In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'
Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Last year there were about eight African players who were drafted into the NBA. What do you feel that says about not only African talent but the recognition of that talent when it comes to basketball within the NBA?

I think it's definitely heading into the right direction. Looks like the NBA's just trying to go global, not only Africa, but Europe as well. But I think as far as just Africa, they're definitely heading into the right direction. We're starting to have a plan more so than anything.

I think we're sending a lot more people that know about the game to Africa so they can get kids to start at a younger age and to learn the game at a younger age. So by the time they get a little older, by the time they get to the point where they can come over for college or they can come for the NBA, they'll be well-prepared.

I think the main focus has been just growing the game. Everybody's always been talented in Africa, but it was just the lack of resources. Getting people over there that can teach them how to play at a young age has been the most improvement. And, obviously, they got the NBA Africa over there that's been doing very, very well. They just started up the league, as well.

How would you describe your experience being a part of the Utah Jazz so far?

Everybody here is great people. The organization, they've been very good to me and they're just an A-1 organization. They have a lot of class. Everything is well put together. The preparation, like I said, has been very, very good. This is the first winning organization I've been a part of in a long time. The fact that they have a goal in mind that trying to accomplish it has been great.

Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

What are your hopes for the NBA in terms of representation in the next five years?

Man, I think it's growing so fast. How would I want the NBA look like? I would say me being an African, I guess I would want more African players as well. Like I said, it's just it's going so fast and it's going into the right direction. I think the fans are appreciative of it, and I think as far as just being more involved with the community as well. You can never go wrong with that, and just making people feel as involved as they can with us. So that's where I would like to see the NBA going, and doing a lot more stuff, doing a lot more stuff in Africa as well.

Sport undoubtedly has the ability to bring communities together. Would you say basketball has brought together communities within the African diaspora?

Yeah. You know you say sports in general brings everybody together. Sports, whether it's sports, music, or fashion, has everybody connected because they want to see what's going on. And even here in America, people hear about certain players in different countries as well.

I think sports has always been connected and it's a great thing because it has a purpose, and especially growing up how it gets you to dream as a kid. You get to have a dream, and it's something that you can put in perspective, and it's a goal that you can have in mind to try to target.

Growing up, basketball was something that I always wanted to do and I saw my brothers doing it. And even in Africa, that's where my brothers started playing. Then when we came to America, it was just something that I felt is the only kind of opportunity I had to get my situation better. That's how I looked at it.

"Sports can definitely change lives is how I look at it."

Would you say when you started playing basketball, particularly in school, the goal was always to make it to the NBA?

Personally, the aim was always to make the NBA. My mom, she wanted us to use it as a way to get an education because you know you can make a way from sports getting a free degree and stuff like that to get your school to pay for it. But I have papers, I have letters of me writing in second grade that I wanted to play in the NBA. I think that's always been a dream of mine.

What do you want to see more of in terms of basketball in your home country of the DRC?

Oh, man. That's a good question. What I would like to see more of is just more of us players going back and trying to make a difference in the kids' lives by changing the mentality of what's going on. There's a lot of stuff that the country and the continent has been through. I have a big vision as far as starting up programs over there, whether it's a school program, a basketball program, even food program because there's a lot of people who are dying of not having enough food as well.

My foundations that work there, we definitely have a plan on growing the continent as far as in any way needed, whether that's providing more food, providing more education, trying to get schools going. A lot of stuff that needs to be going on over there, whether building up the streets and stuff like that and getting people in safer places.

Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

Would you say that there is still resistance to basketball on a continent that greatly reveres soccer?

Yeah, for sure. I think the reason why the NBA is pushing for it so much is because you're seeing some good players coming out of Africa now, so there's no question that there's talent there in basketball. It's just a matter of sending the right people over there, and like I said, starting basketball programs up.

Every day in America, kids start camps at six years old, eight years old. In Africa, they don't get the chance to start basketball until probably 14, 16 years old. But I think the main thing is starting up basketball programs like opening up gyms. Like there's no access to indoor gyms. Everything's in the outdoors and stuff like that. When I went over there, there's kids there playing basketball with no shoes or non-basketball shoes.

And then in soccer, it's a little different because soccer is already outside. But basketball, in the NBA, is not played outside, so that's the thing that's a little different.

Do you think it's coincidental that this recognition of African talent (artists, musicians, film makers) across the globe is happening at the same time?

Definitely not. What's funny is me and my friend was just talking about this a couple of days ago. Probably 10, 15 years ago if you told somebody you was African, they would look at you kind of different, look at you kind of funny. But today, when you tell them you're African, they want to know more about it. They want to go over there. They feel like you're somebody special that's from the continent.

I think that's just because there's a lot of great stuff happening and Africa is putting out great stuff like you say with the pop culture and for some reason everybody's listening to Afrobeats now.

Everything is going good for Africa right now. I think that actually it's going in the right direction. And I think a lot of people just wasn't knowledgeable when it came to Africa, but I think with social media. that has helped the way it's been going. There's a lot more positive stuff that's been put out there.

Do you think that the rest of the world is making genuine headway in terms of the perception of Africa outside of tired stereotypes?

Yeah. For sure. Out here [in America] they have these tests that they take to find out what part they're from in a African country. Everybody always comes back to me and tells me I have this type of African in me and then they're trying to figure you out even more about being African.

When you see that, I think that's pretty cool because some of those people are the people that were saying negative stuff about Africans just in general. The minute they find out that that's in them, they want to find out a lot more about it and they think differently, and they start respecting the continent more and they want to dive deeper into the history of their ancestors. So, I think that's pretty cool to see.

To go back to your point on the rise in popularity of Afrobeats particularly, what personal impact would you say African music has had on your own life?

"Right now, I mean everybody knows about Burna Boy."

Everybody keeps talking about him, especially out here. I mean my teammates, American teammates and I even got some French teammates that when you walk in the locker room and they're playing his music and you wouldn't be hearing that four or five years ago.

I think the fact that everybody now is trying to get the Afrobeats thing going is pretty big. And like you said, African music, fashion, even sports, this stuff makes everybody connect. Some of the folks don't even understand some of the stuff Burna's saying but they're saying what he's saying anyway.

If you had to sum up what you want to bring to basketball and to the NBA this year in one word, what would that be?

Growth. I think just growth, honestly. Where life is right now there's so much going on around the country, but I think everybody just kind of got to go with an open mind and I think we all got to just keep growing because staying stagnant isn't good for nobody. There's a lot of stuff that we could change and there's a lot of stuff that can improve for sure so I think growth would be the main thing.

I mean I'm driving myself to being a whole different person than I was a few years ago, two years ago, even a year ago. I think with time, there's going to be a lot of stuff that can be changed and a lot of stuff always going to change. Like I said, now everybody somehow wants to be African.