Jeff Yoder Photo / iagameday.smugmug.com
By Susan Harman
Your Prep Sports
Kinshasa to Paris to Iowa City?
Even Rick Steves would find that itinerary challenging. For City High senior Jeremy Kambomba, it’s his life’s journey.
Kambomba is a 6-foot-8 starting center on the boys basketball team, and that in itself is a remarkable story. But his and his family’s trek across three continents is the stuff of the American dream: a determined but difficult search for opportunity.
He was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a city of 9.5 million people. French is the official language, dating back to colonial days.
The family moved to Paris when Jeremy was 7-years old to join his father, who had obtained work there. Jeremy had played soccer since he was very young and kept at it in France.
“I was really good at it because I was playing with the top club in the country,” he said. “I was a center mid. I was not that tall then. I was about 5-4.”
He was never introduced to basketball.
The family moved again for his father’s work, this time to the United States and Iowa City during Jeremy’s freshman year.
“I didn’t really want to move because I had so many friends in France,” he said. “But I had to because my parents wanted me to come. We just moved, but I had fun. I met some new people. It was kind of tough my freshman year because I didn’t know the language and stuff.”
His father and three siblings moved and live with an aunt and uncle, while his mother remained in France. They came to this country knowing no English, so Jeremy was entered into the English Language Learners (ELL) program at City High. The classes include students who speak a large variety of languages, none of which is English.
It was a difficult transition.
“I didn’t understand anything,” he said. “I was not shy. I was just trying my best.”
Aleah Suchomel, an ELL teacher at City High, taught Jeremy his first two years in the program.
“I would say Jeremy, like a lot of other students, was kind of unsure,” she said.
“My second year he was a little bit tough, you know?” said Velina McTaggart, another of Jeremy’s ELL teachers.
He went out for soccer his first two years at City High, but then-boys basketball coach Don Showalter encouraged him to try basketball. It seemed like an ill-fated experiment at first.
“He was just not very good at basketball,” City coach Derek Roberts said.
Not only did he lack skills but he was getting the business from other guys who teased him, not understanding why someone so tall couldn’t play the game. But rather than being discouraged, Showalter’s seed began to grow inside Kambomba and a funny thing happened.
“Once the sports began he got really dedicated,” Suchomel said.
“Every year he was more determined to get on that basketball team,” McTaggart said.
His academic and personal growth mirrored his dogged pursuit of basketball skills. A kind of symbiotic relationship developed as he pushed himself in both endeavors.
“From the first year in my class to this year, oh my gosh, a totally different Jeremy,” McTaggart said. “His English, his comprehension, his communication skills. He has a great sense of humor. He’s a very determined young man.”
“From his freshman year to now I’ve seen a growth and a maturity,” Suchomel said. “Especially his motivation and dedication, on and off the (basketball) court. He’s really excelled here at City High. He came in not knowing English and not knowing how things worked at City High. I see him in the halls. Everybody knows him. He walks with confidence now. He has a sense of self-confidence and self-worth that he belongs here now. This is his school now.
“He’s worked hard. He takes it seriously now. This program has really worked for him.”
He tried out for basketball again as a junior. He improved enough to make the team, but his playing time was limited.
“He was very low on skill even though he was tall and long,” Roberts said. “But he just kept working on it. He’s one of our hardest-working guys.”
He didn’t play soccer that spring but concentrated on improving his basketball skills. As his grades improved, his basketball skills improved. His confidence grew and he was on his way.
This season Kambomba has been a starter. He’s still learning his way around the paint and trying to improve his footwork, dribbling and shooting. But Roberts thinks he’s only begun to scratch the surface of his potential.
“Basketball is in my blood,” Kambomba said. “I can’t get away from it. I keep trying and trying every day. I just feel like I can go against anybody no matter how big you are.”
Basketball and language skills, cultural adaptation and personality growth all seemed to blossom at once and reinforce one another in Kambomba’s time at City High. McTaggart recalls Kambomba telling her, in all seriousness: “You don’t take education for granted. You’ve got to work hard and push yourself to work hard so you can be successful.”
Roberts has seen the same thing from the big guy who averages 7 points per game and leads the team in rebounding.
“His father and his family were big influences, telling him he just had to keep working hard,” Roberts said. “But it’s all him. He’s very driven and motivated. You don’t see that very often in that age of a kid.”
That’s quite a journey.