DALLAS -- He likes Christmas, but Jean-Micheal Mudiay doesn’t plan to put up a tree in his apartment this year. Too painful. He’s holding out hope his family will fly from China to Dallas to surprise him for the holidays, but he doesn’t expect it. Too expensive.
When Emmanuel Mudiay, one of the top 10 players in the 2014 class, announced in July he was skipping the college route to go pro in China, focus turned to the SMU basketball team and what the Mustangs would do without him. One of the last four out of the NCAA tournament last year, SMU looked poised for a March run when Mudiay committed in August 2013. Now the Mustangs would have to find a way to win without him, a tough but not impossible task given all the talent they returned. But left behind, and sometimes lost in the conversation, is a middle brother trying to move on with his family about 8,000 miles away.
It helps, Jean-Micheal says, to have his “other family” right here at SMU. He motions to his teammates and coaches, and mentions that his aunt lives in the Dallas area, too, so he has somewhere to go for holidays. He talks with Emmanuel every day -- the 13-hour time difference demands a regular schedule, so he typically calls around 7 p.m. central time -- trading pep talks. They watch each other’s games when possible, though Jean-Micheal isn’t always quick to rise at 4 a.m. to catch the Guangdong Southern Tigers’ games online. He expects his full family in town for senior day in March. Initially he planned a quick trip to China over the Mustangs’ winter break but decided with time change and jet lag, it wouldn’t be efficient.
His family is used to being split up. In 2001, his mother, Therese Kabeya, left the Democratic Republic of Congo for Dallas, anxious to escape a country drowning in Civil War. She stayed with her sister, and left the boys in the care of relatives back in the DRC. They were separated for a full year as Kabeya arranged their immigration.
“I’ve never been apart from him for this long,” says Jean-Micheal. “This is my first time without them for the holidays. I don’t feel it as much right now, because it’s not here yet but I think I’ll feel it on Christmas Eve.” As for no tree, Jean-Micheal says, “there’s no one to share it with.”
Basketball is still an unsolved puzzle for Jean-Micheal. Two ACL tears in 18 months on the same left knee have stolen some of his athleticism. He’s not as quick or explosive as he once was, and he can’t change direction as easily. He says his mind “still thinks I can do some things I struggle with.”
The brothers, who are 4.5 years apart, played together just once, in an AAU tournament when Emmanuel was in the eighth grade. When Emmanuel committed, they spoke excitedly about a chance to be together again on the court.
A 6-foot-3 senior guard who logged just 13 minutes in 2013-14, Jean-Micheal understands he will never be the superstar, but he thought he’d flourish with Emanuel. He spent the spring in the Mustangs’ gym with Emanuel, practicing pick-and-roll situations. Emmanuel explained how to attack the defender, which angles to take on a drive, and exactly when a dribbler should hit a roller cutting to the hoop.
“He knows me, he knows the things I like to do,” Jean-Micheal says. “When I’m running the floor, he knows where to hit me with lobs. I was excited because I thought I’d have more of a chance to show the things I can do.”
But through 10 games, Jean-Micheal has logged only four total minutes.
Coach Larry Brown says playing Jean-Micheal is “always in the back of my mind. I think I’m going to play him every game. I never worry about putting him in a game. Right now, we’re 10 deep.” Though Jean-Micheal plays sparingly, Brown considers him one of the team leaders. When he speaks, others listen.
“When he goes to say something, it’s a different perspective because he doesn’t play as much,” Brown says. “They all respect this guy for his character and work ethic. He has instant credibility.”
Brown pushed for Jean-Micheal to stay at SMU when Emmanuel left for China, emphasizing the importance of a college education. Jean-Micheal will graduate with a degree sports management this spring and hopes to run an NBA team some day. “As a GM, I’d overpay my brother,” he admits. Brown wasn’t sure if Jean-Micheal still wanted to play, or if he’d contribute, but assured him he would retain his scholarship, and that Brown and the Mustangs wanted him around.
When they talk, Emmanuel encourages Jean-Micheal with Bible verses, reminding him to trust in his faith when everything else goes sideways. Jean-Micheal says he’s read “probably the whole Bible,” and can find support and lessons every time he opens the book.
He’s lost track of the number of times he’s been asked about his brother, but knew it would be part of the drill, and says everyone can keep the questions coming. He’s never felt hostility or disappointment from his teammates because of Emanuel’s decision.
“Players leave, coaches leave, it’s not Jean-Micheal’s fault,” says Nic Moore, the Mustangs’ point guard. “This is about us being on the same page, staying together and wishing E-Man the best.”
Brown says Jean-Micheal made the decision to play his senior season right before practice started in October and as a result, he was a little behind. He’s finally catching up. Jean-Micheal considers himself a defensive stopper, a title Brown wishes every player wanted to adopt.
The Mustangs got a boost on Friday when center Markus Kennedy, who had been suspended for academic reasons, was cleared to play. He had five points and three rebounds in 10 minutes against Michigan on Saturday. No Emmanuel (he was the only member of the Mustangs 2014 class, and they did not sign a backup) means most of the ballhandling load has fallen to Moore, SMU’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. The Mustangs looked overwhelmed at Gonzaga early, but have beaten and undefeated Wyoming team and won at Michigan since. Jean-Micheal has watched all this from the bench.
When he returns to Dallas for winter break, Jean-Micheal plans to spend time with his aunt and uncle, who live locally. He has already shipped presents to China for Emanuel, older brother Stephane and mom. Typically, his family attends church service on Christmas Eve. Though it’s hard to be without them, it’s one tradition Jean-Micheal plans to keep.
Church is too important to be missed, he says. And it’s what Emmanuel would want.