A troubling story of what can go wrong when a top international athlete comes to the United States for more exposure has unfolded in Los Angeles. That's where a member of the Tunisian junior national basketball team found himself kicked out of the school he was brought to America to play for, leaving his uncle and him to scramble in search of another place for the star to study and practice, with little hope of landing the college scholarship he came to America to find.
The woe-filled tale of Youssef Mejri, a 6-foot-7, 18-year-old who suddenly finds himself stranded in Los Angeles, begins like a number of cautionary tales: With promises of a convenient life at an American prep school. In this case, the pledges carried more weight because they were made by an actual NBA assistant coach. Yet, as the Los Angeles Times lays out, this is the heartbreaking sequence of events that has left Mejri searching for places to stay and subsisting on "roast beef sandwiches from a local sub shop":
• In August 2010, Mejri attends a Basketball Without Borders camp in Senegal, where he impresses with his play and attracts the attention of Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno. The NBA assistant asks Mejri if he wants to play in the U.S. Not surprisingly, Mejri says he'd love to.
• Bayno puts Mejri in touch with Angela Hagen, the athletic director at Simi Valley (Calif.) Stoneridge Preparatory Academy. Hagen and her new basketball coach, former UCLA director of basketball operations Joe Hillock, are interested, and offer Mejri a place at the school.
• Within weeks, Mejri is in Southern California, at Stoneridge taking classes in preparation for the basketball season, which doesn't begin until November. Then, suddenly, he is asked to leave by the school's principal and owner (at this point one could question whether a school's owner and principal should ever be the same person, but that's another story) Maria Arnold, who allegedly had "myriad disagreements" with Mejri's Atlanta-based uncle.
• In fact, not only was Mejri asked to leave, both of the support contacts he had at the school -- Hagen and Hillock, were themselves fired for having any association with Bayno, leaving Mejri with do one in the Los Angeles-area to turn to for help.
Eventually, Bayno and Mejri's uncle helped the Tunisian prospect land at Montclair (Calif.) College Prep, a school with a large international population that is geared toward helping students qualify for American colleges. While Mejri was able to take enough classes to graduate with a high school certificate -- he will be a part of the school's commencement on Thursday -- he was unable to compete for its basketball team, leaving him only practice opportunities to impress visiting college coaches as he tried to land a scholarship.
That brings Mejri's epic saga to June, when the African's ability to live at the Montclair Prep dorm in which he has stayed for months disappears, as do his options to remain in the U.S. much longer … unless he can find an interested college. While Mejri told the Times that he would like to be a part of Tunisia's under-19 world championship squad which will compete in Latvia in late June, he can't leave the U.S. and re-enter without obtaining another I-20 form for a new student visa, something which will only come with a future college committed to accepting him on a two or four-year graduation course.
For his part, the 18-year-old refuses to give up on his basketball dream, insisting that he will continue to work out and study in the U.S. until he finds a college to attend where he can play basketball.
"I will persevere to the end," Mejri told the Times. "It's not just a dream. It's my goal in life and dream in life. I really don't have a Plan B.
"I was thinking NBA. That's me. I was thinking high-target."
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