AT 14 YEARS old, Yannick Nzosa found himself boarding an airplane alone, saying goodbye to his family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and en route to Rome, Italy. He was embarking on a journey in 2017 that was about more than basketball. With the weight of his family and country on his shoulders, Nzosa headed north to The Eternal City to join Stella Azzurra, an amateur basketball club in the country’s Serie B league.
“It was really difficult for me to leave my family. My mom encouraged me to go to Italy to follow my path. She knew it would be difficult at first, alone on a new continent, but she told me, You need to go there and work hard! It was difficult when I first arrived in Italy, getting used to the cold weather was complicated but I finally managed to deal with it,” says Nzosa, in his native French, through a translator. “Sometimes, after a tough practice, I felt homesick. I was thinking about my family and I needed to hear their voices. I was lucky enough to have some good people taking care of me, helping me.”
“When he left for Italy, he was very emotional. He cried when I joined him one day after his arrival, because he told me it was something big for him to leave his country to go to Italy,” adds Joe Lolonga, a mentor from back home and now his manager, who is also communicating in French through a translator. “It’s a big opportunity for him to help his family and I told him, The way you can make us all proud is by playing really well and defend the culture and the color of Congo by staying self-disciplined, by working hard, by staying focused [and] by listening.”
Soccer is the main sport in the Congo and Nzosa grew up playing goalkeeper. As he got taller and taller, friends began suggesting that he give basketball a try. But he didn’t really have any interest. One day an elder from his neighborhood in Kinshasa offered to introduce him to a gentleman who runs a local basketball program. He suggested that Nzosa, 13 years old at the time, just give it a try. The teenager finally agreed. The hoops team was operated by Lolonga as part of his non-profit organization called New Generation, which serves over 100 kids.
“In my neighborhood, everybody was telling me how easy it would be for me to play basketball. You are so tall, you will just have to go under the basket and score…And that very first month, it was a struggle. I was stressed because I didn’t know how to play the game. I was on the bench all the time, just watching my teammates. I tried to do things but technically I was too limited. I was frustrated, really frustrated. People had told me basketball would come easily for me and I told myself, I have to train hard,” says Nzosa.
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