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UCLA Turns to Prince of a Guy

Times Staff Writer

His name is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He doesn’t mind that most of his teammates on the UCLA basketball team address him as Luke or Luke Richard, even though his first name is French, the proper pronunciation being Loo-c Ree-shard Umbah-a-moo-teh.

And he doesn’t mind being treated as just one of the guys, a freshman and fellow student, even though in his native Cameroon he is close to royalty, the son of a village chieftain.

What Mbah a Moute does mind is a choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and tacos, instead of his beloved sanga ndole, bobolo and kpen ke baze -- dishes derived from corn, maize and the cassava plant.

“The food here is very different,” he said, his eyes growing wide, a large smile on his face as he discusses the fondly remembered dishes of his homeland.

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Savoring American culture only goes so far with Mbah a Moute.

As for basketball development, there seems to be no limit for the 6-foot-7, 224-pound forward.

“I don’t see any ceiling on his growth as a player,” said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, whose 16th-ranked Bruins (6-1) meet No. 17 Nevada (6-0) today in the second game of the Wooden Classic at the Pond. “He’s still learning, still developing his skills. He goes to the glass, blocks out well, plays tough and has very good court awareness.”

Amazing court awareness considering that this is only Mbah a Moute’s fifth year of playing basketball.

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Soccer was Mbah a Moute’s game growing up in Yaounde, a city of approximately one million that is Cameroon’s capital.

He had a privileged life as the son of Camille Moute a Bidias, the chief of Bia Messe, a community of several thousand people within the city of Bafia, an agricultural town approximately 80 miles north of Yaounde.

“He was made the chief by the elders of the community,” Mbah a Moute said. “They meet in a room and vote. There are rituals and ceremonies involved that I wasn’t allowed to watch.”

There’s no mystery about his father’s authority. In Bia Messe, it’s unquestioned. The 56-year-old Moute a Bidias is in charge of employment opportunities and new construction and oversees everything from weddings to funerals.

There is no guarantee Mbah a Moute will succeed his father since the position is elective and he is the third youngest of eight siblings. But he knows that he wants to be involved in community service in his native land and he knows that a college degree from a prestigious university in the U.S. would serve him well in achieving that goal.

Soon after taking up this strange game called basketball, Mbah a Moute realized it could be more than a sport for him. It could be a ticket to the U.S. and a college degree.

Although he had grown to 6-1 by age 15, that was only tall enough to make Mbah a Moute a guard for the club teams he played on in Cameroon.

Through a contact made by his father, Mbah a Moute was accepted at Florida’s Montverde Academy, where his game blossomed.

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“Obviously we saw his athletic ability,” said Kevin Sutton, his coach at Montverde, “but we also saw a good person with a willingness to get better. Whatever we did, he took to it, whether it was lifting weights or two-a-day drills. I knew right then that he had a chance to be special.”

By his senior season at Montverde, Mbah a Moute ruled the court, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, making all-tournament teams and grabbing the attention of college recruiters.

When he chose UCLA, it wasn’t because of the legend of John Wooden or the row of championship banners that decorate Pauley Pavilion. Mbah a Moute only learned about that after agreeing to become a Bruin.

“I came,” he said, “because they have good academics here. It is something remarkable that can help me in my life.”

It’s a huge leap for any basketball player to go from high school to college.

For Mbah a Moute, add the cultural leap from Cameroon to Florida to Los Angeles -- and pile onto that learning how to play in the post.

With UCLA’s frontcourt decimated by injuries and weakened by ineffective performances, Howland has been leaning more and more on Mbah a Moute to fill holes.

“I’d like to see him become more of a defender in the post,” Howland said, “and score more there. He doesn’t have a post-up game yet.”

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He is, however, a rebounder, having proven that by leading or tying for the team lead in all seven of UCLA’s games.

Mbah a Moute is averaging 30.4 minutes, 8.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and shooting 52.3%. Against Albany and Coppin State, Mbah a Moute had consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds, the first UCLA freshman starter to accomplish that since JaRon Rush did it in 1998-99.

Not that Mbah a Moute doesn’t have things he can work on. He is shooting only 64.7% from the free-throw line and has made only two of 10 three-point shots.

Mbah a Moute is not alone in making the long journey from Yaounde to Westwood. Forward Alfred Aboya is also a UCLA freshman this season. He and Mbah a Moute knew of each other back on the courts of Yaounde but were never on the same club team.

Now that he has come to know Mbah a Moute, Aboya is a fan.

“He is a good person, which comes before talent,” said Aboya.

Basketball isn’t their only bond. The two Cameroonians also can commiserate about the weird American food.


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