He doesn’t know him. He never even saw him play. Yet once he heard Ghana, and Africa, and the Junior NBA camp, Dikembe Mutombo clapped his huge hands and bellowed an enormous laugh and beamed a gigantic smile that seemed as wide as the former NBA star is tall.
Ernest Aflakpui, a 6-foot-10 transfer student from the Sakumono section of Accra, Ghana would like to turn his opportunity to play in the United States into what Mutombo did, with the chance to further his education and hopefully beyond.
Aflakpui has landed at Philadelphia-area powerhouse Archbishop Carroll by way of the Junior NBA Camp in June 2012 in the Western African country of Burkina Faso. He was discovered by Franck Traore, a former Manhattan College Jasper and now a coach in Africa, who is on the lookout for talented players like Aflakpui.
Mutombo embraces the idea of more teenaged Africans getting the same chance he did.
“I wish the young man the best,” said Mutombo, in Philadelphia for the Muhammad Ali Liberty Medal presentation in September. “When I came to America, I was wide-eyed and I could hardly speak any English. But I love this country and the opportunity it gave me, and we’re trying to find more and more young African players to give them the same opportunity that I received.”
As of now, Aflakpui is a curiosity. He’s a novelty to his classmates at Carroll, which in 2009 made history under head coach Paul Romanczuk by becoming the first boys basketball team from the prestigious Philadelphia Catholic League to win the PIAA state championship, taking the Class AAA crown (It has to be noted that the Philadelphia Catholic League did not join the PIAA, Pennsylvania’s high school sports governing body, until 2008).
Traore discovered him at the Junior NBA basketball camp in June 2012 in Burkina Faso. He sold Aflakpui, the third of four children, on the possibility of playing in the United States. But Traore had to convince a couple more important people that the move was in Ernest’s best interest — his parents, Johnson and Mary.
That was the hard sell.
“Coach Franck (Traore) gave me his number and we spoke about helping me out with a scholarship,” said Aflakpui, who speaks fluent English, the national language of Ghana. “But I wanted him to speak with my parents. It was a little hard in the beginning, and I think it would be hard for any parent, because they thought I was leaving them forever and wouldn’t be back. My mother was emotional about it. She didn’t want to see me go.”
Ernest had been to other countries in Africa but nothing beyond that. His small, four-bedroom home in Sakumono had limited TV and no internet access.
“My family wasn’t rich; we didn’t have a lavish lifestyle, but I wasn’t scared to come here,” said Aflakpui. “The coach who got me here, Coach Franck, I was very comfortable with, I trusted him. He was like a big brother to me, like a second father to me. Before I went to the camp, my parents were concerned with my basketball, but my parents heard a little about what sports can do and they pushed me and helped me for what I needed to do.”
His mother was emotional when he left, but he’s adjusted well to his current surroundings.
Aflakpui, who will turn 16 in November, is just as intriguing to other coaches in the Philadelphia Catholic League.
They have openly questioned how an overseas 6-10 shot-blocker ended up on the doorsteps of Archbishop Carroll and also appear skeptical about Aflakpui’s age, thinking that he is older.
When that skepticism was raised to Archbishop Carroll President Father Edward Casey, he laughed. Already wary of the scrutiny Carroll may come under, since the school almost received another African player in 2011 but the player’s country denied him a VISA, Casey wanted to make a point.
“Our school is very welcoming and it’s good to have an international flavor to your school,” Casey said. “It’s also good we were sought out. It’s not like we were recruiting a 6-10 kid from Ghana. Our scouting department doesn’t go that far. Ernest came to us. He was here from Day One and he seems like a pleasant young man. The only real thing he may have to adjust to here is the winter. I don’t think Ghana has the kind weather we have during winter time. That will be an adjustment for him. I don’t think he’s ever seen snow.”
Romanczuk, considered one of the better coaches in Southeastern Pennsylvania, refused to comment. The season hasn’t even begun yet, stressed Romanczuk, who has long-extending basketball tentacles as the son-in-law of Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, and he didn’t want to place any undue pressure on Aflakpui.
But Aflakpui, who lives with a host family in the Philadelphia area, is athletic, a proven shot blocker and will be a defensive presence for Carroll.
He’s also adapted well to life off of the court, and Aflakpui was sure to relay the news to his mother.
“I let her know it’s been great here,” he said. “My host family has welcomed me, and the kids at the school have been very friendly.”
Casey has also noticed that Aflakpui is fitting in nicely, which he attributes to the school’s diverse community.
“Our kids have really taken to Ernest,” he said. “We have kids from four of the five counties surrounding Philadelphia. We also have a few other international students here from Germany and from China. Ernest is definitely interested in getting an education here and advancing his basketball career. Coach Romanczuk has done a very good job of advancing players to the next level.”
Can Aflakpui be another Dikembe Mutombo? Aflakpui, which means plant that grows tall, just smiled, content on being the first Ernest Aflakpui, happy for the opportunity. Like Mutombo.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t get this opportunity,” said Mutombo. “My advice to him is to continue to learn the language and listen to his coaches. Learn everything possible, and be patient.”