On his 20th birthday, Jean-Baptiste Mukeba got what he’d always wanted – a chance.
A chance to prove his value on the court, to find his place among his peers, and to earn the attention of college scouts to potentially continue an academic career that he says he will never take for granted.
After his waiver was denied at the first two levels of the process, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Council (MIAC) approved his waiver on Dec. 19, 2019, allowing Mukeba to play basketball for Lynn English, which shared the Division 1 title with Springfield Central.
While the MIAA declined to discuss the specifics of the case due to privacy laws, the council likely made an exception to association bylaws due to the extenuating circumstances of Mukeba’s upbringing.
“Each student eligibility waiver that is submitted is treated as an individual case,” said MIAA assistant executive director Phil Napolitano, who oversees initial waiver requests.
“During hearings [with the MIAC], information regarding hardship and extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration when the panel makes a final decision.”
Mukeba grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that has been torn by civil war for the past 25 years. In a city of over 11 million people, public school was not an option, so he was unable to receive any schooling until family members scrapped together funds for him to attend middle school.
At 15, the lengthy teen first picked up basketball, and he was attending a basketball camp the next year when a distant cousin, Yannick Kasongo, met him by chance. Kasongo, a 2004 graduate of Madison Park, offered to fly Mukeba to the United States and serve as his guardian. The 16-year-old readily accepted.
“When I came to America, everything changed,” said Mukeba last week, after the conclusion of the season. “Life is very difficult in Africa. You can’t go to school if you don’t have money. To go to school for free and get an education, that’s the best part.”
Mukeba lived with Kasongo in Dallas for a year, then moved to Arizona to live with another distant cousin. He attended a charter school, South Pointe, to focus on academics, and spent his afternoons practicing with the Hillcrest Prep private school team, which is allowed under Arizona bylaws.
Frustrated by a lack of playing time at the prep school power and missing any sort of familial connection with his parents in Kinshasa, Mukeba decided to move to Lynn last summer and live with his cousin, Mukala Kabongo.
With Kabongo's mother and aunt cooking comfort food and speaking his native French or Lingala, Mukeba quickly felt more at home.
“[Mukeba] needed to get closer to family,” said Kabongo, a news director at Lynn Community Television.
“Massachusetts has a big Congolese community, and we thought that would be better for him.”
Still, the 6-foot-9 senior found it difficult to make friends. Basketball could provide a social conduit, but Mukeba's waiver was denied at the first level by the MIAA due to an eligibility restrictions on students who turn 19 during the given school year.
On Dec. 12, Mukeba’s case was heard by the MIAA Eligibility Review Board, where it was once again denied. But one week later, on his 20th birthday, Mukeba traveled to MIAA headquarters with Lynn English athletic director Richard Newton for a hearing from the MIAC, a three-member council of rotating principals, superintendents, and athletic directors that makes the final decisions on waivers.
The council voted, 2-1, to award Mukeba a waiver, and he was able to join English that night for the second game of the season.
“It’s our job to advocate for kids who come into the system no matter how old they are,” said Newton. “That’s what education and athletics is all about. That’s why you get into these jobs, to help kids. We’re fortunate that they allowed [Mukeba] to play, and colleges got to see him, to his benefit.”
It took some time for Mukeba to hit his stride with the defending state champion Bulldogs, but he made a tremendous impact down the stretch and in the state tournament, helping English (23-2) repeat as co-champions with the state finals called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
By averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks per game for a high-profile high school program, Mukeba boosted his stock with college programs, , earning a scholarship offer attend Franklin Pierce, a Division 2 program in the Northeast-10, which he accepted Monday.
“That makes me feel lucky,” said Mukeba. “Because I don’t have money to pay for school, especially college.”
As he warmed up on the court, Mukeba also warmed up socially. According to star point guard Jarnel Guzman, who is also committed to Franklin Pierce, Mukeba was shy at first but is now quick to crack jokes, hold the door for classmates, and is “generally a good person to be around.”
“It was worth going through [the waiver process], ” said Kabongo. “[Mukeba] was really happy out there [with the team], and he was able to pick up the family aspects of basketball.”
Added English coach Antonio Anderson, “It was the first time in six years [Mukeba] has been around anything close to a family.”
Now in quarantine along with the rest of the state, Mukeba is grateful for his teammates, as they regularly connect on social media to coordinate home workouts or chat while playing basketball video games.
Thinking back on the journey that brought him across the world and around the country, Mukeba recognized how basketball has made it all possible.
“Basketball helped me, because I [was] with my friends every day," he said. "They all speak English, so I had to learn English. It’s important for me to play, because that’s all I have right now. I don’t work. If I don’t play, what am I going to do here? Playing basketball, it could change my life.”