LOS ANGELES — For years, they watched the All-Star Weekend festivities together. Frank Ntilikina’s older brothers, Brice and Yves, would wake him up in the middle of the night and they would crowd around the television in their mother’s apartment in Strasbourg, France.
This All-Star Weekend, the family is scattered. Brice and Yves are watching from France, their mother, Jacqueline, is in the stands at the Staples Center, and Ntilikina, a rookie point guard with the Knicks is a participant, taking the court Friday for the World Team in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Yet, even without his entire family physically next to him, Ntilikina always feels they are there. He feels it every time Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek puts him in a game at Madison Square Garden. He also feels it when he doesn’t. He has felt it through every high and low of his first NBA season. And he felt it when he stepped on the Staples Center court on Friday.
“Yes, this is my body. But we are all living the experience together in me,” Ntilikina, 19, said last week in an interview with Newsday. “My mother worked so hard, fought for us. She did everything so that we could all be together and have a good life. She is a very strong person.”
To understand just how strong — to understand the tight family bond that both drives and nurtures Ntilikina — one has to travel back to a nightmarish time before he was born, back to war-torn Rwanda in the 1990s.
Jacqueline, Yves and Brice were living in the Rwandan capital of Kigali when the tension between the country’s two primary ethnic groups, the Tutsi and Hutu, exploded. During a five-month period in the spring and summer of 1994, an estimated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis, were murdered.
It was a time so painful that Jacqueline, who is half Tutsi and half Hutu, rarely talks about it. Before watching the Knicks lose to the Wizards at Madison Square Garden this past week, however, she explained how she was separated from her two sons and forced to flee for her life.
“I had a gun here and a machete here,” she said, pointing to her head and then her neck.
Jacqueline made it to Brussels, Belgium, and began the search for 8-year-old Yves and 6-year-old Brice. She discovered that they had made it out of the country with their father and were living in a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp in Goma, then a part of Zaire. Sanitary conditions at the camp were so poor that the United Nations has estimated that nearly 12,000 people died of cholera in 1994 alone.
In December 1994, six months after she fled Rwanda, she went to Goma to get her boys.
“Yves was so skinny that his ribs stuck out. He had to do all the cooking because the girlfriend of his father was sick,” she remembered. “It broke my heart to see them like that. I needed to get them out of this craziness.”
In 1998, when Yves was 12 and Brice 10, Frank was born in Brussels. Soon after, his Belgian father left and Jacqueline had to figure out how to raise three boys on her own. A midwife by training, she went back to school to get a nursing degree. Soon after, in 2001, they moved to Strasbourg, France, where they had some family.
“I tried to be a strong person. It wasn’t always easy,” Jacqueline said. “I had three boys to take care of. It was mostly a pleasure. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes I would just go to my room and cry.”
It was in Strasbourg where Frank fell in love with basketball. Jacqueline often had to work double shifts to keep food on the table. Yves and Brice helped out with the child care, doing most of their babysitting at the basketball court.
“He started with us when he was 2 or 3 years old,” Brice said in a phone interview. “He could barely carry the big ball. When we went on to play for teams in Strasbourg, he was always there in the background. Basketball was just always a big part of life for him.”
Jacqueline was fine with basketball as long as her boys also hit the books. Frank said he grew up watching Yves, now a surgeon, and Brice, a physical therapist, either playing basketball or studying.
Though it became clear a couple of years ago that Frank had the talent to play professionally, Jacqueline said that was fine but he had to finish high school. Last year, while playing for Strasbourg in a league that his agent Rich Felder likens to Double-A baseball, Frank also was going to school full-time.
By the time Ntilikina was selected eighth overall by the Knicks in last June’s NBA Draft, the family was doing well. Both brothers had good jobs and supervised 40 to 50 people at a medical clinic. Jacqueline has since retired and splits her time between France and New York.
Ntilikina’s rookie season has had its ups and downs. Some Knicks fans can’t seem to get over the fact that the Knicks passed on two point guards — Dennis Smith Jr., now with the Mavericks, and Donovan Mitchell, now with the Jazz, to take Ntilikina. Smith was a favorite of LeBron James’ and Mitchell looks as if he is going to be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Other observers, most notably Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, have given the 6-5 Ntilikina excellent reviews, raving about his 7-foot wingspan and defensive mindset. Ntilikina’s defensive ability impressed assistant coaches enough that they voted him into the rookie-sophomore game despite the fact that his statistics — 5.2 points and 35.3 percent shooting from the field in 20 minutes per game — might not have warranted it on the surface.
Ntilikina said he hopes to enjoy his All-Star experience and come back for the second half of the season even stronger. Hornacek has said he will be giving Ntilikina and other young players — the Knicks recently traded for Emmanuel Mudiay, a young point guard who had fallen out of favor in Denver — more playing time as the team looks to the future. What happens then could go a long way toward deciding Ntilikina’s future role with the team.
Ntilikina, the second-youngest player in the league, is ready to meet the challenge, and he knows he won’t be meeting it alone.
Said Ntilikina: “My family, we’re all in this together. Always.”
THE RWANDAN MASSACRE
In 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million people died during a 100-day genocidal rampage on the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. Whole families, even infants, were slaughtered en masse by members of the Hutu majority. Killings were done throughout the country of about 7 million people on roads and in fields, churches and soccer stadiums. Attackers often raped and/or maimed citizens they did not kill.
The bloodletting began after April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, president of neighboring Burundi, was shot down, killing both Hutu men and everyone else on board. Tutsis were blamed by Hutus for downing the plane and launched the killings. The Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front eventually siezed control and captured the capital city of Kigali in mid-July, bringing an end to the genocide
Today, Rwanda observes two periods of mourning for the genocide victims.