The story of how Roland Nyama made it from Frankfurt, Germany, to Stony Brook's starting frontcourt translates well from any of the five languages he speaks. Like any good story, it is a little sad, it comprises adventurous struggle and, in the redshirt freshman's view, it has turned out great. With more to come.
"It was quite interesting," he said of his journey, which began in tragedy.
Nyama was 7 when his parents, Eunice, a trauma surgeon, and Leopold, a pharmacist, left him in the care of an aunt while they visited Cameroon, their native country. The couple had met when they were studying in Germany. Roland was born while they were in college, so they spent time settling into their new family and careers. Finally, they decided to go home for a vacation.
But Leopold never returned. A car accident claimed his life. "My mom came back with the sad news," Nyama said.
The episode left Eunice, also injured, more resolute than ever to devote herself to the sick, the poor and, of course, the young son whose world was turned upside down.
"The thing is, you have to find a passion," the 6-6 forward said after practice one day last week. "I was athletic. I had played soccer early on and I was always kind of fast. When I started playing basketball, it helped me a lot. It gave me a reason to wake up and be happy and have something to look forward to after school."
He caught basketball fever playing the NBA 2005 video game with a friend. The sport looked like fun. Also, to his young eyes, "It looked kind of easy."
Then he joined a team. "I would say I was pretty terrible at first," he said, admitting that he looked goofy wearing soccer shorts. "But the passion was born in that moment."
Before long, he had a growth spurt that teamed up with his natural ability. "When I went over there and met his mom, the first thing she did was pull out a picture of Roland's dad," Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. "You could see how athletic-looking he was. He was a soccer player. His mom shared their whole story with me. It's a sad story, but it could have been worse."
That's how Eunice always has felt about it. While Nyama and teammates were scoring an impressive win at Columbia on Jan. 6, she was visiting Cameroon for the dedication of a library built by her foundation.
"My mom is very religious and I think her faith carried her through all the negativity," Nyama said. "During that crash, when my dad died, she almost didn't make it, as well. I think she's just thankful for every day she wakes up."
Her work and philanthropy introduced him to various cultures, which is how he came to speak German, English, French, Italian and an African dialect. "And I can understand Spanish," he said.
He also understands why his mother encouraged him to broaden his horizons and continue his education by leaving home at 17 for the Holderness School in New Hampshire. As hard as the transition was, Nyama and his mom thought it was better than joining the European professional club system.
He played well at the prep school and Stony Brook player Scott King, a Holderness alumnus, tipped off Pikiell. The coach won Nyama's commitment by telling him, "I'm not here to recruit you. I want to coach you."
Pikiell said: "The first time I saw him play, I loved his energy. He's got a great personality and he brings that to the court. I thought he could do a little bit of everything. I was intrigued to take a guy like that and make him better in all aspects."
Player and coach agreed last season that Nyama wasn't ready. He worked his head off at practice, often playing the role of the next opponent's top scorer. This season, he earned his way into the lineup, enjoying a breakout game with 16 points against LIU Brooklyn. With 12 points and five steals in Saturday's 82-39 victory at Maine, Nyama is averaging 7.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 25.6 minutes. He also is one of the Seawolves' better defenders.
Nyama has more than gotten up to speed culturally. At Holderness, he worked with underprivileged kids. At Stony Brook, he mentors nervous freshman athletes, convincing them this is all going to work out. They hear his flawless English and refuse to believe he is from another country.
No one will doubt his nationality if someday he plays for Germany's Olympic team, his dream, along with playing pro ball in Europe. "He's going to get better," Pikiell said. "I would be so proud for him to get to that level, and I think he has a chance, too."
Nyama believes he has made the most of his chances so far. "The Three Village community is great. Whenever I go to get bagels in the morning, the guy is there to say, 'Good game!' " he said. "On New Year's Eve, I just had the moment of, 'Hey, I'm in the United States, doing what I love every day, being blessed to wake up here.' "