For 16-year-old Manuel Camboma, nothing compares to basketball.
The unmistakable sound shoes make as they squeak across the surface of the court. The way the ball thumps the court as it’s pounded into the floor and that satisfying swish of the net when a point is scored.
Speaking to Olympics.com as part of a new original series ‘Playing Fields’, available to stream now on Olympics.com for free, the Angolan teenager says all those things he loves about the sport that has rapidly changed his life.
But there is one thing he says that stands out more than anything: “The bond. The love.”
Growing up in a football-crazed nation, Camboma says committing to his basketball dream wasn’t an obvious choice: “Most Angolan children’s dream is to become a great soccer player,” he explains.
While his peers imagined becoming the next goalscoring poster star, a 13-year-old Camboma was making a discovery of his own.
Already much taller than anyone his age, and teased for it, he found his home on the hardcourt practising hoops. And even when the world began to feel like it was against him, he never stopped playing.
“It was hard because I didn’t have anyone to motivate me in the beginning,” Camboma says looking back.
First, there was the school gym.
“The conditions were terrible. One backboard was bigger than the other. One hoop was crooked, the other a little better. The ground was uneven: one side was bigger, the other slippery.”
Then there was his family. Living in extreme poverty, they disapproved of his ambitions believing basketball could not offer him anything substantial: “I didn’t have the support from my parents and that kind of thing we need to have a better day,” he muses.
But rather than be deterred by the challenges thrown at him Camboma says the early hardship he encountered only made him hungrier to succeed.
“When I was younger our situation was not like today. That motivated me a lot to keep going and go as far as possible.”
When making it ‘as far as possible’ began to look unlikely, Camboma remained committed to his basketball dream driven by the idea of a future where he could play freely and to the best of his ability.
Then one serendipitous day when out practising on an outdoor court with his brother, Camboma’s resilience was rewarded.
Watching the two boys play from the sidelines was Casseca Santana, general manager of Petro Luanda, who was impressed by the raw talent before him. He decided to approach the pair:
“After practice, he came to us and said, ’From what I’ve seen you play I saw you have great potential,’” the Angolan says remembering his words. “So, we made a deal. We’d start training every day to explore what was inside me: my hidden potential.”
Reflecting on that moment, even now, Camboma still feels an immense amount of purpose. Until then, he says, no one had noticed him or imagined what he might one day be capable of.
“What woke me up in me was how unique I felt in that moment. No one had ever tried to make me become a great player. No one had tried that. Coach Casseca was the only one who believed in me.”
Now a part of Petro Atletico de Luanda Basketball Club, one of the most successful outfits in Angola, Camboma is taking great strides towards his future goals.
At just 16 years old, he is already over two metres tall and is fast becoming one of the best players in the country playing in tournaments well above his age range. Those around him sense his potential, and he does too:
“I want to reach the highest level in basketball: win all possible prizes basketball has to offer,” Camboma says with a smile when asked what he hopes to one day achieve.
Few would deny such a prize in basketball would be an Olympic gold medal and, for Camboma, it is at the top of his list.
“It’ll be an honour to represent Angola in the greatest sports competition in terms of basketball, which is the Olympics,” the teen says, speaking with a sense of certainty.
“It’d be a great happiness, an honour to represent the country in one of the best competitions that have countries of every continent.”
Having always looked up to three-time gold medallist Kevin Durant for his “unique” style the United States’ premier basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is also a destination on Camboma’s mind.
Though he wouldn’t be the first Angolan in the NBA, the ambitious young player already has league records in his sights. And just like with the Olympics, getting to the States is a matter of when not if:
“What impresses me the most about the NBA is the physical ability of the players. They’re very athletic over there. They have great ball control. Most of them are great scorers, great passers. The structure is different too, that I admire a lot.
“When I get in the league [NBA] it’ll be an inexplicable feeling because it’s an honour to be in the greatest basketball league in the world. I’m working hard every day to achieve my goal; it’ll be an honour.”
For all the hopes that come with the promise Camboma is already showing, the young Angolan never once loses sight of why basketball means so much to him.
The “bond” he loves is plain when he talks about the life qualities basketball has already taught him:
“Basketball teaches me something new every day. It lets us meet a lot of people and become friends.
“What I’ve learned from basketball that I can apply to other areas of my life is being friendly with others: loving thy neighbour.
“A basketball player must have the following skills be intelligent; know how to be a team player; be a good defender; a good offensive player, and a good teammate – inside and outside the court.”
If Camboma’s sporting journey to now has been a story of belief and overcoming, then like a true basketball player he knows that even at times he felt alone and against the world, it is by connecting with others and staying committed to the team, that he will succeed in his future.
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