Can this grad from Africa make it to the NBA? Film shares his uphill journey

2018 MCC alumnus Joseph Mebaley (center) with filmmakers Jason Samayoa and Ariana Elliott

When Jason Samayoa decided last year he’d like to try to make a short film, he then had to decide what his film would be about.

“What around me is an interesting subject?” he remembers thinking. The first person who came to mind: a charismatic international student and aspiring NBA player named Joseph Mebaley, who had taken the long way to Kansas City and Metropolitan Community College.

Mebaley’s hoop dreams are only part of the story, though. Samayoa, then a financial aid advisor at MCC-Penn Valley, first got to know Mebaley as a college student who was just trying to survive. Literally.

“He would tell me, ‘I’m eating a jar of peanut butter.’ ” That day, that was all he had.

Because his immigration status was up in the air, Mebaley couldn’t get federal financial aid, nor could he get a job.

“I don’t know how I’m still standing here,” he said in a recent interview.

His resolve not to return to his home country as a “loser,” along with assistance from several people at MCC, got him through the tough times.

He finally received his green card last January, the start of the same semester he graduated.

Mebaley’s participation in MCC’s 2018 commencement ceremony makes up one segment of Samayoa’s just-completed documentary about his friend.

Joseph Mebaley in his former East Side KC neighborhood in a scene from “Hopes, Dreams & Basketball”

“Hopes, Dreams & Basketball: Joseph’s Story,” which runs about 20 minutes, debuted Nov. 13 in MCC-Penn Valley’s Little Theatre. Samayoa and Mebaley were on hand for the screenings, which took place during International Education Week. (The film will also soon be available on YouTube.)

Time will tell if Mebaley, 25, ends up a pro basketball player, but he’s now at Park University on a basketball scholarship. The crime-ridden KC neighborhood he used to call home has been replaced by an on-campus apartment. Meanwhile, Samayoa, who left MCC in the fall of 2017, now works at Park.

Joseph Mebaley (left) onstage with filmmakers Jason Samayoa and Ariana Elliott at the “Hopes, Dreams & Basketball” premiere Nov. 13 at MCC-Penn Valley
A story worthy of a movie

In 2010 Mebaley, then a high school student in the small country of Gabon, on the Atlantic coast in Central Africa, was playing on a national basketball team that traveled to other countries. Named MVP of the 30 young men on the squad, he got word that he should come to the United States to train for a potential NBA career.

“The reason why I came here,” Mebaley says in the film, “is to become the basketball player they never had in Gabon.” If he makes it to the NBA, he’d be only the second Gabonese player, following Stephane Lasme in 2007-08.

Someone secured a tourist visa for him. But raising the money for a plane ticket to America took some time.

Finally, in 2013, speaking little English, he arrived at a basketball prep school in North Carolina, where he spent seven months. Then he played for Each One Teach One in Georgia, an amateur traveling team, followed by a stint at another prep academy. A benefactor back in Gabon helped keep him afloat financially.

Mebaley at a Penn Valley campus event in the fall of 2017

Meanwhile, he says, he lost seven basketball scholarships to schools like Florida State and the University of Alabama at Birmingham because of his unsettled immigration status.

A visit to Colorado led to him meeting his future wife, Alisha, a former Wichita State basketball player. She was from Kansas City, and the two of them moved here. He started at MCC-Penn Valley in Fall 2015, and because he was now married to a U.S. citizen, he could apply for a green card.

Although he would go on to play basketball two years for MCC-Penn Valley Coach Marcus Harvey, Mebaley was at first stuck on the practice squad, awaiting his papers from the government. He took ESL and other classes, working toward his associate in arts degree.

‘God shows you the way out’

As a player, Mebaley earns raves for his hustle, his energy level and his desire to be in every minute of the game, Samayoa says. Plus “he’s a beast on defense.”

The 6-foot-4 Mebaley also has a reputation among his coaches, and in general, of not being a complainer.

“It’s totally true,” Samayoa says. “It’s true to the point he almost lost his hand” to frostbite, working on a bitterly cold day at Arrowhead Stadium without proper winter clothing.

On campus, he wasn’t likely to go to Penn Valley’s food pantry on his own, so Samayoa went with him.

“There were times when I felt things were so desperate,” Samayoa remembers. “I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Through it all, Mebaley demonstrated “amazing grit,” says former MCC-Penn Valley Dean of Students Yvette Sweeney. “He always had a smile and showed his appreciation for large and small contributions to his well-being.”

Mebaley scored an MCC basketball scholarship for one semester, but it covered only tuition — not books or living expenses. Samayoa then worked with academic advisor Richard Lara and the MCC Foundation to secure another scholarship.

Mebaley was one of the first recipients of fundraising Coach Harvey initiated to help international student athletes, Sweeney says, and international student coordinator Bobbie Gustin “continually contacted immigration, trying to get updates on why his green card paperwork was taking so long.” Harvey and Gustin, who calls Mebaley’s perseverance “unmatched,” both appear in the film.

Looking back, there were many moments when Mebaley thought, “Enough is enough — I’m exhausted.”

But “that man above was always telling me: At the point when you’re stuck, God shows you the way out.”

Challenging journeys

Samayoa, who grew up in affluent Leawood with a Cuban father, says he was drawn to Mebaley because he’s always been interested in people from other countries and cultures.

“He’s not the only international student I stuck my neck out for,” he adds. “Their journeys are so much more challenging — learning English, leaving their families, trying to make it over here.”

But Mebaley in particular inspired him because “of his work ethic, never giving up, the way he was so positive through very challenging times.”

Another reason Mebaley was a natural subject for Samayoa’s short film: He admittedly likes attention, being on camera.

Mebaley at MCC’s 2018 commencement ceremony (Photo by Jordan Williams/MCC)

Samayoa enlisted several people for help with his “no-budget” film, including girlfriend Ariana Elliott, an MCC records specialist. At commencement, for example, Elliott not only helped new grads off the stage but also shot video of Mebaley — the final Penn Valley student that night to receive a diploma. Samayoa was up in the stands recording, and Mebaley shot cellphone video of himself marching into Municipal Auditorium. (The film also gets an assist from MCC videographer Clay Bussey, who shared some of his footage, including a scene in which campus president Tyjaun Lee rallies the grads pre-ceremony: “You ready, Penn Valley? You ready?!”)

Both Samayoa and Mebaley also like to make music, so you’ll hear some of that in “Hopes, Dreams & Basketball” as well.

Elliott and Samayoa film MCC-Penn Valley basketball Coach Marcus Harvey in his office in early October.

Speaking of hopes, dreams and basketball, Mebaley hasn’t given up on the NBA. His dream is to graduate from Park with a degree in business, play overseas for a couple of years, then return to the United States for NBA tryouts. He realizes he’s lost some time.

In the more immediate future, he hopes to hold a youth basketball camp in Gabon next summer led by his MCC coach and his Park coach, Jason Kline. (Coach Harvey says he’s on board.) If it happens, it would be the first time Mebaley has been back to his home country.

He also “wants to help people from his country come here and give them the support and education to make it here,” Samayoa says. “He came over here clueless. There was no help.”

Actually, of course, there was. Mebaley found it at MCC.

He’s grateful, and he realizes how far he’s come. He says others can do what he did … “but in better ways.”

Mebaley and Samayoa during filming of the “no-budget” short documentary