What’s next?

With basketball out of the picture, student athlete from the Congo contemplates future

About 7,341 miles away from home, no familiar faces and a whole new language. These were just a few of the challenges that freshman Nickens Paul Lemba was facing the moment he stepped onto U.S. soil from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What started out as an opportunity to come to the U.S. to play basketball unexpectedly changed once Lemba arrived. 

“It’s probably God’s plan that I can’t play this season,” Lemba said, translated by senior Kalenga Juma.

Due to SHS violating the IHSAA rule 20-1 that prohibits teams from recruiting, Lemba was ruled ineligible for the rest of this season.

Even though Lemba can no longer play basketball, he says he has still been able to find a good life here with the help of orchestra teacher Thomas Wright.

“I appreciate him and all that he did to help me in the beginning,” Lemba said.

According to the appeal, Lemba’s trip to the U.S. was paid for by Ray Truitt, who claimed to be an American basketball coach. Truitt was not treating Lemba well. As of Dec. 11, Truitt was arrested on charges of theft and neglect of a dependent. Wright was able to get custody of Lemba and provide him with a stable home before Truitt was arrested. 

According to Wright, there is a very slim chance that Truitt will be able to regain guardianship of Lemba.

“We are taking other legal steps on our own to make sure that Ray Truitt doesn’t have the opportunity to be in contact with Lemba or get guardianship back,” Wright said.

In addition to the stable home Wright and his wife have provided for Lemba, they are also researching ways to regain Lemba’s eligibility from the IHSAA. 

Lemba says he has been able to make strong relationships since coming to the U.S. and is supported by coaches, players and even some other students. Lemba has found a close friend in Juma, who is also from the Congo. According to Lemba, Juma has helped him more than anyone else with his transition to the U.S.

“(Lemba is) from my country, so sometimes when he wants to eat cultural food, I take him to my home, and my mom will prepare the food,” Juma said.

Lemba has also been able to stay in contact with his family back home in the Congo every step of his journey in the U.S. Despite not being able to play basketball this year, Lemba has other things he can focus on while he is here.

“The first thing on my mind is learning English, and I hope to play next season,” Lemba said.

In order for Lemba to fulfill his hope of playing basketball next season, he cannot be in the U.S. through the F-1 visa. Wright and his wife are researching options in order to transfer Lemba’s status. According to Wright, so far they have found two ways to remove Lemba from an F-1 visa. Lemba could either file as a juvenile immigrant or file an asylum. Wright will not comment on their decisions at this time. Either of these options would grant Lemba his full eligibility next year.

Lemba doesn’t just want to play high school basketball but is also looking to continue his athletic career into college in the U.S. 

“College is where the doors open up for someone to go to the NBA,” Lemba said.

In case his aspiration for a career on the basketball court doesn’t work out, Lemba already has a path in mind for himself. According to Lemba, he wants to get a college degree in business and one day start his own all while staying here in the U.S.

“I hope to stay here all my life,” Lemba said.