Written by Karlo Lovenia and Camille Cutler
The final buzzer sounds, signaling the end of the game. Winners would call this an important victory, something to build on as they make a Final Four push. Teams who lost try to look at the positive, going at it game by game and learning from one’s mistakes. Then there’s seniors, whether winner or loser, they look at this as a step closer towards the end of their college basketball career. It’s their One Last Ride of a crazy journey in a league that has a lot of madness.
Welcome to One Last Ride, where the Humblebola team profiles outgoing seniors in the UAAP and the NCAA. For our first installment, Karlo Lovenia and Camille Cutler sit down on a Tuesday afternoon to chat with the University of Santo Tomas big man, Steve Akomo.
It felt like a regular Tuesday afternoon, October 9, as the University of Perpetual Help Altas were clashing versus the EAC Generals. Perpetual was hoping to help their case for a Final Four slot with a win, while EAC was just trying to finish strong. The game was physical between the two teams, an NCAA trademark. A Filipino basketball trademark, even. No blood, no foul, as elder statesmen would say. With 22.6 seconds left in the third quarter, there was blood. There was a foul. There was also so much more.
Jerome Pasia of Perpetual had accidentally kneed the back of Hamadou Laminou’s head, causing blood to come out of the upper part of Laminou’s left eye. It was a gruesome sight, with Laminou failing to go up on his own accord, requiring paramedics to come out with a stretcher to attend to him in the locker room.
The entire Philippine basketball world grimaced. Despite the belief of no blood, no foul anyone, from the old to the young, could not help but hold their breath as they waited for an update on Laminou’s status. Making things even worse, for everyone, were the events that transpired over the last 24 hours.
Steve Akomo of the UST Growling Tigers had the craziest last 2 weeks. Versus the Ateneo Blue Eagles on September 29, he had started to feel dizzy and disoriented despite playing 24 minutes in that contest. Three days later, he had started to vomit, showing symptoms of food posisoning. Eventually, after tests were done, food poisoning was ruled out as reason for Akomo’s vomiting. Finally, on October 8, he was confined at the UST hospital caused by blood clots that were found in his cerebellum. It’s been quite the roller coaster for him.
On October 9, Akomo found himself lying down in a hospital bed, with the Perpetual-EAC game on TV. It was supposed to be a moment of peace, especially after the crazy weeks he had. He was witness to the physicality, the madness of the NCAA, and ultimately, the hit on Laminou that had fans in shock.
Akomo immediately came into mind when the incident involving Laminou happened. It was an unfortunate coincidence, one that brought about all sorts of emotions.
Some reacted, When are we going to have a concussion protocol?
Then there were those few who thought, What’s Steve thinking right now?
“Bring him to the hospital! Hay nako!” Akomo remarked as the TV showed Laminou being treated in the locker room.
When considering Akomo’s context, the statement feels heavy. But while he said it, lying down in the hospital head as the authors of this piece sat down with him, no weight could be felt. It didn’t feel like there was any hugot. It felt simple. The reaction felt human.
Not much is known about Akomo, aside from the fact that he’s UST’s foreign student athlete who came under the national spotlight because of his injury. The most hardcore of basketball fans know him best as a former University of Visayas Green Lancer. As a whole, he’s best known as a basketball player. He’s on TV, smashing the ball towards the basket, then proceeding to play A+ defense on the other end. He isn’t talked about much either by the media, save for these last few days. Knowledge about him, on the surface, was pretty straightforward. But just like any human being, you can’t judge a book just by its cover.
Flip to the first page of this book, and it tells you Akomo was born to a less fortunate family in Cameroon. He wasn’t blessed with material things, but what he had was a family that supported him all throughout and basketball. Fast forward to High School, and this poor kid was part of the varsity team, along with a teammate that was in a better economic standing than Steve.
Joel Embiid was born to a military officer, Thomas Embiid. In Cameroon, being a military officer meant that you were paid very well. In simple terms, in High School, Joel Embiid was a rich kid.
When Embiid and Akomo would go home, they would go towards the same direction. There was a glaring difference, however. Embiid had a car bringing him home, complete with a Nintendo console inside for Joel to play with while he was being driven. On the other hand, Akomo had to walk going home, and his house was miles farther than Embiid’s. That was the reality Steve had to face, but not once did he complain.
One day after practice, the routine was expected to be the same. Freshen up, then get ready to walk home. Steve would walk, while Joel would have a car waiting to drive him. But in a surprising turn of events, Joel approached Steve and insisted that he walk with him.
It surprised Steve, to see this rich kid insist to go with him through this difficult route. But deep inside, Steve wanted to ride the car with Joel. Not because of the comfort of having a vehicle bring him home. That’s too practical, a kid like Steve then could care less. The reason was naughty, yet innocent at the same time.
“You want to play that Nintendo inside Joel’s car,” is probably what Steve’s brain was telling him then.
By the end of it all, both Steve and Joel wound up walking towards the same direction with Joel’s car following them. No Nintendos were played in the process. It was a simple chat between two teenage Cameroonians. At the very core of their conversation, Joel proclaiming that he would make the NBA in the most Joel Embiid way possible.
“Bro, one day, you will see me in the NBA,” Joel told Steve then. “I will show them African can also play.” His idol then was Kobe Bryant, and he wanted to get to play against the Black Mamba. Even more telling with what Joel was saying then, was how he wanted to clash against a certain King.
“I will play against LeBron James!” Embiid proclaimed. “I will block him!”
Bold, especially when you consider where Embiid was then. He was incredibly raw at the game of basketball, he was only starting by the time he had met Steve. His primary sports then were soccer and volleyball. There would be moments even when Steve would be the one helping Joel would during practice.
But you couldn’t deny the potential Embiid had. He was a naturally gifted athlete, and his background in soccer and volleyball helped his undertaking of basketball. Soccer was key with his footwork and balance in the low post. Volleyball required timing and leaping ability. While his polish in dribbling and shooting were certainly lacking, he was blocking shots with authority during practices, as if he were a volleyball player spiking the ball to the other side.
No one could deny Embiid’s potential. Not even Steve.
Joel eventually left Cameroon to play basketball in the United States. He initially went to The Rock School in Florida, before making the jump to Kansas in the NCAA. A year later, he wound up in Philadelphia as the 3rd pick in the NBA Draft and has continued to trust the process since then.
While a commercial was airing during a timeout of the Perpetual-EAC game, some highlights of Joel showed on TV. Steve couldn’t help but smile. His former teammate had made it to the NBA, fulfilling the pronouncements he made years before. And yes, he did block LeBron James.
Even though Steve didn’t go the same path as Joel, he continued to play basketball and went east side in the hopes of getting a quality education and a career.
In 2012, Akomo ended up with the University of Visayas Green Lancers as a youthful 17-year-old. During his first year, he was able to lead the Green Lancers to the Finals, and a year later, to a championship. Fast forward to 2016, and Akomo went from Cebu all the way to Manila, to play for the UST Growling Tigers. There was fanfare to his arrival in Espana, with some even dubbing him as an “Mbala-stopper”. Even though he didn’t exactly fit the bill as the stopper of the two-time MVP, he still established himself as a damn good basketball player.
With the Growling Tigers, he was a tower of power, the type of center that any modern basketball team would love to have. He used his length and athleticism to protect the rim with authority. He loved to catch lobs, and was good at diving to the rim. We’ve known Steve then as just a basketball player. That’s why when news of his unfortunate accident happened, one of the recurring questions was, Will Steve still get to play this Season 81?
That Tuesday afternoon, before the game versus Perpetual and EAC even began, his doctors told him for the meantime, “Forget about basketball.” It’s the kind of statement that would crush any basketball player. This was their life’s work, a sport they’ve dedicated countless amount of hours for. Crying would have been inevitable. Some episodes of rage, showcasing frustration, would have been understandable. As they say, #ballislife.
While Steve undoubtedly loves the sport, he understands there are more important things that go beyond smashing the basketball for points and protecting the rim on defense. There’s life. Humanity. Living, and enjoying whatever the world has to offer you.
It’s so easy to complain and mope. Having to walk miles, instead of being in a car and getting to play with a Nintendo, to having to lie down in a hospital bed rather than helping your team try to make it back to the Final Four. But Steve never took the easy route. He never complained. Instead, he continued to walk, always with the happy-go-lucky smile that’s a trademark to those close to him.
“My mind is kind of free,” peacefully, said Steve. “Just think about getting well.”
For the first time in a while, basketball isn’t the priority of Steve Akomo. He’s lying down in a hospital bed, needles injected on the left side of his body. It’s a wild ride he’s had, and not just the last two weeks. His entire basketball journey has been a roller coaster.
From being teammates with an NBA franchise cornerstone to ending up in the Philippines with UV, to playing for UST, and finally being here, in the hospital because of an accident, Akomo finds himself in peace.
Just like any basketball player, he can’t totally forget about the sport. He still watches the game. He still has comments about it. Basketball in the Philippines is physical, he says. Ange Kouame kind of plays like Joel Embiid, he remarks. He loves to speak his mind, to answer questions about the sport. But it isn’t life for him. He treats it as something to waste time, an outlet for him to distract himself from the madness the occurs in this place we call Earth.
He can’t pick up a basketball and play yet. For now, all he can do is lie down, fork in his right hand, eating beef and steamed vegetables while watching the MPBL theme song play on TV.
“MPBL. Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball LEEEEEAGUE!” Akomo sings along with Lito Camo. We laugh, along with his foster brother.
“I like it when he says ‘LEEEEAGUE!’” he replies, with a smile.