We live in a strange country.
Land of the free, home of the brave. A place where we elevate young talent--prizing skill and ability above all else.
Our culture has become the world's culture. Our movies play in cinemas around the world. I remember living in Amsterdam and seeing the faces of Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher blazing upon the marquee.
Basketball, born of peach hoops and musky gym clothes, is globalizing. It has spread to the streets of Kenya and the dust roads of Brazil. To the courts of Europe and the villages of Bulgaria.
And to China.
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Emmanuel Mudiay has led a life fraught with danger, intrigue, and adventure.
Born in war-torn Zaire in 1996, his father died unexpectedly when he was only a toddler. In 2001, along with his mother and two older siblings, he fled to America.
He made a local name for himself as a middle school phenom, and a national name after transferring to Prime Prep as a junior (powerhouse sports school founded by Deion Sanders).
He was recruited to SMU by Larry Brown as one of the most highly heralded high school point guards since Kyrie Irving. People wondered if he was "the next Russell Westbrook??"
[[For a beautifully written look into his childhood and growth, read this article from The Dallas Morning News, written right after he committed to hometown SMU.]]
Mudiay had committed, signed the papers and everything, but a looming eligibility issue forced him to reconsider. (Larry Brown recently claimed that SMU would be in the top three in the national rankings if Mudiay had signed.) As explanation, he cited a want to support his mother. A need to make money. And who is to deny him this basic right?
We can send a young man to war--even draft him into the army at the age of 18--and yet with the current age-limits these young adult men are not allowed to make a living in the United States using their talents. (Tom Ziller wrote a very interesting piece about restructuring the age limit/restructuring the D League, and this article is worth reading as well in regards to the union vs NBA age-limit issue. Also, the most-famous-agent-in-basketball Arn Tellem wrote a very interesting piece for Grantland on the subject as well.)
Whether it was the eligibility issue, or whether Mudiay truly needed to support his mother is unimportant in regards to this article.
He signed with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, one of the most successful and storied franchises in the CBA. His teamates included former NBA players Yi Jianlian, once drafted sixth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, and Jeff Adrien, who as you may remember once (twice actually) played for the Golden State Warriors.
He started strong, averaging 17.7 points, six rebounds and six assists before a nasty ankle sprain sidelined him. Seasons in the Chinese Basketball Association are incredibly truncated, with teams playing 37 games in 90 days, so to stay competitive, the Southern Tigers deactivated the young American and signed Will Bynum, previously of the Detroit Pistons.
However, instead of calling it quits, Mudiay stayed on with the team--traveling, working out, earning his paycheck, learning from the veterans. Learning how to be a professional.
Down two games to none, in a best of five playoff series versus Stephon Marbury's Beijing squad (what up Stephon!?), Guangdong made the unorthodox decision of deactivating Jeff Adrien and reactivating Mudiay. What else were they going to do? Backs against the wall--do or die situation.
He responded like a future superstar, posting a line of 24 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes of game three. They would go on to lose the next and final game (after Will Bynum went down early with a hamstring injury and Mudiay was forced to play a team-high 44 minutes), but through it all Emmanuel kept his head held high. He showed he belonged.
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The thing that digs at me is the look of wonder on his face. Imagine! Living and working in a foreign land at the age of eighteen?
I myself lived abroad for some time around that age.
I was nineteen, on a semester abroad in Amsterdam. I almost stayed, but I missed America too damn much.
I remember the canals and the streetlights and the uncontrollable sadness of the moon viewed half-cocked across the waters. Everything was super-real.
It's a hell of a thing to try and figure out who you are in a foreign country. Figure out what it means to be you without the safety net of family. What it means to leave the cyclical, habitual movements of childhood--home to school to basketball practice to home to school to basketball practice to...
Add to this equation the challenge of living in a country where English is not spoken very often. Where you suddenly have money and responsibilities beyond anything you had shouldered previously. Where the eyes of a basketball hungry nation are upon you--eighteen year old savior playing on the national stage.
I'd say he did alright.
Again, this isn't your normal American teenager. No, this is a young man who, at a very young age, experienced grief and loss and cultural upheaval.
Now, the question is: How does this all translate to the NBA draft? How much stock will GM's (who barely got a chance to see him play overseas) assign to his Chinese career? Will his agent stoke the fires of intrigue and mystery (like what happened recently with Dante Exum)?
Emmanuel Mudiay is intriguing because behind every question lies another question. What does his career thus far say about our country? About our age-restriction on the ability of these young men to find work doing what they do best--playing basketball. What kind of career will he have? And the unknowable one: Will he benefit or suffer from his choices this past year? Should he have gone to SMU? Or are you always in the right place at the right time, with every action leading ever onwards towards some immovable future?
With Mudiay, only time will tell. But I know that I'll be rooting hard for the young man, wherever he ends up.