When kids younger than me are coming up and thinking about going to Texas, I want them to be thinking…I want to go to Texas because I saw what Myck Kabongo did when he was there.
-- Myck Kabongo as a high school junior (Slam Online, December 3, 2009).
Myck Kabongo's story is a common one in the new Canada. Zaire, the nation of his birth, was only a few years away from civil war when Myck was born in 1992. Kabongo's father left Africa, eventually gaining refugee status in Canada, where the rest of the family soon relocated.
When Myck Kabongo was six he found himself in Toronto, a city defined by its generations of immigrants. Living just blocks away from one of the most sacred spots in all of Canadian sports, the Maple Leaf Gardens, Kabongo didn't choose the sport of prior waves of Canadian immigrants. He would excel at basketball rather than hockey.
Settled in Canada, Kabongo's life closely followed the archetype of the modern basketball star. As a child in the Regent Park neighborhood of Toronto, Canada's oldest housing project, Kabongo's talent was obvious from an early age. By the time he was a teenager he had latched on with the powerful Grassroots Canada AAU program. He started his high school career at city power Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, located at the edge of a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood settled by Greek immigrants in the 1960s.
Kabongo's talent was immense, and it led him along the strange itinerant path of the modern North American high school basketball superstar. Like many of his contemporaries, he left his home and traveled as a teenager to play at a prep school; elite high school basketball players are essentially unpaid pro athletes.
Kabongo's first stop would be St. Benedict's in Newark, where he played under coach Dan Hurley. His senor season would see yet another change of location, as he transferred to the famous Findlay Prep in Nevada. He was an All-American, considered one of the very best guards in the class of 2011. He was heading to Texas, the central figure in Rick Barnes' latest highly regarded recruiting class.
By the time Myck Kabongo landed in Austin in the fall of 2011, he was already being compared with T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin. He was designated the next great Texas lead guard before playing a college single game. Like Ford, Augustin, and Daniel Gibson, Kabongo was expected to spend a couple of seasons leading the Longhorns to victory before heading off to the NBA.
Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and Myck Kabongo all followed similar paths from Ontario to Austin. All came up through the Grassroots Canada program, and all finished their high school years at Findlay Prep. Like Kabongo, Thompson also played for a time at St. Benedict's.
All three players were central figures in a time period where the Texas fanbase's attitude soured towards Texas basketball. None of the three are really to blame for this souring, but all three were there as it happened.
The souring started before any of the three Canadians attempted a shot in the Erwin Center. It had started in the winter of 2010. After grabbing the number one ranking in the AP poll in early January, a first in school history, the undefeated Longhorns fell apart. The Longhorns dropped eight of their last fourteen regular season games, and the season ended with an uninspiring first round NCAA tournament loss to Wake Forest. Seniors Damion James and Dexter Pittman were headed to the NBA, and freshman Avery Bradley left with them.
After the collapse of the prior year, and the departure of many key players, the expectations for the Texas Longhorns going into the 2010-2011 season were not particularly high. Texas started off the year unranked by the Associated Press. The Longhorns started two freshman and a sophomore, and the first player off the bench was another sophomore. The team's most experienced players were the offensively limited Dogus Balbay, the tiny Jai Lucas, and the hardworking but undersized Gary Johnson. Senior Matt Hill was the backup center. On paper, it looked like a limited team.
But the two Canadian freshman, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, both played exceptionally well, while sophomores Jordan Hamilton and J'Covan Brown took well to the team's new offensive approach, built on principles used by the Utah Jazz. The team played suffocating defense, shutting down opponents.
For whatever reason, people now overlook just how good the Longhorns were during the 2010-2011 basketball season. It is easy to see how this has happened looking back, but let's be honest, it was one of the most fun seasons in recent memory for Texas basketball fans. The team substantially outperformed expectations after a year where it had underperformed them.
But that is not how the 2010-2011 season is remembered. It is remembered for the loss to Arizona in the second game of the NCAA tournament, followed by Thompson, Hamilton, and Joseph all leaving school for the NBA. Remembering the season this way allows it to fit neatly into the negative narrative about the program. It is too bad this is the case. No matter how you feel about the program, it doesn't seem right to view the 2010-2011 team in that way.
This particular revision would have been much more difficult had the Longhorns played slightly better against Arizona, had Jordan Hamilton waited to be fouled rather than calling a timeout, or had official Jim Burr not skipped a number on his way to five.
At the center of the frame during the fast five count was Cory Joseph. It would be one of his last moments in a Longhorn uniform. To many, it was the only moment of the season that mattered -- the four seconds that wiped away the previous four months.
Myck Kabongo's Texas career started on November 13, 2011 in a blowout win over Boston University. It wasn't a particularly memorable game. His second game, against Rhode Island, was a fair bit better. Kabongo scored 18 points and dished 9 assists. He was off to the races as the next great Texas guard. Except that it didn't happen that first year. Kabongo would show flashes of his talent, but he didn't quite put it together during his freshman season. He had an up and down year that mirrored the up and down performance of his team.
After the early departures of freshmen Bradley, Thompson, and Joseph, many Texas fans figured Kabongo would likely follow his fellow Findlay Prep graduates into the NBA. But Kabongo did not. He chose instead to return for his sophomore year at Texas. It gave Texas fans a nice little shot of hope.
That shot didn't last long. By now, everyone knows what happened next. Myck Kabongo accepted a plane ticket to Cleveland to visit his friend Tristan Thompson and to work out with a trainer. Then Kabongo lied about it to Texas compliance. It was a mistake that wiped out most of his sophomore season.
In the end, Kabongo's career as a Longhorn wasn't much longer than those of his friends from Toronto. Now he is moving on to professional basketball. There wasn't enough time to realize his potential as a college basketball player. He will instead try to realize it as a professional.
Texas' foray into the recruitment of Canadian basketball stars seems a strange blip now in the history of Longhorn hoops. It won't be a period that Longhorn fans will look back on fondly. This seems harsh, but it is also seems true. The three highly regarded Canadians did not leave a lasting impact on the program of the sort that fans will remember. They will all just fade into the past in the same way that Avery Bradley or Maurice Evans have; if remembered at all they will be remembered as players who we barely got to know.
This is a shame. Myck Kabongo's story is the story of a family who fled their homeland, landed in Canada, and got on with life. Kabongo is a first-generation immigrant who is making a better life for himself. He is charismatic, hard-working, and is trying to make the most of his gifts -- and those gifts are substantial. His is a feel-good story that is practically a cliché.
It is kind of sad that Texas fans don't get to share in a happy chapter of this story. We just get the bitter one. We get the chapter where mistakes had consequences, and where the hero had to face adversity so that he could be redeemed later. It will just be an unfortunate, but ultimately minor, setback in what will hopefully be a very successful life for Kabongo. But it will be the only chapter that we get, and we will always wonder if things should have been better. We won't get that chapter of redemption.
Sometimes, things don't turn out the way that you expected, or the way that you hoped. Sometimes, as hard as you might try, things just don't come together quickly enough, and before long the time has passed. Sometimes great potential isn't realized. This is one of those times.
The sad truth is that no kid will come to Texas because he saw what Myck Kabongo did. Maybe things could have been different.