Hoop Dreams: Congolese star basketball player looks ‘forward’ to his role

By Shirley Beaman

Stan Kaya points to the spot on the globe where his country is located. Marin County is 8,725 miles from his home, the Republic of the Congo in equitorial Africa.

Stan Kaya points to the spot on the globe where his country is located. Marin County is 8,725 miles from his home, the Republic of the Congo in equitorial Africa.

International student Stan Kaya will never forget the day rebel soldiers came knocking at his door.  He was only 5 years old at the time. What started off like any other evening with his family would quickly turn into the most terrifying night of his young life.

The pounding at the front door that night was so loud it startled the whole family, with the exception of his father, who was napping in a back room.

As Kaya’s mother hurriedly crossed the living room to open the door, the shouting became louder and more urgent. It seemed as if the door would bust open at any moment.

Even at his age, Kaya knew that his country, the Republic of Congo, was in turmoil. There were powerful factions at odds with each other.  Boniface Kaya, his father, was a prominent physician, not only in his hometown, Dolisie, but throughout the Congo. As a supporter of former President Pascal Lissouba, who had been overthrown in a coup, Boniface was a target. Rebels were scouring the countryside for Lissouba sympathizers.

Kaya joined COM’s varsity basketball team as a forward this year.

Kaya joined COM’s varsity basketball team as a forward this year.

Before Stan’s mom, Marinique Lembe, opened the front door, her children could hear men shouting in Lingala.

“Where is Dr. Kaya? Get him now!”

The family recognized the rebels as Northerners  from the Mbochi tribe – enemies of their tribe, the Bembe.  The children watched as their mother tried to explain that Dr. Kaya was asleep in the back of the house.  The rebels insisted. They wanted her to  get him right away.  Intimidated by the AK-47s the soldiers were brandishing, Marinique complied.

After Stan’s father appeared, the rebels led him outside for questioning.  The following minutes seemed like an eternity for Marinique and her family as they waited inside.

Stan still recalls that terrifying night in 1999, when the Northern rebels invaded his family’s home in the Congo.

“When they took my father outside, we didn’t know if they were going to kill him.”

After questioning Dr. Kaya, the rebels ordered the remainder of the family outside as they proceeded to riddle the house with bullets – to make sure they weren’t harboring Lissouba supporters.

Then they forced Marinique back inside the house to show them where the family kept their money and jewelry.

“When they shot up our home, my mother was burned by some of the shell casings as they flew off their guns,” Stan says. “I will never forget the sounds of the AK-47s. It’s a terrible, terrible sound…”

But the ordeal didn’t end there.  After the rebels left the Kaya’s home, they moved up the road and targeted the owner of an SUV. When he refused to hand over his car keys, they shot him in both legs.  The victim’s friend ran to Dr. Kaya’s house, looking for help. Still shaken from the earlier incident, Stan’s mom explained to the wounded man’s friend that her husband was not a surgeon. The man later died.

Stan looks back at the incident as a turning point.

“I remember thinking, I’ve got to get out of here, this is crazy!”

It was the first time in his life he realized he wasn’t safe, even in his own home.

In 1999 – the year his family was terrorized – the Niari region where Stan’s family lived was hit particularly hard. There was a lot of violence, which caused great destruction and loss of life. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and the region became paralyzed economically.

It’s a miracle that the family survived this difficult chapter in their lives, as the Congo was being torn apart by rival tribes battling each other for power.

Fourteen years later, Stan moved halfway around the world. By way of Cameroon, Florida and Maryland.

Before leaving his home in the Congo, his mother gave her blessings.

“Go my son, you’re a man now, and I don’t know when you’ll come back.”

But how exactly does one get from the Congo to San Geronimo Valley, where Stan now resides.

Basketball was his ticket.

Although several colleges, including Georgetown and Southern Illinois, were interested in the freshman, he chose COM, where he will be wearing a Mariner’s basketball jersey this season.

Marin’s amenities are part of the attraction for Stan and COM’s 100 other international students. A poster in the ESL office at the Kentfield campus shows some of the 82 countries that are represented by students here.

Lured here by the affordability of California’s community college education system, and the beauty of Northern California, it was a no brainer. Without a scholarship to a four-year college, COM offered small class size and the possibility of transferring to nearby world-class, four-year universities.

And there was another reason.

“It’s warm here,” he said,” I love it!”

Kaya speaks knowledgeably about the history and geography of his country, which he learned from his mother, a former geography teacher and school principal.

The seven Kaya children were encouraged to do well in school by both of their parents. Their father, Boniface, was a nationally recognized pediatrician. Dr. Kaya, educated in France, was offered residency there. However, he turned it down to return home to help his people.

“He was a good man,” Stan said. “ He was a survivor.”

Stan’s childhood was a happy one, however, there were times when he too had to be a survivor.

“Before my dad was born, his mother lost six children – six children! He was the first to survive, so he was very special.”

One of Stan’s older sisters died from cancer in 2006. She was only 13.

Several years later, as a teenager, Stan was introduced to basketball, which he developed a talent and passion for. While playing in a tournament in Brazzaville, the nation’s capital, he received a call from one of his older brothers, informing him that his father had died.

The 17-year-old had lost a second member of his family within five years.

He couldn’t help but wonder if his father’s death was politically motivated. He still wonders.

“My father had a bad stomach ache, and six hours later he was dead.”

Tragedies like these make children grow up fast.

That year, he left his home in the Congo to live with an uncle in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, where  he attended high school and developed his skills as a basketball player.

While there, he earned a scholarship to attend a high school in Jacksonville, Florida. His journey to America was strewn with challenges. Along the way he missed several flights and was forced to stay overnight with various relatives and friends. Trying to fit his 6-foot-6-inch body into a standard coach seat was challenging, too, and just added to his fatigue and discomfort.

“I was so upset, I didn’t speak any English during all this. I was confused and I was getting mad,” he recalls.

Kaya’s bedroom at his host family’s home in San Geronimo Valley reflects his personality.

Kaya’s bedroom at his host family’s home in San Geronimo Valley reflects his personality.

Shortly after the high school junior settled with his host family in Florida, he became disappointed with his school’s academic standards.

“I thought, ‘my mom is going to kill me if she finds out I’m not challenging myself academically here.’”

So he moved to Leonardtown, Maryland to attend another school, where he found a balance between sports and academics.  He took English, history and British literature.

On the basketball court, competition was good. He travelled to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore for tournaments. In his first game as a forward, he scored 41 points.  He led his varsity team in scoring and rebounding that season.

He received the 2012-2013 All-County Athlete of the Year Award his senior year.

“He is a great kid and he gives it everything he has in practice, and that shows on the court,” his head coach, Dave Tallman told the Maryland Community News.

After graduation he moved to Marin. His host mother in Maryland still calls him every day to see how he’s doing.

He currently lives with his new host family in San Geronimo Valley near the golf course. Aidan O’Sullivan, an independent contractor,  agreed to host Stan in his home for two years while he attends COM.  It works out well, since O’Sullivan’s son Paul is both his roommate and teammate.

The two compliment each other. And they share similar experiences.

“Paul is good at defense, and Stan is good at offense. I’m hoping the two will learn from one another,” says O’Sullivan. “I cook. Paul cooks. Stan’s learning his way around the kitchen, too.”

It goes deeper than sports and cooking.

“My mom passed away in December,” Paul says.

Stan, whose father died when he was 17, knows all about that kind of loss.

“My dad thought it would be good to mix things up a bit,” Paul says. “The whole situation is unique. I’m a white boy from Marin and Stan is from the Congo. That’s stuff I’ve seen in a movie, but now I know somebody who was in that situation, so I’m closer to it.”

Stan’s grateful to the O’Sullivans for their generosity. He feels right at home with their family.

“They are good people,” he says.

Paul and Stan have much in common, including a love of gaming.

The two have become like brothers, going to school together every day, playing basketball on the same team, watching movies, and playing video games together.

“He works hard,” Paul says. “And I like working hard.”

Coach Granucci says both young men are indeed hard workers, and they are part of a mentally tough and confident team.

Living together has provided them with the opportunity to learn from each other, as teammates and family.

“[I’m] lucky that I’ve got somebody from the Congo living 15 feet away from me,” Paul says.  

Stan Kaya, right, enjoys playing video games, like FIFA, with his teammate / roommate, Paul O’Sullivan, whose family is hosting the international student at their San Geronimo home.

Stan Kaya, right, enjoys playing video games, like FIFA, with his teammate / roommate, Paul O’Sullivan, whose family is hosting the international student at their San Geronimo home.



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