Whether on dirt courts with shoeless youth or club gyms in nice neighborhoods, basketball purity is found in the joy of innocent play.
“The smile is universal,” Joe Touomou said. “Wherever you go. The funny part is when you go to those poor countries, the kids seem to be even happier over there. Despite all the struggles, you would be surprised how happy they are, every where you go.”
That is the first thing you noticed on the Juneau-Douglas High School basketball court as players, male and female, ran through drills led by Touomou, a Washington, D.C.-based basketball trainer and recruiter, and his assistant, Alexander Ujoh, from Nigeria.
Smiles and sweat.
“Yes, yes,” Touomou shouts. “Now you are a player. Now you are working hard.”
A chance encounter two years ago at L.A. Fitness in Silver Spring, Md., between Touomou and Crimson Bears forward Bruce Jones and his parents, led to the offer to bring the trainer to the JDHS pre-season basketball clinic over the Veterans’ Day weekend. Jones also attended training seasons with Touomou in Maryland.
“I like his body frame and I like his basketball IQ,” Touomou said of Jones. “He needs to put some muscle on his body, but he could play college if he wants to work hard enough.”
Touomou knows about working hard.
Born and raised in Cameroon, he grew up playing soccer.
Returning from boarding school one year he discovered a basketball court had been built across the street from his home.
“All my friends were playing,” Touomou said. “I thought why not try. Things went pretty fast because back then you didn’t have Internet, cell phones or cable TV. We spent a lot of time on the basketball court, and that is how I became a basketball player.”
This was when he encountered his best-remembered smile.
“We had a big game and Cameroon soccer star Roger Miller came to a game. I made a basket and I saw him clapping his hands for me,” he said. “Just to look at him sitting there and encouraging me was big.”
At age 16, playing in the African Championships in Egypt, Touomou was approached by Rob Meurs, a scout for the NBA. Meurs would later start Court Vision, a basketball scouting agency, and was hired by NIKE and Adidas.
The meeting led to Touomou attending Williamsport High School, a preparatory school in North Carolina for one year before college.
Touomou played four years for Georgetown University under legendary coach John Thompson, graduating in 1999 after a senior season as the team’s captain.
His career included a knee injury in 1995 and at 6-foot-2, his career scoring average of 1.9 points per game did not attract much attention from NBA scouts.
In 2000 he suffered a shoulder injury playing professionally for Antibes in France.
With a degree in government studies and international relations, he weighed options to work for the World Bank and World Health Organization.
“I always felt like there was unfinished business,” Touomou said. “I was never able to play basketball at the level I felt like I was able to play.”
Touomou retired from basketball and worked under University of Missouri coach Quin Snyder for two years until taking a job with the Indiana Pacers in 2003 as an international scout. That job ended when new team president Larry Bird brought his own coaching staff in. Touomou also joined many non-profit organizations and sport programs after college to give back.
“My country was a third-world country and I knew there were contributions I could make through sports,” Touomou said. “I just got involved. I wanted to share the knowledge I had accumulated throughout the years.”
His efforts have included the Cameroon Olympic Basketball Program, Adidas Nations, ABasketball (Basketball for Africa), Giants Of Africa, and SEED (Sports for Educational and Economic Development), NBA’s Basketball Without Borders, the Ring True Foundation and his own JT World Training Centers, which provides scouting services to professional teams and training professional players in their offseason and rehabilitation.
He is also an instructor for the State Department program Sports United that brings coaches from other countries to George Mason University for training. Touomou has traveled to over 50 countries through his work. He is a former Cameroon National Team coach and is being considered for a position as the Qatar National Team coach
“Some areas of Africa, the kids love the game so much,” Touomou said. “In Africa many youths play on dirt courts with no shoes. They sometimes have to cut a bucket and hang it up for a rim, just like when basketball was created.”
The love of the game is spreading in Africa as TV has taken hold and young people relate to basketball players and musicians more now than soccer players. They encounter the same problems as American youth who learn the game.
“A lot of kids, especially the younger ones, it is the details that separates the average from the good,” Touomou said. “Footwork can be a problem but the biggest thing is shooting. Kids have a hard time shooting the ball well. Shooting is all about repetition and most kids don’t practice shooting enough.”
The emphasis in the clinics was on getting open and shooting mechanics. Touomou tells them they can’t shoot the ball if they can’t get open, and they can’t get open if they move like hippos and not cheetahs.
“When I work with kids I like to keep my workouts entertaining,” Touomou said. “I like to see a kid happy when he works out. It helps me get the message across and share the knowledge with him.”
When Touomou’s sessions ended the players caught their collective breaths and grabbed refreshments.
One by one they approached him. Their faces smiling. Their bodies swept up in his huge hugs.
“Thanks for coming,” Treyson Ramos said, embracing the powerfully built former professional player.
“You taught me so much,” Jacob Thibodeau said. “Thank you.”
“Yes, yes, thank you for having me,” Touomou answers. “We will stay in touch.”
Then he points out something individually to each that was intimated in the camp to only them.
Their smiles broaden.