DJ Mbenga stared out the window of the airplane and wondered how he would feel when the plane landed. Would he be nervous or anxious?
Was he scared to set foot on the continent that used to be home but became a death sentence? Or would he be happy to be back, within reach of family members who still live in Congo or worried that childhood memories would cloud his mission?
As it turned out, the Lakers reserve center felt only a twinge of emotional baggage on his return to Africa, the first time he has stepped foot in that part of the world in more than a dozen years. He was a bit anxious, but happy to have a chance to help disadvantage boys and girls through the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program.
"This was emotional for me, for sure," Mbenga said from Johannesburg, South Africa. "It's been a while since I was here, so for me to come back here, it has a lot of memories. It makes me understand how blessed I am."
Once he got his bearings, Mbenga said he put aside his memories and whatever fears he might have had, and focused on teaching youngsters the basics of basketball and life skills through the NBA program. Mbenga was one of 10 players, including Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard, who traveled to South Africa this past week for the NBA's third such global camp.
These players took part in several community outreach events, such as a life skills seminars dealing with HIV/AIDS education, talking to kids about living healthy lifestyles, showing them how to sustain a food garden and helping build homes through Habitat for Humanity.
"I came from a very different background, so this made me understand how I was blessed growing up. But growing up, I saw people like this, so I know what kind of life they have. And what they have is hope, a lot of hopes."
Mbenga's perspective of Africa takes on a different hue when you know his life story.
His father worked for the government in the Congo and the family was well off, what he calls "blessed." But when Mbenga and his brother were in their late teens, a new regime took over and jailed those who had worked for the previous leader. Mbenga's father was one of them. He and his brother were jailed as well.
The Mbenga brothers were jailed for only a brief time, until their father negotiated their release, but a short time later, their father was dead. Mbenga eventually fled to Belgium, where he received asylum, and while living in a refugee center, discovered basketball.
Now he is trying to help others learn the sport that has, what he says, given him an opportunity to live comfortably in the United States.
During his week in Africa, he and other NBA and WNBA players worked with 60 prospective players from 23 African countries, who were picked by the International Basketball Federation based on their skill, leadership skills and dedication to the sport. The aim is to use sport to promote a culture of social change among young people.
Former UCLA star Luc Mbah a Moute from Cameroon said the camp was pivotal in developing his basketball skills, a reason why he is in the NBA today. He was 16 years old when he attended his first camp in 2003.
Mbenga said he might have started his basketball career sooner had there been such a program when he was younger. As it was, Mbenga didn't start playing basketball until he was 17 years old in Belgium.
"Coming here has a lot of meaning for me. A lot, a lot," Mbenga said. "It's been emotional. The best part? To see these kids laugh is always a good thing ... .and to speak to them from my heart."