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Sports

Lost in transition: A young Tunisian’s brave, frustrating odyssey through high school basketball

The plan was bold, but whose right is it to tell a young athlete that he shouldn’t dream?

Youssef Mejri had shown promise as a basketball player, so he traveled to Southern California from his family’s home in Tunisia with a set list of intentions: polishing his English, studying hard for college entrance tests, and enjoying the exposure offered by a private preparatory school with a reputation for sending its athletes on to nationally renowned college teams.

“I was thinking NBA,” he said. “That’s me. I was thinking high-target.”

Yet only two weeks after arriving in October, Mejri sat inside a Simi Valley coffee shop telling a story about promises gone bad and dreams put on hold amid the often confounding world of top-flight high school basketball.

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Rail-thin and only 18, he did not know where he’d be sleeping the next night.

Mejri traced his troubles to last August, when he attended a Basketball Without Borders camp in Senegal, the African edition of a global development-and-outreach program sponsored by the NBA and the sport’s international governing body.

The camp brought together 60 of the best under-19 players on the continent, and they trained under NBA coaches and players.

Mejri, a 6-foot-7 forward on Tunisia’s junior national team, easily qualified for the program. There, he met Bill Bayno, an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers.

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“He saw me [play] and asked if I wanted to come to the United States,” Mejri said.

Indeed, Bayno did more than just ask. When Mejri expressed interest, he said the coach swung into action, arranging a spot for him at Stoneridge Prep, a tiny school nestled in the foothills of Simi Valley that had become a popular stop for college recruiters.

Bayno, who briefly was head coach at Loyola Marymount, knew Stoneridge’s athletic director, Angela Hagen, and the school’s new head coach, Joe Hillock, who had been UCLA’s director of basketball operations.

“We were told by Bill this would be a great school,” Amine Ghedamsi, Mejri’s uncle, said in a telephone conversation from his home in Atlanta.

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Mejri said he believes Bayno’s intentions were good, and the coach now laments that he offered poor advice. “I thought everything was good to go,” Bayno said. “And I think Joe and Angela thought it was good too.”

Instead, within a week of Mejri’s arrival at school — long before the basketball season even started —- he was asked to leave, Hillock was fired as coach and Hagen was ousted as athletic director.

Mejri said he was asked to leave by Stoneridge’s owner and principal, Maria Arnold, because of a dispute she was having with his uncle over myriad issues.

Arnold declined to comment for this story, but the school released a statement explaining the personnel moves. The statement said the coach was let go because “certain representations made by Hillock prior to [his] being appointed head coach were not true.” The same statement said the athletic director had been fired because of “NCAA rules prohibiting such associations between Stoneridge Prep and its students and professional sports agents such as Hagen.”

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Hagen declined to comment for this story. Hillock said the allegation contained in the statement about him was “totally false.” He also said of Mejri: “In my dealings with him, he was an outstanding young man with great integrity.”

And a young man who had moved half a world from home only to quickly find himself in limbo.

Mejri said he sustained himself mostly on roast beef sandwiches from a nearby sub shop and passed time playing basketball at a fitness center. “I’m here for basketball and studies, and I’m not doing either right now,” he said at the coffee shop. “I’m studying on my own and practicing by myself.”

Mejri said he left Simi Valley and lived briefly with a friend of Bayno’s in Agoura. He tried to enroll at three public schools but was rejected because of residency requirements.

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Eventually, he was directed by his uncle and Bayno to Montclair Prep, which offers classes that prepare students for college entrance tests and has a boarding program at its campus in Van Nuys. Mejri enrolled there in November and moved into a dormitory with Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese foreign-exchange students.

“He seems to be a real nice kid,” Montclair Prep Principal Walt Steele said.

For the last several months, as his life here has stabilized, Mejri has watched turbulence change things at home.

In January, longtime Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was ousted in a revolution, and Mejri watched it unfold over his computer, wishing he could participate.

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“I was both happy and sad,” he said recently. “I was happy about the revolution because I want people to be free, to be able to express their opinions. I was also sad because I was not there. It was an historical moment.”

Ineligible to compete in basketball, he practiced with the Montclair Prep varsity and junior varsity teams while hoping to impress college coaches who stopped by. Each night, he put himself through physical training on a nearby football field.

In conversations with his parents over Skype, Mejri was asked several times if he wanted to return to Tunisia.

The answer was always the same. “If you want something, you won’t get it easy,” he said. “I can’t give up. It’s not an option. With God’s help, I’ll be an NBA player.”

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Mejri is no closer to a career as a professional basketball player than he was when he first left Tunisia, but through the adversity he faced, he did manage to prove a few things.

At Montclair Prep, with a course list of calculus, U.S. history, economics and English as second language, he made the honor roll with a 3.0 grade-point average. On Thursday, he will graduate.

And although he doesn’t have a scholarship offer — or even know if he’ll be attending a U.S. college in the fall — he hopes to join the Tunisian junior national team later this month for the FIBA under-19 world championships in Latvia.

However, that will depend on his finding a college to attend. Without one, he won’t be able to get an extension of his I-20 visa and return to the U.S.

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Through it all, he isn’t even close to giving up on a career as a basketball player.

“I will persevere to the end,” he said. “It’s not just a dream. It’s my goal in life and dream in life.

“I really don’t have a Plan B.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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Times staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.


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