Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu is leading Africa’s growing impact on women’s college basketball
This season there are over 40 African-born players, representing at least 13 countries, competing at the Division I level
On a Wednesday afternoon on the campus of the University of South Florida, the women’s basketball team is concluding a luncheon to help raise money for the school’s women’s sports programs. It was the first day off for a team that had played, and won, four games in nine days.
Upon the luncheon’s conclusion, head coach Jose Fernandez approached his senior star Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. Fernandez asks Fankam Mendjiadeu how she planned to spend the rest of her coveted off day. But Fernandez’s question was more rhetorical in nature – he knew Fankam Mendjiadeu was thinking about basketball.
When Fernandez arrives in the mornings before team practices, he’ll find Fankam Mendjiadeu already in the gym working on her game. When the players and coaches depart following a team practice, Fankam Mendjiadeu stays, or comes back later that night. Off days simply provided more flexibility for the 6-foot-4 forward to get shots up.
“No touching the ball today,” Fernandez told Fankam Mendjiadeu, imploding her agenda.
In the eyes of Fankam Mendjiadeu, idleness is a missed opportunity for progress and lost time toward her goal of reaching the game’s highest level, a dream Fankam Mendjiadeu only recently believed to be possible.
Now that it is, she doesn’t want to waste a minute.
While Fankam Mendjiadeu can envision her goal, she couldn’t have predicted she’d ever be in this position given where she began. It’s a story that starts in her native Cameroon, includes stops in Morristown, and Memphis, Tennessee, and has since turned a new page in Tampa.
“When I’m looking at the end goal, I’m like, if I want to get there I cannot be lazy,” she said. “I have to work. That’s what’s driving me.”
There are two things that Fankam Mendjiadeu distinctly remembers about her first day in the United States: Confusion as to why there were no people on the roads she drove on, and her first meal.
“The food was nasty to me, I’m sorry,” said Fankam Mendjiadeu, who couldn’t remember what she ate in that fateful meal. “It was so different.”
Fankam Mendjiadeu was born in Nkongsamba, Cameroon, a small village on the western side of the African nation. She’s the middle child of three, and grew up with two brothers in a household where roughhousing was constant.
As a child, Fankam Mendjiadeu played with friends after school or helped her mom, Bertrande, with one of her small businesses. Her mom had a bissap juice business and Fankam Mendjiadeu would help her make and sell the juice along with yogurt and popsicles. When her mother opened a bar, that became Fankam Mendjiadeu’s new after-school destination where she would offer assistance to her mom however she could.
Fankam Mendjiadeu had little interest in sports. If a sport was on at her house, it was soccer, the most popular sport in Cameroon. Her basketball career started largely as a result of her eventual high school coach, who refused to let one of the tallest girls in the entire city not suit up for his team. Her coach pleaded with Fankam Mendjiadeu’s father, Ambroise Mendjiadeu, who encouraged her to pick up a basketball.
“He [My father] was like, ‘it can help you, you never know,’ ” she recalled. “When I started trying, I actually liked it.”
As Fankam Mendjiadeu began to excel in basketball, she imagined where it could take her. At the time, she envisioned playing at the university level in Cameroon. Without any basketball connections outside of her town, that was really Fankam Mendjiadeu’s only option. Boys rarely left the country to play basketball, and women never did. But when Fankam Mendjiadeu’s high school team traveled to a larger city for a game, she caught the attention of the opposing team’s head coach.
“ ‘You know, if you keep going like that, you can have some scholarships from the U.S.,’ ” the coach told Fankam Mendjiadeu. “I was like, ‘What? That can happen?’ ”
Fankam Mendjiadeu’s path to playing in the U.S. accelerated during a training camp for the Cameroonian national team, where she met fellow player Ramses Lonlack. A native of Bertoua, Cameroon, Lonlack played college basketball at the University of Memphis from 2008 to 2012.
“When she saw me, she saw the potential,” said Fankam Mendjiadeu. “She wanted me to get in contact with the coach from Memphis. From there, we started talking.”
Fankam Mendjiadeu wasn’t able to transfer her grades from her previous university to Memphis, so she needed to attend a junior college first. That’s how she eventually ended up at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee.
After a year at Walters State, in which she was named one of the top juco players in the country, Fankam Mendjiadeu transferred to Memphis. She spent two years at Memphis, averaging a double-double during her sophomore season where she was named second-team all-conference.
The retirement of Memphis coach Melissa McFerrin at the end of the 2020-21 season led Fankam Mendjiadeu to enter the transfer portal. Her familiarity with South Florida as a conference foe and her admiration for the program factored into her commitment to the Bulls.
Fankam Mendjiadeu is a quiet storm for South Florida, leading through her dominant play. Though more observant than vocal, Fankam Mendjiadeu, who already holds a degree in mathematics and is pursuing a master’s degree in finance, has a mind that is constantly analyzing the game before her to determine the best way to impact the sequence of play.
Fankam Mendjiadeu is having a standout senior season for the Bulls, averaging 16.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 1.0 block per game. She’s shooting 58.9% from the field, 10 percentage points higher than her previous career best. Fankam Mendjiadeu ranks third in the country in rebounds per game.
“Her body size. Her footwork has gotten so much better. She can now score with her back to the basket. She can face and knock down shots. She’s a rim protector,” Fernandez said of the qualities that help separate Fankam Mendjiadeu from her peers. “Not many people her size, 6-foot-4, can run, jump, move laterally and get off the floor.”
According to HerHoopStats, Fankam Mendjiadeu is one of just two players in Division I to average at least 16 points and 12 rebounds. The other is LSU’s Angel Reese, a contender for National Player of the Year. She put up the best game of her Bulls career against Ohio State, then ranked No. 3, at the San Diego Invitational in December, ending in overtime with 34 points and 17 rebounds on 73% shooting.
“She’s a strong player. She always goes hard. There’s no way to stop her if she’s under the basket,” teammate and senior Bulls point guard Elena Tsineke said. “Sometimes she gets double-teamed, triple-teamed and she’ll still make a way to make a basket.”
Fankam Mendjiadeu stands at the center of a growing trend of African-born players competing in Division I women’s college basketball.
This season, there are more than 40 African-born players, representing at least 13 countries, competing at the Division I level. This doesn’t include African-born players whose families emigrated to other countries, such as Oregon’s Phillipina Kyei, who was born in Ghana and represents Canada after her family emigrated there when she was a teenager.
“For some of the teams we play, there’s at least one African player,” Fankam Mendjiadeu said.
When South Florida hosted Morehead State in its season opener, the Eagles’ starting point guard was Veronica Charles, a senior point guard from Benue, Nigeria. When the Bulls hosted Jacksonville, they faced sophomore center Benie Lundu of Kinshasa, Congo. Against Texas, South Florida faced junior center Femme Masudi from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, and junior forward Khadija Faye from Dakar, Senegal. In January against Wichita State, the Bulls faced senior forward Jane Asinde from Kampala, Uganda, and sophomore forward Carla Budane from Maputo, Mozambique. They’ll close the season against Cincinnati and sophomore guard Lojain Elfatairy from Giza, Egypt.
“There has been a huge uptick lately,” said Fernandez, one of the top recruiters of international talent. “If you look at some of the African nations and their success in FIBA World Cups as of late. Under 17. Under 19. Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon. The Egyptian national team has improved drastically as well.”
The growing representation of African-born players is a welcome sign for pioneers such as Hamchetou Maiga-Ba. Maiga-Ba, a native of Mali, was a standout player for Old Dominion from 1998 to 2002. During her time at Old Dominion, she says, it was rare to see another African on an opposing team.
“There wasn’t much,” Maiga-Ba said.
Maiga-Ba was the first woman from Mali to play in Division I, a feat that likely would have never happened had then-Old Dominion assistant coach Alisa Scott not attended a game between Kenya and Mali during an African tournament. Scott offered Maiga-Ba a scholarship after watching her play.
“Getting that opportunity was certainly a dream come true. It was something I wanted to do but I had no idea how to get there,” she said. “Other than that, I couldn’t think of any other way to make it here.”
The landscape for African players looking to play in the United States has changed drastically in the two decades since Maiga-Ba’s time at Old Dominion. That’s largely due to the evolution of technology and the internet. Those advancements have widened the opportunities for players who can now upload videos of their play, have direct contact with scouts, coaches and programs, and also grow their interest in the sport by consuming highlights reels or connecting on social media.
Another opportunity to recently emerge for African players is the NBA Academy Women’s Program, which hosts camps for players in multiple locations worldwide, including a camp in Senegal. The program began in 2018 and brings together 25 of the best prospects, scouted by NBA personnel, in the continent.
Last December, Maiga-Ba, who played nine seasons in the WNBA and won a championship with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005, coached the annual camp with fellow African WNBA champion Astou Ndiaye and current players Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings and Jasmine Thomas of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Thomas was impressed by the talent she saw from the camp’s participants, many of whom expressed a “hunger” to play in the United States. She was also struck by just how closely they followed the game in the States.
“They actually watch the WNBA,” Thomas said. “It surprised me because sometimes I go to camps in the States and we’re like raise your hand if you watch the WNBA, and no one raises their hand.”
Since its inception, eight participants have joined Division I teams following their participation in the program.
“They have an advantage,” Maiga-Ba said of this generation of African players. “The person that takes advantage of that, there is so much more that they can do than when we came.”
Despite the recent progress made, there are still barriers for African players that can make the transition to the U.S. difficult.
Some barriers are cultural. Girls aren’t expected to play basketball, says Maiga-Ba. During her playing days she had multiple friends who could have gone far in the sport, but their parents told them basketball wasn’t for girls.
“At the same time, given the poverty level of some of the families, it’s more that they feel like maybe that girl is somebody that is possibly going to take care of the family,” Maiga-Ba added. “They see more to that than sending her to play basketball or send them to school.”
Other times, it’s a matter of being denied passage to the United States. On multiple occasions, Maiga-Ba has seen kids equipped with full scholarships denied visas to travel to the United States, sometimes with no explanation at all.
“It’s sad because they are taking the future away from some of these kids that can come and change, not only their life, but their families’ lives, the lives of their entire community,” Maiga-Ba said.
“I’m trying to find some players back in Africa who are good enough, to make them come here and play Division I. We are trying to get more exposure about that. I think it’s been successful.”– Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu
Fankam Mendjiadeu’s route to the States through a junior college has become a common method for players coming to America, especially for players who don’t speak English.
“The school systems are different. It takes a period of adjustment,” Maiga-Ba said. “If you are Division I, the level of competition and the classes and all that becomes a bit challenging.”
Many players have thrived at the juco level before transferring to top four-year programs. Chanaya Pinto, a senior forward for Penn State, was a two-time NJCAA All-American after coming to the United States from Maputo, Mozambique. Texas Tech sophomore forward JoJo Nworie was also a juco All-American. Nworie is a native of Lagos, Nigeria.
Fankam Mendjiadeu acknowledged the work of past players, like Maiga-Ba, who are actively working to cultivate interest in basketball in Africa and create those opportunities for those interested in making the leap to the United States. Consider Fankam Mendjiadeu herself to be a part of that effort.
“I’m trying to find some players back in Africa who are good enough, to make them come here and play Division I,” Fankam Mendjieadeu said. “We are trying to get more exposure about that. I think it’s been successful.”
There are few things Fankam Mendjiadeu enjoys more than shooting in an empty gym. The court has always been Fankam Mendjiadeu’s escape from the daily drudgery of school and life’s various stressors. She’ll step onto the floor, put on some Burna Boy or Davido, or some French music as of late, and unload the weight of the week with each dribble and jump shot.
Fankam Mendjiadeu has a long list of basketball goals set before her – making the Olympics with her national team, competing in Eurobasket, playing in the WNBA. She wants to do it all.
Fernandez has zero doubt about Fankam Mendjiadeu’s ability to reach each one.
“She’s very driven, very motivated,” Fernandez said. “She knows what she wants and what the expectations are athletically and professionally to get that.”
Fankam Mendjiadeu knows nothing about her basketball future is guaranteed. Some of her goals she even describes as being far-fetched. But while many factors leading up to those career-defining moments may fall out of her control, she plans to make the most of the one factor that she commands.
She’ll work on her game, any moment she can, until she can write the next unpredictable chapter of her journey.
“I really don’t have the same reality as other people, but everybody has their path,” Fankam Mendjiadeu said. “Right now, I’m just trying to make the best of it.
“I don’t want to have any regrets. I just want to put everything out there. That’s my motto, putting everything out there. Giving my best. Giving everything and then, we’ll see what happens.”