This is about more than just shoes.
This is about more than just basketball.
Today, I’m joining the Under Armour family, but I’m not trying to sell you sneakers right now.
Let me tell you a quick story. Give me 10 minutes and I promise it’ll be worth it. Would I lie to you?
For this story, we have to go back to 2011 in Cameroon. You know how they do those dope flashbacks in the movies? Picture it like that. Screen goes black …
(You see the sick helicopter shot of the whole city … then the camera slowly zooms in on the streets … and you see Young Joel, 16 years old. Skinny as hell. No swag. Rocking one of those short sleeve button downs. Real baggy. Walking home from volleyball practice. No, actually, I’d have been running home from volleyball practice, because my mom only gave me 15 minutes to get home and open up a math book or whatever. So picture me running.)
You got it? That’s the scene.
The next day, my life was supposed to change. I had played like zero organized basketball in my entire life. I’m talking zero. Whenever my mom went to buy groceries or something, I’d sneak away and go shoot at the park for a minute, and that was it. But since I was so tall, this coach spotted me and got me an invite to Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp. That’s a big deal in Cameroon. The camp was starting the next day, and it was the chance of a lifetime, right?
I believed in myself, and I believed in my dreams. I knew that if I went to that camp, then I was going to make it to the NBA.
I knew it was destiny.
Naaaaahhhhhh, I’m just playing. I didn’t believe in myself at all.
This coach came up to me, talking all this nonsense, like, “You go to this camp, and then you can get invited to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa, and then you can get recruited to play in America.”
And I was just looking at him like, America? I can’t even dribble, sir.
I was so scared to show up to the camp and get embarrassed that I just didn’t go.
My mom was on vacation visiting family in France, and my dad was working, and I didn’t even have a cell phone back then, so nobody could find me. I had the chance of a lifetime, and I literally stayed home with my little brother Arthur and played FIFA all day.
The sad thing is, it wasn’t even the new FIFA.
It wasn’t even the new Playstation. We still had the Playstation 2.
Arthur was always my mom’s favorite, so he could get away with anything, but this was my one chance when my mom was gone when I could just chill and not be doing 20 hours of homework. So I was busting him all day with Real Madrid. All day. My NBA dreams were literally dying, but I was balling out on the PS2. I was chilling.
Then my dad got home.
One of the coaches called him and told him that I didn’t show up. And the thing about my dad is, he’s a military guy. Not just a military guy, but an officer. Not just an officer, but an officer, you know? He was the kind of guy who never really even had to even raise his voice at us, because one look from him would send you straight to heaven. He did not play around.
So the next day, I didn’t have a choice. I had to go and get embarrassed at this camp. Actually, the coaches thought I still wasn’t going to show up, so they came to my house the next morning and followed me to the camp. Literally followed behind me. That’s a true story. I remember thinking, Why do these guys care so much if I go to this camp? I’m gonna be terrible.
But then …. I don’t know … I wasn’t terrible. The first day, I dunked. It wasn’t like a Jordan dunk. I wasn’t soaring through the clouds or whatever. I barely had to jump. But I still dunked over some kid, and everybody at the camp was like, Yo!
I didn’t understand that my life was changing that day. I still kind of wanted to be at home playing FIFA. But I really did get noticed there and invited to go to South Africa for Basketball Without Borders. And then I really did get noticed in South Africa and recruited to go to high school in America. It seemed like a blur. Like it happened in a few months ... because it really did.
I went from Cameroon to the 76ers in three years. Without my parents, and without Luc, and without those coaches who believed I could be something, I literally would’ve still been sitting on the couch with my brother, playing PS2. There’s no way that I’m living this dream if I had to do it all myself. The crazy thing is that everything happened so fast that I left Cameroon and I wasn’t able to come back for three years.
I left everything behind. And it’s funny because even as everything was happening for me, and I made it to Kansas, and then I got drafted by the 76ers, my family wasn’t really making a big deal about it. In Cameroon, it’s just different. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, you know? They were proud of me, but they don’t really care about the NBA like that. The one person who was so hyped was Arthur. He started following in my footsteps, playing ball, and he wanted to follow my path to America.
We grew up very lucky. We weren’t rich, but we had what we needed. But in the neighborhoods around us, a lot of the people were really struggling. Some of the kids we grew up with had nothing. When I used to call home, my dad would tell me how Arthur was taking stuff from our house and giving it to the kids around the neighborhood who needed help. Just small stuff, like food or clothes or whatever they needed. He looked at it like he was just sharing it, you know?
I mean, he was just 13. That’s the age when most kids are trying to flex on everybody and act cool. But he was different. He was trying to make sure everybody was good. How many kids would think like that? I was really, really proud of him. And I know he was proud of me.
Arthur was not here on Earth for long enough. A few months after I was drafted, he was killed in a car accident back home. It changed my life forever. That was a very, very hard time for me, especially because I had been gone for so long. After he passed, I kept telling myself that my life had to be about more than just basketball. I got this chance to come to America and play in the NBA and experience all these things, but what my brother was doing back home was actually helping people’s lives.
When I sat down with Under Armour, one of the first things we talked about was how this can be bigger than just shoes, bigger than just basketball. I want to help change people’s lives like Luc changed my life.
It’s so crazy ... I went back to South Africa this summer for Basketball Without Borders, and all these kids from the camp were looking up to me, and I mean … seven years ago, I was them. They were me, you know what I mean? Some of these kids, you can just see it in their eyes. You can see the pain. You can see the daily struggle. Life is not easy. I’ll never forget … We were visiting one of the orphanages in the city one day, and this little kid in the corner was looking up at me … he’s looking, he’s looking … not saying a word.
And then he runs up and jumps in my arms and gives me a big hug, like I was his dad or something. It was amazing. These kids have nothing, but they have so much love. They got so much to give the world.
Basketball has given me everything, but it has to be bigger than basketball. That was the first thing that I said to Under Armour, and they were behind it 100 percent. This isn’t about a shoe deal. I mean, listen ... I’m gonna make sure they design some shoes as pretty as I am. Don’t worry about that. We’re gonna take care of that.
But this is bigger than that. I want to use this partnership to do something real. I want to do something that would make my brother proud.
And I want to start in Philly.
When you come to America from Africa, you almost expect that everything is going to be perfect. You expect that most people have an easy life. But when I came to Philly, I saw that there’s real poverty here, too. There’s a real struggle, too.
This city has stood by me through all the injuries and all the pain. For years. Honestly, when I came back after being injured for two years, I thought I was going to get booed when I ran out of the tunnel. I literally thought y’all were gonna boo me out of the building.
But I didn’t get booed. And then when I scored my first bucket, the whole building cheered for me. That helped me a lot. People say crazy things about Philly, and some of them are kinda true, but the whole city has been behind me from Day 1. (OK, LOL maybe Day 2.)
Ya’ll trusted The Process. Y’all have had my back. Now I’m gonna do my best to have your back. I’m going to be working on some big things with Under Armour. I got a few surprises coming for the Philly community, and for the rest of the world.
The sqUAd is on point. Stay tuned. We’re going to make this bigger than basketball.
Would I lie to you?