By Rachel Hartdegen, COM 311 Reporter
Rob Mbenoun was seven years old when his love for basketball began. At his home in Cameroon, Joseph Mbenoun brought his son to the basketball hoop in their backyard. It was in front of that hoop that Mbenoun’s story began.
Six years ago, Mbenoun’s parents sent him to America with the hopes that he would have a good education and experiences. When he first arrived he didn’t speak English, but he was determined to make his family proud.
Mbenoun was the last of his siblings to move to America, his older brother and sister left first. His parents had hoped that their children would live a good life in a new country. After his brother moved out, Mbenoun was sent to a private Christian academy to prepare him for his time in America. He had a heavy workload as he juggled school and basketball, but this stress molded his work ethic and defined his perseverance.
“I had class then basketball and when I got home I ate dinner and went straight to bed,” Mbenoun said. “The school was so hard, but it helped me get focused on my work.”
His schooling was extensive as his classes heavily focused on science and math, but his work prepared him for his time in America. At the age of 14, Mbenoun moved to North Carolina where he lived with a host family. When he got there, Mbenoun didn’t know English so as he started high school, he had to go to English classes and adapt to a new way of life.
Even though Mbenoun was entering a new country by himself without knowing the language, he was thrilled to be here. Even if it had its difficulty, this move was what he had dreamed of.
“Growing up you looked up to America. I would see the schools in movies, but now I was there,” he said. “The big deal was the language and learning how to speak.”
So his journey in America began. When he first got to North Carolina, Mbenoun started attending North Rayleigh Christian private school, but he soon realized this school wasn’t the right fit. With this school being a private Christian academy, Mbenoun’s family felt he was missing great opportunities so he transferred to Garner High School.
Entering Garner, Mbenoun was on the basketball team but was cut soon after transferring. This devastated him, but Mbenoun didn’t let this set him back.
“My parents talked about sending me to another school, but I didn’t want to. I went and talked to the coach and was like ‘I understand you don’t want me on the team, but I’ll still come to practice,’” he said. “Then in January, he put me back on the team.”
That year, Garner won the championship for the first time in the school’s history. After a year at Garner, Mbenoun transferred to Spotswood High School where he graduated.
The Journey to Berry
In the summer of 2019, Mbenoun was on the hunt for schools. He was attending Daytona State College where he played basketball and was looking for his next move.
He had two choices, one that would make more financial sense and another one that seemed to call to him. Mbenoun had never been to Berry, but he couldn’t seem to get it out of his head. It was the day before orientation at Berry when Mbenoun decided this was the school for him.
“I wasn’t feeling right about the other school. It didn’t feel like the place I was supposed to go,” he said. “Berry was the right place.”
At the time, he was in contact with Berry’s head basketball coach Mitch Cole. Part of the reason Mbenoun decided to go to Berry was from the contact he had with the head coach. Although Mbenoun’s decision came late, the coach knew he had to take a chance on the player.
“We talked a bit here and there, but it was so late I didn’t know how it would turn out, but he had such good grades and a good demeanor,” he said. “He just seemed like a great fit at Berry from both a school standpoint and basketball.”
A Flourishing Student
At Berry, Mbenoun puts his passion and determination into his studies as well as basketball. He is a junior physics major and basketball player here. Even with all of his commitments, Mbenoun says that homesickness isn’t a problem he faces.
“I’m busy focusing on school and basketball so I don’t think about it, but I talk to my family all the time,” he said.
Alongside his classes, Mbenoun is involved in physics research on campus. Dr. Charles Lane, chair of the physics department and Mbenoun’s adviser, helps with this research and works with Mbenoun to help him make progress. When Mbenoun first approached Lane to do research, Lane had to turn him away but told Mbenoun to check again and he did. This determination impressed Lane, but he soon saw that’s just who Mbenoun is.
“He has the little signs of doing what he needs to be successful,” Lane said.
The research Mbenoun is doing is extensive and difficult, but he was eager to start. This determination is not only found in his academics, but is clearly on the court when he plays. Coach Cole sees Mbenoun’s determination and passion and he said that this makes him a pleasure to be around.
“His general attitude and approach to life is refreshing. He’s a guy that brings energy to practice and to games,” Cole said. “He’s a guy who wants to do the right things and wants to do well in school. He’s here for all the right reasons.”
Mbenoun brings this energy and passion to everything he does. He is always looking for ways to improve and grow and even though his English is great, he still wants to improve, and he gets better with every day. He gets tutoring for every assignment to make sure he is putting his best foot forward and throughout the week he removes any distractions by deleting social media on Saturday night and redownloading it on Friday night.
Although Mbenoun’s focus is on his academics and basketball he still finds time to cut loose and keep in contact with friends from home. Mbenoun loves Fortnite and when he has free time he will play it, but it’s not just for the gameplay.
“It’s not about the game, it’s about playing with the boys,” he said.
Mbenoun’s other outlets for stress are spending time with people and playing basketball. Basketball is not just a sport to him, it’s his therapy.
“When I have something on my mind I just go and shoot ball,” he said. “It’s how I destress.”
The game is not only his comfort at Berry but also a way of bonding with his family in Cameroon. Since he was a child, basketball had been a family activity his brother, dad and Mbenoun did together in their free time.
“My dad, brother and I would play in the backyard all the time,” he said. “When I go home that’s what I look forward to.”
Mbenoun’s love for the game and determination in everything he does is what draws people to him. If you see Mbenoun walking through campus you will find him talking to everyone and having a good time. His kindness and personable attitude make him a pleasure to talk to and he is someone to look up to. Coach Cole sees his great character and says that s what draws people to him.
“He’s really personable and encouraging,” Cole said. “He’s a people person and anybody you talk to will say good things about Rob.”