Beyond the buzzer

Orchestra teacher continues to provide a sense of belonging to young basketball player from Congo

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Kelsey Jones

Orchestra teacher Thomas Wright has helped sophomore Nickens Lemba in his move to the U.S., providing him with a sense of family. Lemba came to the U.S. last school year.

Orchestra teacher Thomas Wright and his wife have been giving foreign exchange students visiting the U.S. a sense of family for the past 20 years, amounting to 42 students with different backgrounds. But, the story of their 42nd student is different from all 41 others. 

“It breaks our heart that someone would treat a teenager like this,” Wright said. “It makes us mad that someone would use them like this.”

Just over a year ago, Ray Truitt brought Nickens Lemba to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wright refers to Truitt as Lemba’s sports handler, as Truitt’s intentions were mainly athletic related. 

As Wright heard the story of Lemba, just a kid from Congo, he instantly knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until Wright and his wife were asked to take Lemba in that they decided to open their home to him. 

Truitt had approached Wright earlier in an attempt to find a home for two other high school students that had moved to the U.S. Wright declined his offer, as he believed Truitt did not have the best interest of the student in mind. 

“He wanted to use us as a place for them to sleep while he controlled their academics and their basketball careers,” Wright said.

Since Wright and his wife have many years of experience in hosting exchange students, they understand the standards that must be met when a student is in their home. 

“When he would rather go back to Congo, go back to a country in civil war, than stay with his handler,” Wright said, “that tells you that something is really wrong.”

Moved to tears, Wright said it hurt him and his wife to see a man that would use high school students the way Truitt was using Lemba.

“It has been quite an emotional roller coaster for us as a family,” Wright said, “but we’re getting to the end of the process.”

Truitt was arrested last year, along with a no-contact order against him from the Wrights. 

This separation of Lemba from Truitt has allowed the Wrights to strengthen their relationship with Lemba. He was given the opportunity to play in an AAU basketball league this summer, not only allowing him to play, but giving Wright the chance to become a proud basketball dad.

“To hear these two coaches (saying) ‘Oh my gosh, have you seen that boy from Congo?’ and I knew they were talking about my kid…” Wright said.

Despite the physical differences between Lemba and the Wright family, he has grown into a member of their home in many ways over the last year. Lemba goes to church with the Wrights and helps out in their home, which Wright believes has helped him express his true personality better. 

“I think it’s given him a sense of peace, happiness and joy that is just contagious,” Wright said. “I mean everyone likes to be around Lemba.”

It has truly been a long process for the Wrights to make Lemba a part of their family. A year has passed since he has joined their home, and now, as his legal guardians, they are in the process of applying for a permanent visa change. But Wright believes legal guardianship is as far as they will be able to go because the adoption process would involve working with the government in Congo. 

Wright is a big part of the reason Lemba is in a better position than he was previously, and Lemba is grateful for the help he has received from him.

“He welcomed me, and I felt like I was at home,” Lemba wrote in an email to The Journal.

Lemba also says that Wright has given him great advice on things he can do to lead himself to a good life in the future. This has made him feel like a true member of their family. 

“I love them like my own family,” Lemba wrote, “and they love me back like their own son.”

Even though Lemba and the Wrights have strengthened their relationship over the past year, Lemba says he is still in contact with his family from Congo. He calls them every week.

Due to Wright’s efforts in giving Lemba a new home in the U.S. and changing his legal status, Wright and head basketball coach Eric Brand both expect Lemba to be eligible for the upcoming high school basketball season. 

Last season, Lemba was unable to play after the IHSAA ruled his appearance at SHS as a recruiting violation. This ruling ended Lemba’s freshman season before it even started and also led to Brand being suspended for the second half of the year. But, even with Lemba’s eligibility changing this year, Brand still believes he has a long way to go. 

“It is a whole new situation for him,” Brand said.

For example, last year was the first time Lemba had played basketball on a wooden court, according to Brand.

But, a wooden court isn’t the only aspect of high school basketball in the U.S. that will be new to Lemba this year. Brand says that because of Lemba’s strength and size, other teams will play a more physical game with him than most of the other athletes on the court. 

Brand truly believes that as Lemba better understands the game of basketball in the U.S., such as running plays and dealing with the physical aspects of the sport, he could have a great future.

“It could take some time, but I think if he does these things the way I picture him doing them, the sky’s the limit,” Brand said.

Even though Lemba has the potential to become a very good basketball player, Brand and Wright both believe there are benefits to Lemba being in the U.S. outside of his athletic career.

“I hope he gets a better sense of the goodness of people,” Wright said. “It started out as a dream, going to America, but then turned into a nightmare.”

Many people were able to step in and help Lemba with his move to the U.S., and Wright wants one thing that he takes from this to be a willingness to help out others. 

As Wright tells stories of times they’ve spent together, it is clear that the Wright family has given Lemba a great sense of home. Lemba has begun to call him “Pops,” and they even found themselves watching the NBA Finals together.

Coming from two completely different worlds, they still found a way to connect with one another. Before the first game of the NBA Finals tipped off on Sept. 30, the National Anthem was played by the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, Ben Hong. 

“We were watching the NBA Finals… and Lemba goes, ‘Hey Pops, you can play like that,’” Wright said.

Two vastly different worlds collide, in a picture perfect moment. 

This story is a prime example of what family can truly mean to someone. The Wrights were able to step in when Lemba needed someone the most and provide him with the feeling of family everyone needs. 

“He’s got this wonderful, outgoing personality,” Wright said. “Now that he knows he’s in a family that cares about him, it gives him a sense of settledness.”

"Family" Photo shoot