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Of new beginnings, friendship, and Blue Eagles: Catching up with Big Ben

Growing up as a kid from Cameroon, Ben Mbala has always held the dream of playing at the highest level in the sport he loved the most: basketball. From being an MVP of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program and almost playing for the Ateneo Blue Eagles, to being an immediate legend for the DLSU Green Archers in the UAAP and almost playing in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA)—all the way to a colorful professional career overseas—Mbala’s life was and still is nothing short of crossroads moments. 

Mbala joined Kiefer Ravena, Norman Riego, and Randolph Leongson last June 5 on the Tiebreaker Times’ The Prospects Pod to talk about his growth and decisions that led him to become the athlete that he is now.

Just a kid from Cameroon

Before he was Ben Mbala, the muscular freight train of a man that ruled the UAAP for two seasons, he was Benoit Mbala, a skinny kid from the bustling capital city of Yaounde in Cameroon. In a region dominated by football, Mbala was simply too tall for the sport, prompting him to take his talents to basketball where he really thrived. “The reality in Africa is, for young athletes to get into the [United] States (US) or even Europe, you need to have a backup. I did the job by working hard,” Mbala spoke of the heightened challenges of making it big in Africa.

Despite this, Mbala was able to successfully break through the trials at a young age largely because of the sheer volume of hard work coupled with innate talent that made him a tantalizing prospect. In fact, he impressed so many eyes at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in South Africa in 2011 that he took African MVP honors that year. That was supposedly enough for him to be presented a scholarship opportunity to play in the US, but unfortunately, visa issues got in the way. “Unluckily, I had a [difficult] time with the (US) Embassy and the visa,” said Mbala. “They made me go back and forth for months and I felt like I was wasting my time.”

Glory in green

Fortunately for Mbala, a new window opened up for him to showcase his talents, halfway across the world. “I had a close friend who was already playing in the Philippines for [the University of the East],” Mbala discussed, referring to the former Red Warrior big Moustapha Arafat. “To be honest, I was hesitant to go because I didn’t know anything about the country, and I didn’t think my family would let me fly miles away and be there on my own.”

It took some convincing, but Mbala was able to pursue his basketball dreams in the Philippines. With the talent and dedication that Mbala had, though, it was inevitable that he would leave his mark.

When Mbala first set foot in Cebu to play for the Southwestern University (SWU) Cobras, he wasted no time introducing himself to droves of basketball enthusiasts. In 2012, Mbala helped the Cobras win their historic first title in the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc., Cebu’s premier collegiate basketball league. He caught national attention during the Philippine Collegiate Champions League later that year, dominating the tournament against the biggest college teams of the country—highlighted by a 41-point game against University of Santo Tomas and an impressive fourth place finish.

Unsurprisingly, Mbala received legions of offer sheets from different schools. Eventually, it all came down to La Salle and Ateneo. Magnificently enough, Mbala was this close to playing for rival ADMU. “I told you [Kiefer], Ateneo was my first choice!” Mbala said, citing the then recent departures of Blue Eagle bigs Justin Chua, Greg Slaughter, and Poy Erram. “That was a team [wherein] I could have gotten a lot of responsibility and playing time. La Salle had [Arnold] Van Opstal, Norbert Torres, Yutien Andrada, [and Jason] Perkins. I [would need to] compete to have playing time, so I was like, ‘I’m going to go to Ateneo.’”

La Salle fans have SWU coach Yayoy Alcoseba to thank for Mbala selecting Taft, because he was the one who convinced Ben to don the Green-and-White. “He was like, ‘You go to La Salle. It’s going to be better for you because I know people there,’” stated Mbala.

The Mayhem-injected Green Archers reigned supreme in the collegiate basketball world with Mbala at the helm, despite his UAAP stint being relatively short. He took home the league’s MVP awards for Seasons 79 and 80; the Archers breezed through the league for a 25-3 win-loss record, including a title in 2016 over the Blue Eagles with Mbala leading the way. During that stretch, he posted averages of 20.6 points, 16.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals, and countless highlight plays in a true show of dominance.

Aiming higher

“It felt like some other people were deciding for my future,” Mbala expressed when the topic of his premature departure from the UAAP was floated. He was supposed to have one last year of eligibility, but confusions with the league’s “seven years out of high school” rule would have deemed Mbala ineligible, so he decided to step away. He furthered, “I just didn’t want to be in a situation where I passed up so many opportunities.”

Mbala had a frenzy of a journey the following year. He had received a lot of offers from various international clubs, ultimately landing in Mexico to play for Fuerza Regia. After a month-long foray, he shifted gears to play for Chorale Roanne in France where he saw increased playing time and productivity.

A few months later, he accepted an offer to play in the Korea Basketball League for the Seoul Samsung Thunders. Little known was that he was on the verge of playing in the Philippines again after his Korean stint, this time as an import for the Magnolia Hotshots, but plans fell through as, according to Mbala, “It wasn’t sure if I was allowed to play.”

Mbala currently plays for Limoges CSP in France, where he recently signed a fresh three-year deal for one of the more prominent French teams “to have the stability, to make new friends, and [to] get acquainted with the place,” Mbala described.

He also admits that he misses playing in the Philippines—for DLSU—a lot, as it will always be home to him. “Being with the guys all day, talking about anything, and playing video games. Now that I’m pro, I miss the guys,” stressed Mbala, reiterating the tight-knit camaraderie of the Archers during those years. “As college teammates, it’s all about family, winning games together, and bonding…that’s what I miss the most.”

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