Commentary

On the court, in the classroom, Aboya rises to the challenge

Originally Published: November 5, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

WESTWOOD, Calif. -- Alfred Aboya, backpack straps over both shoulders, came walking down a hill in the heart of UCLA's campus on a glorious, sun-filled October day.

He stood out above his fellow students, if only because he is 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds.

[+] EnlargeAlfred Aboya
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonIn addition to his graduate program, Alfred Aboya will have more responsibility on the court this season.
When Aboya is on campus, he is as much a part of the student community as anyone else, maybe even more so than most.

As Aboya embarks on a remarkable attempt to reach a fourth straight Final Four, with fellow seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, his accomplishments to date are more than simply wins in the NCAA tournament the past three years.

Aboya, a native of Yaounde, Cameroon, is a graduate student in a master's program in public policy. His course load is hardly the norm for a starter on a top-10 team and for someone who played in all 39 games for the Bruins a year ago.

"I can't believe how much nonsports I watch now," Aboya said. Aboya doesn't watch ESPN anymore. He's all about CNN and the presidential election.

"Because of the classes I'm taking, I have to know what's going on right now," Aboya said. "I need to know what's going on when people are talking."

Aboya's course load goes like this: He takes Principles of Microeconomic Theory three times a week and meets with the professor for 90 minutes a week; takes Statistical Method for Policy Analysis twice a week, with another 90-minute session with the professor once a week; and sits through Applied Policy Analysis twice a week and attends a nearly two-hour weekly tutorial session on Wednesday nights. In addition to all that, Aboya spends a minimum of five hours a week meeting with a tutor to discuss any or all of his courses.

"It's amazing," Shipp said. "I hear his schedule and it's very demanding. To do that and be competitive [on the court] and be successful is truly amazing."

While plenty of people love to say that a university can exploit an athlete, this is a case in which the reverse is true. Aboya is doing everything he can to use UCLA as much as the Bruins may be using him.

"I want to be involved in politics and to do that, you've got to know what you're talking about in politics," Aboya said. "You have to talk about the facts and what works and what doesn't. Before making a decision, you have to go through a process to reach the right conclusion and use the right approach. Since I want to be involved in politics, I need those skills."

Aboya compared the training to become a pro in basketball to that of becoming a politician.

"This will prepare me for the future," he said of his master's program.

His goal is to someday be president of Cameroon.

That's a tall task, considering Paul Biya has been Cameroon's president since 1982. The strongman has led in a partisan way for more than two decades. The Cameroonian president is the head of state, in charge of the armed forces and doesn't necessarily need to consult the National Assembly, Cameroon's parliament, when making decisions because his political party controls it.

[+] EnlargeAlfred Aboya
UCLA Athletic Department Aboya, who has finished his undergraduate degree, hopes a master's in public policy will prepare him as a future leader.
"What works in Western countries might not work in Third World countries like Cameroon," Aboya said. "This [program] will give me the right views to the reason why it works in the United States, and if I can understand that, I can make a better impact once my basketball days are over when I work in Cameroon."

The plan is to give pro ball a go, like his countryman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who surprised Aboya when he declared for the NBA draft last June and left UCLA a year early. Mbah a Moute, a second-round pick by Milwaukee, is off to a solid start in the NBA, coming off the bench for the Bucks. Aboya said he and Mbah a Moute had planned to graduate together.

"I came to UCLA to learn and now he's not there, so life goes on," Aboya said.

While Aboya is still learning the nuances of American politics, he is well-versed in Cameroon's.

"In Cameroon, you have to have a [political] party, and to have a party you need to have people willing to follow you to compete in the political arena, the National Assembly," Aboya said. "Then you can go to the presidency."

Biya allowed multiparty presidential elections in 1992. He won, and has been in power ever since. According to a BBC News article this past March, Biya said he wants to rule until he's 85, which will be in 2018. The current constitution says he can't have another seven-year term past the 2011 elections, but because he controls the National Assembly, that could easily change. Aboya's hope is that he can increase his name recognition through professional basketball to be in position in years to come to form a party and then make his way up the political chain in Cameroon if there remains a democratic process to obtain the highest office.

"I want to be paid to play professional basketball since my education was paid for by basketball putting me in this situation," Aboya said. "I want to be in a situation to help my country later on."

UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson, who last December was the lone member of the staff to have visited Aboya's home in Cameroon, said Aboya is a model student-athlete.

"If there was ever a prototypical academic All-American then it is Alfred in the truest sense of the word student-athlete," Garson said. "He's the hardest worker on the team, on the court and the hardest worker in the classroom."

Aboya said he's never felt separated from the student body. UCLA is a traditional high-powered athletic school, one at which athletes can easily put themselves on a pedestal if they so choose.

"He's ingrained himself in the academic and student-body community and hasn't shied away from it," Garson said. "He never tried to skirt around anything."

Going to Cameroon gave Garson even more of an appreciation of where Aboya has come from. Aboya finished his high school education at Tilton (N.H.) School, so there was no initial need to do a home visit in Cameroon. Garson's effort to visit Aboya's home while on a personal trip in Cameroon to do some clinics made quite an impression on Aboya.

"When you go [to Cameroon], you see why Alfred is so committed and driven," Garson said. "They don't have the same opportunities that we do. A big reason why Alfred is so involved in politics is he wants to see young Cameroonians realize the American dream. Alfred takes full advantage of the opportunities given here. He would like to see Cameroonians take advantage of those same opportunities."

[+] EnlargeAlfred Aboya
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesAboya, right, was shocked over the departure of Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, left, for the NBA.
"It means a lot for [Garson] to go [to Cameroon]," Aboya said. "When I decided to go to UCLA, it was because of people like Coach [Ben] Howland, Scott and [former UCLA assistant and current Central Michigan head coach] Ernie Ziegler. You need to be balanced and that's why I chose UCLA."

Now that Kevin Love is in the NBA, there is a gaping hole in the middle for the Bruins. UCLA brought in talent in freshmen Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan and does have James Keefe back, but the onus will be on Aboya to be an enforcer. Love and Mbah a Moute were counted on to rebound. That responsibility falls to Aboya.

But doing that is just a portion of his day. He doesn't have time to focus solely on hoops. There is plenty more to learn in many more hours of the day.

"There is a basketball time of the day, and you just have to divide your time," Aboya said.

"You can see his work ethic in how he's so determined," Shipp said. "It's hard enough for us to go through regular school. He's in grad school, making it happen and doing everything possible. I definitely see him doing what he wants. He's a big advocate of helping and doing whatever it takes to be successful to get back to Cameroon."

Based on the past three years -- three Final Fours, a college degree and a master's acceptance while being thousands of miles from home -- why should anyone doubt his potential to deliver?

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com