Cavaliers forward Christian Eyenga was 9-years-old when he learned how disposable life could be in a homeland rich with resources and impoverished by instability. He watched as rebel soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians at a street corner in his native Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eyenga heard the gunfire and the screams. He ran from the scene, escaping harm but not the gnawing fear that tomorrow would bring more of the same.
"There were a lot of people shot," Eyenga said. "You just saw people dead in the street. It was crazy. You just wanted to go somewher. Back then, you didn't plan for a future, you lived life in the present. You grow up thinking, 'In two minutes I could be dead.'"
The Second Congo War (1998-2003), the deadliest conflict since World War II, killed 5.4 million people. More than a decade of tumult has devastated the Central African republic, reducing it to the world's least developed country, according to the United Nations, despite an abundance of minerals and hydrocarbon deposits. The 22-year-old Eyenga got out thanks to a nurturing mother, middle-class means and enough raw talent to convince the Cavaliers to select him with the No. 30 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. A season ago, the youngster with the thick French accent and easy smile became just the third person from his country to play in the league.
The 6-foot-7 reserve is arguably the Cavaliers' most athletic player, coach Byron Scott said, but his effort and attention to defensive detail sometimes wane. He averaged 6.9 points in 54 games during a rookie season in which his physical gifts enticed fans and his basketball acumen maddened them. His second season begins with great uncertainty even though the club already has picked up the option for the third year of his contract. Accusations of a sham presidential election threaten to plunge the Congo into deeper chaos. He did not fly home over the summer out of concerns for safety. He worries about his mother, Gisele, and his father, Gaspar, who cannot obtain visas to leave the country. Eyenga calls them frequently for updates, his plans for the future shaped by the next 24-hour news cycle
"When I'm done here I'm going to go talk to my mother," he said Wednesday after practice. "I talk to her every two hours . . . I just pray (the violence) doesn't touch my family."
Resources natural, otherwise
Many American NBA players can relate to rising above tough neighborhoods and circumstances, yet rarely did the men scouting them feel the need to hire a security detail. Spanish agent Pere Gallego rode through the hardscrabble streets of Kinshasa (population 10 million) with a different kind of shooting guard by his side four years ago. He was stunned by what he witnessed. "It was very sad," Gallego said. "There were just thousands of poor people everywhere. The wars had left the city in ruins."
The UN annually releases a Human Development Index, which ranks 187 nations using health, education and income as composite measures for well being. The Democratic Republic of Congo finished last in its 2011 report. Life expectancy in Eyenga's homeland is 48.4 years. His brother Khomedy, the one who taught him how to play basketball, died at age 21 in a car accident. Gallego was struck by how desensitized Eyenga is to death. He recalls his client's reaction to news that a youth coach he had met a day earlier had died in a motorcycle crash. "He felt bad, but Christian told me, 'People die every day in the Congo,'" Gallego said.
They die despite living in a nation filled with natural resources. Many of the cell phones, video games and laptops Americans will unwrap on Christmas day will include electronic capacitors made from the mineral coltan. The Congo produces the world's second largest supply behind Brazil. Control over these valubale resources has been at the root of Congo's problems since 1998, said Kambale Musavuli, a spokesperson for The Friends of Congo, a Washington-based non-profit organization. Neighboring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, as well as corrupt politicians within the nation have plundered and oppressed Africa's second largest country, said Musavuli, a Congolese refuge. Eyenga's parents helped insulate him from trouble, Gallego said. They sent him to a private school and taught him proper values that steered him away from gangs and militia.
His folks were the subject of much curiosity during his rookie season in Cleveland. He told stories of his mom playing basketball for the national team, but a misunderstanding between Eyenga and reporters led to some tall tales. Media members thought the Cavs newcomer said Gisele, a business woman, was 6-foot-9. She is actually 5-9. She also is one of Gaspar's five wives. Polygamous unions are legal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
'I guess it would depend on where I live," Eyenga said. "But I don't think I want five wives, no." He didn't begin playing basketball until he was about 15, Eyenga said, on the streets of Kinshasa. His first love was soccer and he didn't like how the basketball made his hands dirty. But Eyenga's talent was unmistakable and he quickly joined the junior national team. In 2006, he attended a Basketball Without Borders camp and got to see Dikembe Mutombo, a shot-blocking, finger-wagging, national idol. Evenga lights up as he recalls the experience of meeting Kyle Korver and Rasual Butler and having his picture taken with Marcus Camby.
"It was crazy, amazing to see real NBA players," Eyenga said. Within five years, he would be one of them.
Moment of hope
The decision to draft Eyenga on June 25, 2009 elicited contrasting responses. There was confusion among many Cavs fans who had never heard of this 20-year-old playing for a second-tier Spanish team, CB Prat Juventud. There also was rejoicing among Congolese, some of whom stayed up to watch the draft live in the wee hours of the morning. "I don't even have the right words to say it," Musavuli said. "It was an historic moment. When Christian put on that Cavaliers' hat I was deeply moved. Moments like that offer hope to Congolese everywhere."
Eschewing a safer pick, the Cavaliers opted to gamble on Eyenga, whose leaping ability and athleticism continue to tantalize. He arrived at camp two inches taller, an astonishing growth spurt for someone his age. Last season, he benefited from several stints in the NBA Development League, and could see time in the minors again. The 149-day NBA lockout hurt inexperienced players like Eyenga, who need structure and coaching. He committed six turnovers in the Cavs' preseason opener on Friday against Detroit. "I see him getting better, but it is a slow process," Scott said. "You just hope that light turns on for him. He is such a terrific athlete. If he can get it from a mental standpoint, he will be a very good player."
Eyenga is proud to represent Congo and wants to hold a charity event to raise awareness of his country's plight. The Cavs are aware of the desire and willing to assist him once he provides the details. Team insiders say there is not a more appreciative player than Eyenga, who often volunteers for community outreach functions. In a sport where its stars are sometimes criticized for their sense of entitlement, Eyenga marvels at how many basketballs and sneakers are supplied at the Cleveland Clinic Courts training facility. "Life is easier here," he said. "Look, we have a gym where we can come and play any time. You don't have these opportunities back home."
He wants badly for his family to move to America. They have yet to travel here to see him play. He spends his December days practicing basketball and checking his cell phone -- one made possible with minerals from his homeland. On Nov. 26, police in Kinshasa killed 18 protestors. He is hoping tensions abate before the death toll rises. Christian Eyenga might have a million-dollar contract and comfortable existence in a new world, yet the 9-year-old inside him still lives day to day.
By Tom Reed, The Plain Dealer