Lancaster Catholic High School boys basketball fans have likely known about Denzel Kabasele and David Kamwanga since the pair emerged on the junior varsity scene last season.
But it’s only been in the last week or so that the rest of Lancaster-Lebanon League fans might have begun to take notice of the two, especially Kamwanga, who arguably had one of the best showings of all local basketball players in leading the Crusaders into the league championship game last Friday.
Kabasele and Kamwanga are cousins. They began playing basketball two years ago in their native Democratic Republic of the Congo, first truly learning the sport in March 2016 at a basketball camp put on by NBA star Serge Ibaka, who is a native of Republic of the Congo (a separate but adjacent nation).
This season, the 6-foot-1 Kabasele overcame a back injury and is now seeing significant minutes off the bench as a backup point guard for the Crusaders, average five points per game.
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-6 Kamwanga was more of a bench player at the start of the season and, after shedding some of the rookie varsity jitters from earlier in the year, is now a regular starter averaging more than nine points per game. He’s still improving in ball-handling and body control, but his skills are impressive for someone his size.
What’s most impressive is that these cousins are only sophomores, and they might still be growing.
Their futures, basketball and otherwise, seem bright.
Before going deeper into the story of Kabasele and Kamwanga, we should introduce the man who is now watching over them. That would be their uncle, Christian Kalanga, a McCaskey High School grad who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States 15 years ago, when he was 19.
After graduating from McCaskey in the early 2000s, Kalanga followed his basketball passion to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, a community college located in the middle of the state.
Kalanga says things didn’t work out at Howard. He eventually made his way to back to Lancaster, working odd jobs until landing at his current position helping others overcome addiction at the Lancaster County Drug & Alcohol Addiction Treatment Center in Ephrata.
His wife eventually joined him from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They now live in Neffsville with three young children, ages 3, 4, and 6.
The house got a bit more crowded in the summer of 2016 when Kabasele and Kamwanga came over from the Democratic Republic of the Congo on F-1 student visas.
Kalanga said the move was made to provide better education for his nephews. It came in that wake of the the cousins attending the aforementioned camp led by Ibaka, a veteran forward with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
‘Son of the Congo’
Punch Ibaka’s name into Google and one of the results that pops up is the YouTube documentary series “Son of the Congo.” It follows Ibaka during his 2014 visit to his hometown in the Republic of the Congo.
There are scenes with Ibaka as a passenger in a car driving through an inner city with large buildings and paved roads, but with several people on the sides of the streets peddling clothing, while children sell water.
In the outer neighborhoods, the roads sometimes turn to dirt and some homes are one-story huts with tin roofs. At one point, the series follows a 15-year-old boy playing basketball on cement courts, shoeless, who then returns home, where he sleeps with a mosquito net around his bed in efforts to curtail disease.
That isn’t necessarily the life Kabasele and Kamwanga experienced while growing up together in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — they declined to discuss their life there for this story — but it reflect what life is sometimes like in such poverty- and strife-affected nations.
Kamwanga said his parents and a brother are back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabasele said he has two older siblings and two younger siblings, but that none of them still live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Both said they sometimes communicate with those family members through WhatsApp, a cross-platform instant-messaging service with more than a billion users globally.
The Serge Ibaka Dreams Academy, the sports arm of the Serge Ibaka Foundation, often operates basketball camps in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At a camp in the capital city of Kinshasa in 2016, Kabasele and Kamwanga first learned to play basketball.
They came to the United States shortly thereafter. And they say their experiences of basketball in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are much different than those they’ve encountered here.
In their native country, the ball would be rolled out and they would play without any team concept. So you can imagine the struggles they faced during last year’s junior-varsity campaign at Lancaster Catholic, coupled with the fact they were still learning to speak English — the official language in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is French.
“So last year that was very difficult for us,” Kamwanga said. “The language and how to play. ... Now we know that, we can learn more. We can understand better than last year.”
They’ve made significant progress in a short amount of time.
“We certainly have taken a lot of time to make sure they have a good understanding of what we’re trying to teach,” veteran Lancaster Catholic coach Joe Klazas said. “We probably took for granted early them shaking their head, ‘Yes.’ ... (It) wasn’t the best answer. So we’ve been taking time and utilizing film study to make sure they have a good understanding of what we want from them.”
The most recent evidence of improvement, at least for Kamwanga, came in last week’s Lancaster-Lebanon League semifinals.
During halftime of the game, with the score knotted at 21-21, Uncle Kalanga approached the Lancaster Catholic bench to give his nephews some encouragement.
He had one word to share with them: “Puissance.”
What does it mean?
“It’s French for ‘Use your power,’” Kalanga said.
Kamwanga went on to score eight of his 10 points in the second half. The performance was arguably the best of his young career. And he capped it off by hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.1 seconds left, giving the Crusaders a 44-42 win.
“That was the first time that happened to me,” Kamwanga said after the game. “I was kind of nervous, but my teammates talked to me, and I didn’t let them down.”
His uncle could be seen flashing a bright smile a mile wide.
“It means a lot to me,” Kalanga said of his nephews’ success. “For my family to grow and be successful.”