February 19, 2010

Ivan Matip: Basketball and Beyond

Kevin McCarthy

The desire for fame and fortune is often expressed by young basketballers casting an envious eye towards the adulation-soaked and well-compensated members of the National Basketball Association. What is unusual is when a high school senior has a much loftier and magnanimous goal, one not often associated with a teenager. But Ivan Matip isn’t ordinary.

photo of Ivan Matip An on-and-off-the-court star

First off, the 6-foot-3 Matip is a native of Cameroon, a republic in central and west Africa. He is a student at Besant Hill High in Ojai and is also a basketball participant, one who hopes to land a college scholarship.

That’s because education will enable the achievement of his long term goal: that is to aid others less fortunate in his country.

"I want to give back, to help" Matip explained.

"Basketball is more than a game," Matip added. "A good education can lead to a good job and helps you become the best person you can be."

When asked about his best basketball skills, Matip was extraordinarily humble. He wanted to focus on the areas of his game he felt needed improvement. This from someone averaging 22 points a game.

Matip continued, "I am always trying to develop my basketball IQ. I talk to coaches and watch games and film to see what guys who play my position do on the court."

But ask Besant Hill Coach Randy Bertin and his take is a different one on his senior scoring leader: "I see him as a combo guard at the next level. He knows how to score and is a great shooter. Plus, he has nice size so he can post up. Ivan is a very smart player with a high basketball IQ."

So how did Matip arrive in southern California?

"Back home, everybody plays soccer, it’s like a religion," Matip said. Cameroon shocked the world by winning the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. "But a basketball court was built near my house when I was eight or nine and I wasn’t all that great in soccer so I thought ‘maybe I can do this.’"

That led to an opportunity, the first in a series of building blocks.

"I was 15, a student just playing basketball," explained Matip, "when I was selected to attend a basketball camp in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. We learned fundamentals for a week. I stood out, not just because of basketball but due to other areas." More on the latter momentarily.

Matip continued, "I was then selected to come to the United States to study as part of Kossengwe, an organization that helps young people be better through basketball." It’s an entity run by Joe Touomou, a fellow Cameroonian who was the senior captain of the Georgetown basketball team and played as a Hoya in the mid-to-late 1990s. Touomou later became a scout with the Indiana Pacers but now operates his own program.

"So I came to America as a sophomore and have spent two and a half years here [Besant Hill High]."

Burtin also sees another prominent side of Matip.

"He is a campus leader," Burtin said. "At our Martin Luther King celebration, Ivan read King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" but he preceded it with a 10-minute heartfelt and intelligent off-the-cuff speech."

Burtin elaborated further: "Ivan is in the top 5% academically in the entire country. He displays a real sense of purpose and sees opportunity, even if it is challenging. He is a deep and thoughtful young man who thinks of the people back in Cameroon."

Regarding the next level, Matip is drawing a wide variety of interest, according to Burtin. Rutgers, New Hampshire, Delaware, UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge, Utah State, Nevada, Cornell and Columbia -- with Columbia the most persistent -- are the primary suitors for Matip the player, student and individual.

Matip isn’t sure what his major will be but sees it involving public administration or politics.

But first there is the matter of the 2009-2010 season. This go-around, Besant Hill is 22-2 overall, 12-0 in Condor League play, and defeated Villanova Prep, 75-43, Wednesday in round one of the Div 5A playoffs. Tonight they take on Granada Hills Hillcrest Christian in round 2.

According to Matip, "last year was a very special season for us. No one knew about Besant Hill and we ended up winning the CIF championship game. The whole community here at school and people in the Ojai community came out and made it special."

First the CIF and hopefully beyond. Then college. Then Cameroon. Don’t be surprised if sometime off in the future the name Ivan Matip is associated with geo-politics and considered a force for the common good in Africa and beyond.