By Peter Toth
We got the chance to have a look at Unicaja’s U18 team, in a training. Unlike many of the other European youth teams, this is already an international squad, with players like the Lithuanian Domantas, the son of the great Sabonis, and many guys from Africa. And the boys are really huge, the centers of the juniors are actually taller than those in the senior team, Stimac or Vazquez. But even among the five (!) seven-footers of the U18, one black guy still towers well over the others at his tremendous 214cm. As I learn it soon, the young giant is new addition to Unicaja, he came to Spain only last year and – what is even more – started basketball only two years ago.
So I cannot resist observing him at the training. He is strong and huge, with a formidable wingspan and reach, dunks easily and gets almost all the rebounds, defensive and offensive alike. He definitely needs more speed and a lot of technique to learn shooting and defense (as he is getting fouled way too often), but is still definitely a very promising work in progress, in whom the coaches at Unicaja obviously invest a lot. So with an eager interest to hear more, I approach the guy, Viny Okouo (’97), who came from Congo. The first impression is, of course, he is huge, tall and strong. "Yeah, I am Baby Shaq, not Mutombo, (his fellow country-man), but Shaq", says the 110kg teen looking way down on the interview. "I am still baby, because I’m new to basketball. Believe it or not, I have never played it until I got 15. In my town Brazzaville in Congo I did a little bit of boxing and judo, to which I owe my strength and perseverance, but no basketball. I have always been tall, a head or two taller than everyone else around me, so when at 13 I passed the 2m border, all my friends were pushing me towards basketball. But there were no clubs and no one to be interested in me, I was just playing on the street without coaching, technique and any care. But I immediately felt I found my place in life, my size ruled everything, I blocked, dunked and scored irresistibly. Though I still knew nothing about the game. So in 2011 I decided to go to the annual Ibaka Basketball Camp in Congo, only to see how the game should be played properly and also to get up some real basketball. I was having a great time there, practicing and learning the whole day. And it was at he camp that I met Romeric."
Romeric Belemene, another Congolese, who plays power forward for the juniors in Unicaja. Romaric was amazed at the 14 year old Okouo’s size and love of the game. So he made a photo of the young giant, which he sent to Unicaja telling them about the 14 year old Congolese project. And then the narrative turns into a Hollywood flick, like Blue Chips or The Air up there. The story of the unpolished diamond and the hidden sensation of the remote Congo town definitely impressed Unicaja.
"Although a local team in Brazzaville had offered me a contract", tells Viny, "Unicaja wanted me so much that I had to leave my team and go to Spain with the first plane. This is how I got here. It was hard at the first time, playing like a baby with experienced, international centers, but I tried and still try to give my best. I got a great support, not only from the coaches here but also from my teammates. So – although I was still in U16 – I started to play with the juniors and immediately got into an international game against Cajasol. That was tremendous."
"I know I still need a lot of technical knowledge, loads of studies and practice and experience, but I work hard, I am very powerful in rebounding (he was indeed one of the best at the Hospitalet) and in defense, and I am training every single day as I really want to be a powerful center, not a baby but a real Shaq."