (Pop. 2.5 million)

Moved to America: October 2010

Languages: French and English

Stats: 5.6 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks in 23 starts

Favorite NBA players: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard

Favorite NBA teams: Los Angeles Lakers (as a kid), Oklahoma City Thunder (now)

SIDY DJITTE, 6-10 freshman center

Age: 19

Major: Engineering

Hometown: Dakar, Senegal (Pop. 1.1 million)

Moved to America: December 2011

Languages: French, English and Wolof

Stats: 1.4 points, 3.5 rebounds in 22 games

Favorite NBA player: LeBron James

Favorite NBA team: Miami Heat

IBRAHIM DJAMBO, 6-10 junior forward

Age: 21

Major: Communication studies

Hometown: Bamako, Mali (Pop. 1.8 million)

Moved to America: August 2011

Languages: French, English, Bambara and Lingala

Stats: 1.9 points, 1.7 rebounds in 23 games

Favorite NBA player: Kevin Garnett

Favorite NBA team: Boston Celtics

Other African natives in the ACC

Michael Ojo, C, 7-1, Florida State (Lagos, Nigeria)

Raphael Akpejiori, F, 6-9, Miami (Lagos, Nigeria)

Joseph Uchebo, C, 6-10, Pittsburgh (Enugu, Nigeria)

Talib Zanna, F, 6-9, Pittsburgh (Kaduna, Nigeria)

Baye Moussa Keita, C, 6-10, Syracuse (Saint Louis, Senegal)

Arnaud Williams Adala Moto, F, 6-6, Wake Forest (Yaounde, Cameroon)

Landry Nnoko has a first cousin in the NBA, loves Mexican food, rooms with a walk-on shooting guard and idolized French footballer Zinedine Zidane as a boy.

Sidy Djitte was one of the shortest kids his age until a huge growth spurt in the fourth grade and used his pole-like height to his advantage as an accomplished goalkeeper. He studied engineering to begin his college life.

Ibrahim Djambo speaks four languages (including two dialects), jams out on the guitar and never watched hoops until he was in high school.

Nnoko has started 23 of 24 games at center for Clemson going into Tuesday night's ACC home game against N.C. State (he missed Saturday's loss to Virginia with the flu), Djambo extends the floor off the bench with a calm outside shooting stroke, and Djitte's fourth on the team in rebounding.

Of course, what naturally threads this trio of 6-10 towers is their African nationalities. Nnoko hails from Cameroon, Djitte's Senegalese and Djambo's lived in Congo and Mali.

Beyond their heritage (and shared love of soccer), they are united by this: they were drawn to the United States by school and basketball.

Where they came from


Each Tiger has his own tale to tell.

Nnoko, the first to arrive at Clemson who's entrenched as the man in the middle, didn't know Luc Richard Mbah a Moute personally very well. But his cousin eight years Nnoko's senior starred at UCLA, and the Cameroon national teamer has played the past six years professionally, currently with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"We talk a lot, actually, mostly go to him for advice because he's been through the college stuff and the NBA," Nnoko said. "We talk mostly by text because he's busy and he's got games."

Djitte grew up in Ngaye, Senegal with his grandparents, but moved to Dakar in the fifth grade to live with his mother.

"I'm close to my mom because she's the one who took care of me most of the time," Djitte said. "She's always been there for me."

In Ngaye, basketball courts were rare, and so were players to fill them. When Djitte was a little older, he and his mom moved to a different region of Dakar, on a street with two houses.

"My neighbor only played basketball, and he could see me playing basketball. That's how I started," Djitte said. "After I was interested, I started paying more attention. I went back to school, and I was the best player because nobody else had learned basketball."

Djitte's roommate came from a much larger family. Djambo was the fourth-oldest of seven children, and his father had multiple wives, not an uncommon practice in some west African countries.

He was born and raised in Mali's capital, Bamako, though he moved to Congo for 5-6 years with his mother, where he learned to speak Bambara and Lingala in addition to French and English.

Two-thirds of the Mali population is Muslim; Djambo said the country has been politically divided since he was young.

"People come there for the tourism; they like to see the town Timbuktu," Djambo said. "That's where people like to spend some time."

Even though he's two years older than Nnoko and Djitte, Djambo is the least-experienced of the three on the court. He never picked up a basketball until he arrived at Three Rivers Community College in Missouri, yet he said the game comes organically to him.

"It's just basketball. It's universal," Djambo said. "The difference might be the speed of the game, how the coach wants you to do what you want - they don't just let you play. But it's just basketball. You shoot the same way, the court is the same distance."

No language barrier


When he set out to recruit Djitte and Djambo last year, Clemson assistant coach Earl Grant accepted Nnoko's presence on the roster would be one clear carrot.

But he knew there was more to do to woo Djitte from Northwood Temple Academy in North Carolina and Djambo out of a junior college in Missouri.

"They're trying to figure out who they can trust," said Grant, who's from North Charleston. "So I spent a lot of time building relationships with those guys, talking to them about family, and making them feel comfortable with the fact we would take care of them."

Grant's convinced this did the trick: he would come up with little messages to send Djitte, only he'd use a Google translator to craft the messages in French, the most commonly-spoken language in Africa.

"I don't know if anybody else did that, so that might have helped," Grant said. "Just to kind of be different and kind of connect to him."

All three do speak English, and pretty well. Still, Nnoko knew this would be fun when Djitte and Djambo climbed aboard last summer.

"When they were here on their visit, I told them it's so exclusive - having all three of us, we can actually all be on the court and we call all speak the same language," Nnoko said. "Sometimes we can all talk together and nobody will all understand what we're saying."

Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol are among the most famed of African-born NBA stars. Currently in the pro ranks include Mbah a Moute, Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka, and Gorgui Dieng among others.

Helping hands


During a Jan. 26 loss at North Carolina, when the overmatched Tigers were losing by 30, Nnoko suddenly broke out of a second-half timeout, ripping off eight points and a block in a 96-second span to show a little life against the Tar Heels.

"I'd been silent on the glass, I hadn't helped at all," Nnoko said. "So it was kind of a wake-up call, so I was trying to help any way I could."

That's sort of in the Africans' nature: they're not called upon to lead the team in scoring like K.J. McDaniels or command the floor like Rod Hall, but it's all about lifting the team when the time strikes.

Djitte has back-to-back games with 10 rebounds against Furman and Arkansas in December, and Djambo dropped in a couple of 3-pointers to help beat Wake Forest Jan. 18.

"I could sense initially about their African background, it's about work ethic and loyalty," Grant said. "They've been really coachable. Probably the best part about them is their willingness to learn, and they try to please the coaching staff. When we tell them something, they try to do it."

Playing Division I basketball hasn't just been an eye-opening experience for them. It's been an eye-opening experience for their teammates and coaches.

"Those kids are terrific young men. I think they have an unbelievable appreciation for the opportunity they've been given," Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. "Certainly they've made a tremendous sacrifice to come to the States, leave their families, further their education and dream of playing basketball at a high level.

"I think there's a very strong bond between those kids and the American kids on our team."

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