OAKLAND, Calif. -- To this day, the story still lights the face of UCLA freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
And how could it not? Life was good back then. He loved soccer. His family. And eating boa constrictors. Dad was the chief of the local village in Cameroon, and he was one of the princes. Everything made sense -- that is, until his brother started coming home from school, bragging about this new game he had learned.
Dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding -- Luc's brother couldn't stop raving about the game. He even though that -- gasp -- it might have the potential to rival their first sporting love, soccer. Luc agreed.
"I loved everything about it," said Mbah a Moute, his oversized smile stretched from ear to ear. "It's just such a fun sport. I'd watch Michael Jordan, I'd see guys dunking ... it's just so cool."
That first introduction took place five years ago. Since then, Mbah a Moute (pronounced um-bah-a-moo-teh), has given up the things he loves back home, moved to the United States, earned a scholarship to UCLA and in his freshman year, become a vital piece of the Bruins' turnaround. He has started every game this year -- except Senior Day -- as the team's multi-talented inside/outside presence.
"Anything that's asked of him, he does," UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said. "And he never complains about anything. He just always gives his best effort. Without those types of performances, we're not where we are today."
Performances like Thursday night against Gonzaga, when Mbah a Moute notched his ninth double-double of the season, scoring 14 points to go along with 10 rebounds. It was his lay-in that put UCLA ahead for the first time, 72-71, and his steal five seconds later that all but sealed the deal.
In a game that saw UCLA erase a nine-point deficit with 3:27 to play, it was that steal that UCLA coach Ben Howland called the "most exciting."
"That really characterized the comeback," Howland said. "The steal, the finish, the dive on the floor for the ball, possession UCLA. I think there were a lot of stunned people, both on the floor and in the stands."
So Saturday night, when UCLA meets Memphis in the Oakland regional championship, forget about senior experience. Mbah a Moute will be one of seven underclassmen who will start for the Bruins and Tigers.
And he could be the most important.
"I stack him up as being one of the top freshmen in the country right now, based on his performance," Howland said. "He's incredible."
But it hasn't all gone smoothly. In the Bruins' first road game back in November game against Memphis, Tigers forward Shawne Williams torched the freshman for 26 points and seven rebounds. On the other end, Mbah a Moute scored just four points, his second-lowest output of the year.
"It was my first away game, my first game against real tough competition and I struggled," Mbah a Moute said.
Saturday presents a shot at redemption.
"I'm more mature now," he said. "I won't be nervous. It isn't my first away game. I'll be ready to go."Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesMbah a Moute, a point guard-turned-forward, can shoot the jumper and dunk with ease.
For Mbah a Moute, that means ready to rebound. No Bruin has pulled the ball off the backboard more this year than the freshman. And he's done it, he says, without any formal training. In fact, the 6-foot-7 forward played point guard in high school.
"I've never worked on rebounding in my life," he said. "It's just instinct. I rebound because I want the ball. It's just being in the right place at the right time."
Howland attributes it more to the freshman's 7-2 wingspan. He compares Mbah a Moute's rare combination of length, quickness and athleticism to that of Scottie Pippen, Tracy McGrady, Magic Johnson and the person Mbah a Moute grew up idolizing, Michael Jordan.
Senior guard Cedric Bozeman just watches in awe.
"He's a man that goes about his business," Bozeman said. "I watch him sometimes from the bench grab some rebounds that, I mean, you're amazed by."
Three years ago, a family friend suggested that Mbah a Moute should move to the United States if he truly wanted to pursue basketball. Howland discovered him on a sweltering summer afternoon at Montverde (Florida) Academy. The coach was impressed not only with the his size and athletic ability, but also his work ethic. On a hot summer afternoon, Mbah a Moute practiced two straight hours without missing a step. Howland was sold.
"And I'd say we feel pretty good about our evaluation," the coach said.
Back home in Cameroon, family and friends keep up with Mbah a Moute's progress by following games on the Internet and watching television replays a few days after each game has been played. Since coming to the United States three years ago, he hasn't returned to his home country. He keeps in touch by calling home every 10 days or so and text-messaging. Next to his family, he misses Cameroonian dishes the most, including a vegetable corn dish his mother used to make, as well as boa constrictors and vipers. Yes, snakes.
"You cook them like chicken," Mbah a Moute said. "You cut it, clean it up, cook it and eat it."
Teammate Alfred Aboya, who is also from Cameroon, has helped in Mbah a Moute's transition to Southern California.
"It's the best thing," Mbah a Moute said. "He understands where you're coming from, he knows what might be bothering you. It's a great advantage."
To fully grasp Mbah a Moute's impact this season, one has to look no further than the UCLA student section. Just as Georgia Tech fans embraced Australian center Luke Schenscher during the Yellow Jackets' Final Four run two seasons ago, UCLA students have formed a sea of light blue T-shirts, emblazoned with gold lettering that speaks volumes.
The message: Moute Kicks Boute.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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