Ted Kapita remembers the last time he saw his father Thierry — the day before he left his hometown of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to come live independently in the United States at age 16.
That day, September 8, 2011, Kapita’s father reminded his son to stay out of trouble and focus on his sole purpose of leaving the family — to get an education first while chasing basketball aspirations in the U.S.
Kapita despises flying more than losing a basketball game. So he reads the Bible during flights to distract his mind. But he didn’t have one during the flight from Africa to Melbourne, Florida, where he enrolled as a sophomore at Florida Air Academy, a private international college prep day and boarding school.
This was Kapita’s steppingstone to his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.
“There’s a reason why I’m here,” he said. “It’s not about money. There’s a chance to become a great player in the United States.”
Kapita recently flew from Huntington, W.Va., to Chicago to participate in the Nike World Basketball Festival, where he intended to further prove nothing will unthread his intent to get to a higher level.
The 6-foot-8 1/2, 207-pound power forward was a key player representing the Pan Africa team in the Nike Global Challenge, which featured rising high school basketball stars from the USA, Brazil, China and Canada who convened inside Whitney Young (Chicago, Ill.) High for 16 games in four days.
Kapita’s teammates included players representing Nigeria (Christian Popoola), Mali (Ibrahim Doumbia) and Senegal (Cheikh Bamba Diallo), all of whom attend and play basketball for U.S. high schools.
Kapita’s opportunity to develop into a top prospect for the class of 2015 started three years ago when he left behind his divorced parents and younger sister in the Congo. While the decision to leave wasn’t easy, Kapita said it was necessary.
“It’s a different situation,” he said. “We don’t really have a basketball program back home.”
Kapita said the government in the DRC doesn’t provide support for young players to develop — access to little, if any, equipment and an uncovered outdoor arena, but “not what we need to play.”
Had he remained, he doesn’t believe the opportunity would be possible to appear at a premier event like the Nike Global Challenge — where he averaged 15 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and was named to the International All-Tournament Team — in front of dozens of NBA scouts none the less. The check in list included representatives from the Knicks, Hornets, Spurs, Clippers, Heat, Jazz, Wizards, Pistons, Hawks, Magic and Nets.
“This is a great opportunity to see how the game has developed all across the world,” said incoming Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, who watched some of the games inside his alma mater. “I’ve seen a lot of skill from all of these players. They’re playing against the best of the best in the world.”
The days of watching NBA games on TV alongside his father are gone, but Kapita and his dad frequently communicate through Facebook messages and occasionally speak on the phone. Kapita said he rarely speaks to his mother — not that they have a bad relationship, but because she can’t afford to call.
Kapita said the hardest part about living away from home is that he often misses his family. In his sacrifices to play basketball at an advanced level, he seeks connection — a reason why he transferred from Florida Air Academy to Huntington Prep over the summer. He was attracted to Huntington Prep in part because of the community.
“I wanted people who can support me not just in a game, but people who can be my family,” Kapita said. “I found it in Huntington Prep.”
Huntington Prep is one of the nation’s most prominent basketball teams. Here, a winning formula has held strong since the basketball program was founded in 2009 by coaches Rob Fulford and Arkell Bruce. The Irish finished 27-5 their first season.
Kapita knew all along during his two years at Florida Air, where he led the Falcons to the state semi-finals as a sophomore. He knew about Andrew Wiggins, widely considered the No. 1 prep player at the time, who went to Kansas for a year before he was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kapita visited the school before he moved to West Virginia in June. Unlike at Florida Air Academy, where he lived on campus, Kapita lives with a host family and teammate Karim Ezzeddine, a 6-foot-8 forward from Paris.
“They’re part of my family right now,” Kapita said.
Ezzeddine and Kapita converse in French. Kapita is fluent in English, and he grew up speaking Lingala. He also learned Spanish during the two months he lived in Barcelona and Madrid at age 15 to play basketball for the Estudiantes team.
Learning math doesn’t come as easy as linguistics, however. “It’s too much. I don’t get it. I don’t like,” Kapita said. Sometimes he stays up until 11 p.m. to finish homework. But focusing on academics was part of an agreement — the reason Kapita’s father allowed his son to come to the U.S.
“I don’t check myself on the Internet,” Kapita said.
While his attention is focused on chasing basketball, others have started to chase him — Florida, South Florida and Texas, among the pile. He lightly laughs on the subject of recruiting. He said he reads a letter then puts it “somewhere”.
He raised his arms two feet high to illustrate the amount of letters he’s received. While at Florida Air, he said the pile became too high, and he housed them in his coach’s car. But he didn’t bring any when he moved to West Virginia, and he hasn’t yet narrowed down his top five schools.
“I try not to put too much pressure on myself by thinking about where I have to go,” Kapita said.
But he does put pressure on himself to get better. Kapita craved to be tested in a way he wasn’t at Florida Air, where he was the tallest player on the team. He said teammates and opponents wouldn’t challenge him when he attempted a post move.
“I didn’t like it,” Kapita said. “That’s not going to happen in the future if you play against good people. I had to change myself. I wasn’t satisfied with basketball.”
Whitney Young incoming senior Joseph Toye, who played for Pan Africa during the Nike Global Challenge, recognized Kapita’s determined approach to the game.
“His desire stands out,” Toye said. “He was the one leading us. He’s really strong. He has the ability to outdo defenders with his strength.”
Whitney Young basketball coach Tyrone Slaughter said Kapita’s will is evident.
“It almost appears he’s playing for something bigger than himself,” Slaughter said. “He has tremendous pride from where he came from.”
Slaughter said he respects Kapita’s unusual track of leaving his country to come to the U.S. alone at a young age and experience success. Slaughter adds it’s good for American high school basketball all around.
“So often as Americans we take a lot for granted. We believe that the opportunities we’re afforded are rights when they’re not — they’re privileges. When we see people come from other countries, especially those that are disadvantaged, and they work hard, it should inspire us,” Slaughter said.
While Kapita said he’s not driven by money, if he makes any, he wants to help develop a basketball program and build schools back home in the future. He views taking advantage of his athletic talents in the U.S. as a way to pave the opportunity for other young players to improve in his country. Kapita said he wants to show the world that international players can measure up with the best.
“Here [in the U.S.] you have everything provided to help you be the best player you want to be,” Kapita said. “We do not have that in my country. It’s not just in one country. It’s the situation in Africa. That’s the reason why I’m here.
“That’s why basketball is so important to me.”