By Mark Robinson
Karim Ezzedine is a senior at Greenbrier East High School, a talented basketball player who has come from his native France to play ball in America. His physical skills are immediately noticeable. He is 6’9”, can jump high, run fast, and shows an agility that is unusual in such a big man. On January 5, Karim sat down to record some of his thoughts on moving to America.
“I was born in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Congo, in 1997. I moved when I was two years old, with my mom and dad, because there was a war there. My parents decided to move. Rebels in Congo were killing a lot of people. I think the number now is maybe six million people killed. You could hear people shooting. I was too young to know what was going on, but my mom told me she used to put me under the bed to protect me.
“I speak English, French, and my mom speaks Lingala, which is the language of the Congo. I can understand her when she speaks it, but I can’t speak it. My dad speaks Arab. I don’t understand that. Mom is Congolese, dad is Lebanese.”
“So we went to France, where I grew up. I grew up there, I stayed in my uncle’s house for two years, maybe three years, then I moved. We took an apartment in the suburbs of Paris. I have one step-brother from my mom, one step-brother from my dad, and two step-sisters from my dad. My dad was married before, and so was my mom.
“My dad was in the diamond business. He used to be rich at that time, then he lost everything. When we moved to France he stopped the business, because it is a very dangerous business in Africa. The movie Blood Diamond is an accurate description of the diamond trade in Congo.”
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“In France, I started to play soccer in my neighborhood, because everybody plays soccer there. It’s like basketball or football here. It’s the big sport. When I was about 11, I grew a lot. My big brother used to play basketball. He told me, “play basketball. You have the right size, and a pretty good touch, you can run.
“I started playing basketball at age 11. I didn’t play in the school. The basketball is separated from the school. It was a club, a league. I was tall. I played 12-and-under at first. I was really good. Maybe a month after I signed up, I was the best on my team, but it wasn’t a really good team. I thought I was so good, but I wasn’t really good at all. I was arrogant about it already. Two years later, we went to this big club in the downtown of Paris. They were recruiting me to play Under-15. I played two years there. Then, I moved to Orleans. It was a place where you do sports and studies, a special school. I moved there, and lived there. All basketball players. In a big dormitory. You had to keep your grades up, to play. I learned more basketball there.
“I played Under-18 there, at the national level. I played there one-and-a-half years. Then I decided I wanted to play in America. I moved from Orleans, practiced by myself to go to Huntington Prep. I moved to America when I was 16. I played the 2014-15 season at Huntington Prep. At first I went to Virginia, to a school called Carlisle. But I didn’t stay there long. I ended up at Huntington Prep. I was at Carlisle for three months, offseason, April to June of 2014. I left there after I played AAU ball, on a loaded team. We played in Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Milwaukee. Huntington Prep was recruiting players from the tournaments. They said they wanted me to go there. I had heard about it. I had friends who went there. I played AAU in July-August of 2014. In August I went to Huntington Prep, and attended there the whole school year.”
“I was adapting to the way they play basketball in America. It’s a lot faster. It was a learning year for me. I had a lot of expectations. I don’t think I played well, but I improved a lot. We went to the national tournament in New York. We played against Oak Hill Academy, it’s in Virginia. We won the quarter-finals against the team that had Jaylen Brown. Then we lost to Oak Hill.”
“At Huntington Prep I had a host family. They knew Jim Justice. So they communicated with him. I didn’t have the grades at Huntington Prep that I was supposed to have. So I needed to find a place where I could bring my grades up, and become eligible. So my host family helped me find another school.
“So, they connected me to Jim Justice; they knew I would be treated well here. I went back to France for the summer of 2015. I was supposed to play with the National Team. I stayed there in France for the whole summer. I still hadn’t made up my mind where to go. When I was here, I checked out everything. My dad was here, he came in August. He was going to work, but he had to go back to France to do some paperwork. He plans to come back to America eventually.” “I’ve had some interest from Oklahoma State, and Wake Forest, The University of Indiana. Two of my friends went there. Virginia Tech. I had a lot of offers before I went to France, then I changed my phone number, so some people couldn’t reach me anymore. I’ll just wait and see what happens.
“Coach Justice is honest with me. I feel like I’m learning a lot. Jim Justice isn’t just a great coach. He is also a great person. He wants me to do my best. He knows I’m here for a reason. He wants me to get to the next level. He’s not telling me I’m playing good when I’m not. He tells me when I do things wrong. He brings me back to earth, doesn’t want me to get arrogant.
“In the last few months, it’s not so much my game that has changed, but the mindset. I have more responsibilities with the team. I have to get my game to the next level. I can’t be lazy. The team counts on me, I count on them, we all make each other better. The mindset is what has changed the most in the last few months. The attitude to go at it. I still have to learn a lot, but I have to take my responsibilities seriously.”
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“You know, I’m not crazy about West Virginia. I’m from a big city.There’s more trees than people here. I’m a social person. There are great people here — I’m not talking about the people. I’m talking about the area. It’s okay if you want to stay focused. But there is nothing to do. There is no movement. There’s always something going on in a place like Paris. Not so much here. That can be good and it can be bad.
“I like the mindset in America. The mindset of win or nothing. In France we don’t have this mindset of make it or quit it; don’t do something halfway. You’ve got to do it all the way. People here have the competitive mindset more than in France.
“Things here are bigger. Drinks are bigger. Everything is bigger. In France things are smaller. Here, houses are bigger, cars are bigger.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do this summer. I’m trying to get my grades up. I’m going to have to take summer classes. If I played for the national team in France I’d have to stay there the whole summer. I’ll stay here, get my grades up, and see what comes next.”