Nkwain Kennedy is broadcasting his hoop dreams from Cameroon

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Nkwain Kennedy is using social media to broadcast his skill, work ethic and desire as he tries to make good on his basketball dreams.

Around 2 a.m. on the morning of June 10, right about the time the Warriors and Celtics were about to begin Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals in Boston, Nkwain Kennedy reached for his phone inside his home near Bamenda, Cameroon. He’d woken up that early, as he usually does during the NBA season, to catch the game tipping off halfway across the globe.

The glow of his phone pierced the darkness in his home as he scrolled through the latest notifications. For a guy with over 1.4 million TikTok followers, and 103 thousand on Instagram, there’s usually quite a bit. However, one in particular immediately caught his eye. Overnight, he had earned a new follower: Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

“At first I thought it was a fake account. I had to cross-check it over and over and over,” Kennedy told me on a call in early August, “I thought it was some kind of prank.” For context, Curry is followed by almost 46 million accounts, while only following 990 himself. Something about Kennedy, a 21-year-old aspiring basketballer, had caught his attention.

Kennedy is best known online for his intense workouts and their humble settings — often a faded, clay court, or the inside of a dirt-floored room —  and makeshift nature — pushing rusted tires and leg-pressing stones. In his videos, local kids act as human resistance bands, pulling him back as he dribbles up and down the court. Friends join in for drills, using sticks to try and poke the ball out from under Kennedy’s gloved hands.

While Curry is the most notable of Kennedy’s supporters, others include Coach Phil Handy of the Los Angeles Lakers and Johnny “Dribble2much” Stephene, Chris Paul’s ball-handling coach. Kennedy says he appreciates all his followers, but at the end of the day, he is hoping for something more than just likes on social media: a chance at the NBA.

@kennedylamiress #fty #basketballchallenge #NBA #learnontiktok #foryou #nkwainkenndey #bball #lebronjames #basketball🏀 #espn #athlete #basketballplayer #hooper #farmhoops #crossover #viral #shaquilleoneal #overtime #basketball #foryoupage ♬ Ole Ole Ole – Football Crazy

While finding a path to professional basketball is daunting, Kennedy’s training situation is dangerous. For the last five years, the Anglophone parts of Cameroon (where Kennedy is from) have rebelled against the French-speaking government. Some of the fighting takes place near Kennedy’s hometown, and next to the court where he trains is a military base: “Parents don’t even allow their kids to come there. There can be [military] confrontations.” In one video he sent me, Kennedy shoots hoops one minute but ducks from gunfire the next.

“I prefer to talk about the basketball,” Kennedy told me, so I pivoted to ask him which players he tries to emulate. He shot off a slew of league All-Stars, simultaneously breaking down their strongest contributions to the game he loves. “I watch Ja Morant and I love the athleticism he brings. Westbrook: quickness. Kyrie: good handles. Steph: shooting. LeBron: IQ. Chris Paul: Point God.”

While watching game film, which he does daily, Kennedy identifies certain aspects of the game that he can learn to include in his own. “You may be 7-foot, but I’ll still steal something from what you do,” said Kennedy, who is 6-foot-1. “My main question is not how to do the exact move. I want to know what [the player] did to reach that level – so I look at who the NBA or FIBA coaches that he’s worked with are. Then I try to follow every breakdown, bit by bit, on their Instagrams,” he continued.

I asked Kennedy for his thoughts on Jimmy Butler, from my hometown Miami Heat. He immediately goes into Butler’s life story, highlighting the toughness of it all (Butler was kicked out of the house at age 13, and went to a junior college before earning a chance in D1 basketball). Kennedy sees some of the same perseverance in himself: “ I’m trying to take everything that happens to me here, and turn it into something positive.”

Each day for Kennedy starts around 7 a.m.. After helping his parents with household chores, he leaves for the 25-minute journey to the recognizable clay court from his videos. There, he’ll train for three to four hours a day, and often asks passersby to film the videos that he’ll upload onto social media. Later, he heads to a makeshift gym for about 1.5 hours of weight work, and finishes the day with dinner, replying to DMs, and of course, game film.

I asked Kennedy what his parents think about his hoop dreams. “At first, they never approved. Parents in Africa want their kids to go to school and become a doctor or nurse or engineer,” he says. And their thoughts on his social media fame? “They don’t know anything about that. I’m just keeping it low-key. I just want everything to be a surprise to them.”

One of the more difficult parts of Kennedy’s climb, he told me, is the lack of a coach who can provide clear direction. “I’m looking for that bold, next step. Everything I have done to this point is all on my own. No person is built like that in basketball. The best players always look for coaches.”

While followers from around the world often message him with tips and corrections on his training, visualizing the next step is tricky without a mentor’s guidance. “For the people who want to become a doctor, the future is clear. You can get there. But with basketball, there’s less of an obvious future because there are no scouts coming,” he said.

However, that is starting to change as basketball’s popularity continues to rise in Africa. In 2017, the NBA launched NBA Academy Africa to develop young talent from the continent. Two years later, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) was co-founded by the NBA and FIBA, with NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, acting as an investor. In the NBA, two top players, Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam, come from Cameroon.

“Millions of kids in Africa are more motivated because they are seeing their brothers getting their shot,” said Kennedy, “In the years to come, I think basketball will compete with soccer in Africa.”

@kennedylamiress #fty #basketballchallenge #NBA #learnontiktok #foryou #nkwainkenndey #bball #lebronjames #basketball🏀 #espn #athlete #basketballplayer #hooper #farmhoops #crossover #viral #shaquilleoneal #hooper #basketball #foryoupage #overtime ♬ original sound – KING ERNESTO_ GOD’S KINGDOM

As we wind down the conversation, I asked Kennedy about the elephant lurking in the room: what if he never gets a real chance? Would all of this time spent working on his jump shot – and building a social media presence – have been in vain? No, he said, because kids from all over Africa who watch his videos may have still learned something. “I don’t want a kid to look at what I’m doing and be excited to play basketball. I just want them to see my consistency and passion, and put it into whatever dream they’re pursuing.”

While he politely humored my hypotheticals, there’s no doubt that Kennedy sees a chance to prove his worth not as a matter of “if”, but rather “when”. He said, “For me, it’s not about waiting. If someone calls me from Europe tomorrow, how prepared am I going to be when that shot comes? That’s one thing I keep in the back of my mind every day.”

The way he sees it, weirder things have happened, like his basketball idol following him on Instagram. For Kennedy, whose videos date back years, Curry’s noticing offered a sense of validation to all the work he’s put in. Said Kennedy, “I’m a kid from Africa — if someone of that capacity can look at my videos and think I’m worth following, that means I’m on the right path.”

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