Emmanuel Mudiay was 5 years old when he and his two older brothers left their home in Kinshasa, Zaire, the capital of the country now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he returned, he was 21 years old.
During that 16-year stretch, Mudiay immigrated to Texas to escape a war-torn and impoverished country, learned a new language and began playing basketball. He earned a college scholarship, decided to play a year of pro basketball in China instead, then was chosen seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Mudiay fit a lot of life into those 16 years. But one thing he never got to do in that time was return to his native continent. Finally, in July, Mudiay got to go back. Mudiay flew to Africa as a part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, which the league started in 2001 as a way to grow the game overseas. He is still there now.
On Saturday, Mudiay will participate in the second-annual NBA Africa Game in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a member of Team Africa and will suit up alongside first- or second-generation African NBA players like Luol Deng, Thabo Sefolosha, Clint Capela and Victor Oladipo. They will face Team World, which is led by captains Dirk Nowitzki and Kemba Walker.
Before traveling down to Africa’s southern-most country, Mudiay spent two weeks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The trip there gave Mudiay an opportunity to reconnect with his roots. Mudiay saw family members such as his grandfather whom he hadn’t seen since he was a small boy. He walked around the city he used to call home.
“It was definitely emotional,” Mudiay said. “It’s where I was born. Where my family was born as well. I saw the life (my mother) lived to make a better life for my brothers. We got spoiled in the States. It’s definitely tougher in Africa than in the States. I just kept asking myself, ‘Where would I be if I stayed?'”
Mudiay’s father, Jean-Paul Mudiay, died when he was a toddler. That meant Mudiay’s mother, Therese Kabeya, was forced to fend for her three boys by herself.
In 2001, Kabeya decided to seek a new life in the United States. She left her boys in the care of her parents. A year later, the boys rejoined their mother in Arlington, Texas.
Mudiay’s first trip back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo since he left has helped him better understand where he comes from.
“My mom always tells me stories, so I kind of had an idea of what was going on, but it’s different when you see it with your own eyes and are there,” Mudiay said. “I never forgot what situations I was in at such a young age. It’s made me who I am.”
Mudiay and Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who made the trip in a coaching role, have also gotten to work with African children who are curious about the game of basketball.
Mudiay helped fellow countryman Bismack Biyombo put on a camp while they were in the Democractic Republic of the Congo.
Malone, who’s spent most of his time working with kids in South Africa, said he can tell there’s curiosity about the game there.
“These kids, man. They work extremely hard. They’re sponges. They want to learn,” Malone said. “… Some kids you can tell have been coached at a really early age and have a feel for the game. Other parts of the country, you can tell the kids are young and athletic and raw and have a yearning to be coached. I’m very humbled to be a part of it.”
Malone and Mudiay are both entering their third season with the Nuggets. The trip to Africa has helped them connect with one another ahead of what is a crucial year for both of them.
“They (the Mudiays) left the Congo many years ago,” Malone said. “It was not an easy trip. This was their first trip back as a family. I think it was a great homecoming for Emmanuel.”
Subscribe to Denverite’s weekly sports newsletter here.