Briggs McClain was preoccupied with starting a new high school career when something unexpected happened. His family had agreed to take in a foreign student who enrolled at his school to play basketball. It was the perfect match, for many reasons.
“I walk in the school gym and this big 6-foot-9 kid comes out,” McClain said of his new housemate. “And I’m like, ‘what in the world, this guy is huge.’ Ever since that’s where our story started.”
The newcomer was Abdou Tsimbila, who plays on the Fordham University men’s basketball team. He had made it all the way to West Virginia from his home country of Cameroon. The goal was to find a high school in America to continue his basketball career, but in the process he gained a second family.
“Being around them I have learned so much about my life and myself,” Tsimbila said of the McClain family. “I just feel fortunate and grateful to have a place to sleep and have people who care about me.”
Tsimbila is a year older than McClain, a member of the Manhattan College men’s basketball team. While their home address was in West Virginia, both of them attended St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Maryland. Tsimbila was recommended to the school by one of his coaches in Cameroon.
The drive to St. Maria Goretti was 30 minutes long, and they spent it bonding with each other as if the two hoopsters were long lost brothers.
“Abdou means a lot to our family,” McClain said.
Tsimbila has always been himself throughout the process. He is proud of where he comes from. According to McClain, Tsimbila loves to talk about the culture in Cameroon and he never wastes an opportunity to help out his fellow countrymen.
“Every pair of shoes he got he would send back to his country to the kids who didn’t have as much as we have,” McClain said. “He wants to help the people out back at home.”
The focus on basketball prevented Tsimbila from going back to Cameroon for six-plus years. He made it back this summer, with the entire trip documented on video. It brought smiles to all six members of the McClain household, counting Tsimbila.
“Seeing the look on his face when he saw his family for the first time was amazing,” McClain said.
For McClain, it also afforded a newfound appreciation for his non-blood brother.
“Not being able to see his family not a single time in six years is really hard,” McClain said. “That was something I really admire about him.”
Tsimbila called his return trip the “most emotional moment” of his life. A big part of his drive to be great is having an awareness about the many young kids who look up to him.
“There are a lot of people in Cameroon who look at me as their role model,” Tsimbila said.
For McClain, the success on the court at St. Maria Goretti constitutes “some of the best years” of his life. The 2019 squad advanced all the way to the Baltimore Catholic League Championship for the program’s first title game berth in nearly 20 years. Despite losing on buzzer-beater to St. Frances Academy, they still walked away having had the ultimate team experience.
”We had six or seven (Division I) players on that team,” McClain said, counting himself and Tsimbila among them. “Those were some of the best years of my life creating those bonds with Abdou and the whole team.”
They will now meet on the college stage come Nov. 27 when Manhattan (3-1) makes the short trip to Rose Hill to battle Fordham (2-3). The bragging rights for that game have no gray area — both are ready to attack and want to make the rest of the family proud.
“My family better be pulling for the Jaspers but I’m sure there is a soft spot for Fordham and Abdou, especially for my mom,” McClain said, referring to Emily McClain, his mother. “My mom will probably have a half Fordham and half Manhattan shirt.”
Tsimbila is excited for the opportunity to compete against his brother figure. Plus, it will allow him to reunite with his second family at Rose Hill Gymnasium.
“I don’t think they want to miss that,” Tsimbila said. “Honestly, I am just excited to have an opportunity to play against my brother.”