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Oakland notebook: The Wizards of Cameroon

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OAKLAND, Calif. – One is a prince. The other talks about becoming president someday.

But any official responsibilities for their homeland, the West African country of Cameroon, will have to wait. First thing's first. UCLA freshmen Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya are focused on beating Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday as they continue the quest to help hang another banner at Pauley Pavilion.

The journey ahead remains formidable. Yet, of course, nothing as arduous as the journey they've already taken.

Both left their villages behind in 2003 to come to America, the land with all the potential – and all the pitfalls. They didn't know the language. They didn't know the customs. They didn't know, really, what to expect.

Mbah a Moute, 20, who is showered with chants of "Luuuuke" by Bruins fans, attended Montverde Academy in Florida where he became a star. He led the team in scoring (18.4) and rebounding (7.3), while also averaging three assists. It was at a Nike camp that he caught the attention of UCLA coach Ben Howland. Mbah a Moute considered South Carolina and Virginia Tech, but ultimately the choice was clear.

So was his decision to give up soccer, the most popular sport back home.

"I just fell in love with basketball," he said.

Aboya, 21, went to Tilton Prep Academy in New Hampshire, which captured consecutive Class B state championships. In a game against Class A champion Winchendon, he scored 45 points and pulled down 17 rebounds.

He was attracted to UCLA for the basketball and academics. Aboya is studying international relations, and when he is done with basketball, he plans to go home and, he says, "try to run my country."

Aboya almost didn't make it to Westwood. He had committed to Georgetown, but in March of 2004, the Hoyas dumped their coach, Craig Esherick. Aboya then changed his mind.

So how has the success of Mbah a Moute and Aboya been received back home? Well, that's hard to tell. It's suffice to say it hasn't been as big a deal as one might have anticipated. There were no Cameroon reporters, for instance, at the games in San Diego. Basketball trails far behind soccer in the national mindset.

"We don't advertise basketball as we do soccer," said Raymond Epote, deputy chief of the mission at the Cameroon Embassy in Washington D.C.

Yet there are signs that the sport's popularity may be growing. Epote said that kids are playing basketball in the streets, and that Michael Jordan jerseys are available throughout the country.

Mbah a Moute and Aboya hope their success will inspire others back home. They miss Cameroon – they haven't been there in a long time – and they miss their families and the food. Because of their hectic schedule and the nine-hour time difference between Cameroon and Los Angeles, they speak to family members only a couple of times a month. They keep in touch with e-mails and text messages.

The most difficult adjustment, not surprisingly, has been learning the language. Both have come a long way, but know they still have work to do.

Same goes for basketball.

"I'm a good shooter, but I just don't have the confidence I used to have," Mbah a Moute said. "That's just something I have to keep working on. Hopefully, I'll get it back and become a better player."

He's pretty decent right now. In UCLA's first-round victory over Belmont, he posted career highs of 17 points and six assists, adding eight rebounds and three steals. Mbah a Moute, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, has led UCLA in rebounding in 29 of 35 games. For the season, he is averaging nine points and eight rebounds a game.

Aboya was the better-regarded player coming into the season, at one point projecting as a starter for the Bruins. But he had arthroscopic knee surgery three days before the start of practice in October and wound up with modest averages of 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Off the court, Mbah a Moute downplays his role as a prince. His father, Camille Moute a Bidias, is the chief of Bia Messe, a small village on the outskirts of Yaounde. His brothers and sisters are also princes and princesses. One day, his father will pick one of them to succeed him.

"It means a lot to my tribe," he said, "but as far as doing anything, all I got to do is go to some ceremony and stuff like that. I don't collect any taxes or anything like that."

So what about his friend and roommate, Aboya? Would he make a good leader for Cameroon?

The question surprises Mbah a Moute, who decides to have some fun with it. Sure, Aboya would be a good leader.

"He's a good liar," he joked.

Aboya laughed.

Michael Arkush, a freelance writer and author of eight books based in Virginia, is covering the Oakland regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.

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