This is the age of alliances. Three (and maybe four) future NBA Hall-of-Famers are chasing rings together with the Miami Heat. Nine McDonald's All-Americans will be in the same rotation at Kentucky, almost ensuring its position atop preseason college polls in October -- unless voters opt instead for Duke, which has also amassed nine McDonald's All-Americans, including the likely No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Jahlil Okafor.
In the spring of 2013, SMU coach Larry Brown made a recruiting visit to the home of the highest-rated point guard in the freshman class of 2014, a 6-foot-5 slasher named Emmanuel Mudiay. During that visit Brown handed Mudiay a photo and told him, "This was the greatest team ever." The greatest alliance ever, too: It was a picture of the 1992 Dream Team. "But something a lot of people don't talk about," Brown said to Mudiay and his family, "is where these guys chose to go to college."
Hometowns and alma maters spilled forth: Charles Barkley, from Leeds, Ala., went to Auburn. Larry Bird, from French Lick, Ind., went to Indiana and then Indiana State. Clyde Drexler, from Houston, went to Houston. Magic Johnson, from Lansing, Mich., went to Michigan State. Michael Jordan, from Wilmington, N.C., went to North Carolina. Karl Malone, from Summerfield, La., went to Louisiana Tech. Chris Mullin, from Brooklyn, N.Y., went to St. John's. Scottie Pippen, from Hamburg, Ark., went to Central Arkansas. David Robinson, a Navy brat, went to the U.S. Naval Academy. John Stockton, from Spokane, Wash., went to Gonzaga. Aside from Patrick Ewing (who went from Jamaica and Cambridge, Mass., to Georgetown) and Christian Laettner (Angola, N.Y., to Duke), everyone had essentially stayed home.
Brown's point? SMU is in Dallas. Mudiay's home is in neighboring Arlington, Texas, 20 minutes away. The early leader in Mudiay's recruitment had been Kentucky, selling the chance to join a super-team. Brown's arguments were that Mudiay could get where he wants to go (the NBA) without having to go far for school -- and that he avoid the alliance-makers and be just fine under the tutelage of a coach who spent 22 seasons in the pros between college gigs. In August 2013, Mudiay committed to SMU, which has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1993.
"Most kids my age think, 'We're going with the hottest team' -- like Kentucky or Duke," Mudiay told SI last month. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I wanted to do something different. I don't like doing what everybody else is doing, and just going to a school with a name. I liked [the idea of] going somewhere and having that team become a special team."
With Mudiay in the fold, SMU is on the verge of a breakthrough. The Mustangs barely missed the 2014 NCAA tournament, going 27-10 in Brown's second season and reaching the NIT title game. They had a budding star in 6-9 sophomore forward Markus Kennedy and the country's No. 17-most efficient defense. But the addition of Mudiay -- who can team with 5-9 sophomore point guard Nic Moore to form an elite backcourt, one they hope thrives like the Shabazz Napier-Ryan Boatright pairing did at UConn -- may elevate them from bubble team to champions of the American Athletic Conference. By that measure, Mudiay could be the highest-impact player in the entire class of 2014. He's the lone incoming freshman with the ability to transform a program.
The last time Brown pulled off a recruiting coup of this magnitude was 1983, when he convinced the nation's No. 1-ranked prep player, Danny Manning, that it was in his best interest to spurn his home-state school, North Carolina, and come to the University of Kansas. The Mudiay recruitment was reminiscent of the Manning recruitment in one big way, though: both were package deals. Manning's was an all-timer, sealed by the hiring of his father, Ed, as an assistant coach for the Jayhawks. Ed, a former player of Brown's in the ABA, had done a short stint as a part-time assistant at North Carolina A&T, and then worked as a truck driver, but health issues forced him to get off the road. He was in need of work. Brown filled that need -- and the whole Manning family relocated from Greensboro, N.C., to Lawrence, Kan.
As Brown recalled, "I told Ed, 'Look, you're not gonna lose your job if you don't get Danny, but you'd be a pretty bad recruiter if we couldn't get your son.'" They got Danny, who led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national championship -- a title that earned Brown a job offer from the San Antonio Spurs, which he accepted during the '88 offseason. It wasn't until 2012, two years after being fired by the Charlotte Bobcats, that Brown finally returned to college coaching, signing a multi-year deal with SMU that pays him more than $2 million annually.
Now 73 years old and in what's likely his last coaching hurrah, Brown landed Mudiay, in part, by package-dealing him with one of his older brothers. Jean-Micheal Mudiay is a 6-3 shooting guard who was set back by multiple ACL tears in high school; he started his college career at two in-state junior colleges, Trinity Valley and Western Texas. At the latter, he averaged 3.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore in 2011-12, and would not, under normal circumstances, have been on SMU's recruiting radar. He was offered a scholarship in the summer of 2013 and appeared in eight games for the Mustangs last season, averaging 1.6 minutes per game. Brown says Jean-Micheal's attitude ("He never has a bad day.") and work ethic may lead to him being a team captain as a senior in 2014-15. But his biggest contribution was undoubtedly as an influencer of his younger brother.
Due to their 4½-year age difference, Jean-Micheal and Emmanuel have played on the same team together just once -- in an AAU tournament with the Arlington Astros while Emmanuel was still in eighth grade. After each brother missed game-winning shot attempts in that tourney, Jean-Micheal remembers saying to Emmanuel, "We'll get this opportunity again."
In the summer of 2013, SMU presented them with that opportunity, and Jean-Micheal told Emmanuel: "It was a dream of ours to play together again. This would be a perfect opportunity -- we'll be close to home, and our mom, and there's no better coaching that you could get than from coach Brown. You could get a degree from SMU and be coached by a Hall of Famer who's won at both levels."
"Up until then, I was leaning toward schools like Kentucky," Emmanuel said. "But I'm a big family person, and so I'm going to listen to my brother's advice. When he brought that up, that really touched me, and that put the interest [in SMU] in my mind."
Brown doesn't downplay Jean-Micheal's role in landing his five-star brother. "If the family isn't that close-knit," Brown said, "then we might not be talking about Emmanuel coming to SMU."
Their family consists of the three Mudiay brothers -- Stephane, 24; Jean-Micheal, 22; and Emmanuel, 18 -- and their mother, Therese Kabeya. Kabeya met the boys' father, the gregarious, 6-10 Jean-Paul Mudiay, while they attended college at the same time in Montreal. They eventually married and returned to their hometown of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where all three boys were born in a French-speaking household. But Emmanuel barely got to know his father, who passed away in 1997, and Kabeya worried about raising her children as a single mother in a country that was then beset by civil war. In 2001, she made a bold decision that changed their lives.
"The situation [in Kinshasa] was not stable," Kabeya said. "For the safety of my kids, and because I wanted them to have a better education, I had to go. ... I sat them down and told them, 'I'm leaving, and it's for your good.'"
Kabeya went to Dallas, where a sister of hers had settled, and left the boys in care of relatives in Kinshasa while she worked to arrange their immigration to the U.S. They were separated for a full year -- "But it felt like three," said Stephane, who at just 12 years old had to look out for his younger brothers. "At one point I thought that we were never going to see our mom again, because things were getting so crazy in Kinshasa. When we finally came to DFW airport [in 2002], I didn't recognize her -- I was so exhausted from the flight, and back home she wore traditional [Congolese] clothing, but here she had a dress on, and curly hair. It didn't register with me."
As the tallest kid in his new middle school -- he was already 6-3, and would grow to 6-7 -- Stephane was recruited into the Arlington Swoosh AAU program, and his brothers tagged along to tournaments, getting exposed to organized basketball. As a five-year-old, Emmanuel used to run the sidelines, pantomiming dribbling motions. Aided by competition with his older brothers, he would grow into the family's best prospect.
Basketball was initially foreign to Kabeya, who works as a nursing-home aide in Arlington. But she has seen so many games since 2002 that she now offers Emmanuel coaching tips, even on things as specific as drifts in his shooting form. "Some of the stuff she tells me will make me mad," he said, "but after I think about it, I'll be like, Wow, she's right."
Kabeya was right 13 years earlier, too, when she assured her boys that she was leaving them for their good. Stephane graduated in 2013 with a communications degree from Texas Wesleyan, an NAIA college in Fort Worth where he also played basketball. Jean-Micheal is pursuing a degree in sports management from SMU while serving as a role player off the bench. If Emmanuel's trend-bucking choice of SMU pans out, he could be the first guard selected in the 2015 NBA draft. But before that, he, his brothers and Kabeya will spend one more year at home, in Texas, as a family succeeding after tragedy, war, separation and a move across continents. That, to Emmanuel, was the only alliance that mattered.