Nobel Boungou-Colo played a little basketball as a boy in Congo, but growing up to become a professional player at the highest levels of the sport was a concept that never entered his mind. Not as a child or in his early teens, when he was adjusting to life in a new country on a different continent. However when Boungou-Colo was finally turned onto the game, he made up for lost time, devoured it and has gone on to become a true impact player, and that is no hyperbole. Boungou-Colo put up big numbers last season to lead Limoges CSP to the French championship and followed that up as a Turkish Airlines Euroleague rookie this season by averaging double figures in points.
Boungou-Colo was born in Brazzaville, which is the capital and largest city in Congo. It was there he first dribbled a basketball. “As a boy, my uncle picked me and my brother up every Sunday to play basketball,” Boungou-Colo said. “I never thought I would play basketball later, but basketball came back.”
Life changed for the Boungou-Colos when Nobel was 10 and his father, a diplomat in their native land, moved the family to France. The adjustment for Nobel was not easy: “It’s a big change. I was living in Congo with my family, my friends. This was a holiday country. It was a big change to come here and get used to a new life.”
Fortunately for Boungou-Colo, he did have a few things working for him. He was not alone. “We have a big family. I have three brothers and four sisters,” he explained. And he knew the language. “I had a little bit of an accent, but I could speak French.”
Though Boungou-Colo’s athletic gifts were there for all to see, that was not a priority in the Boungou-Colo household. “At school I played sports, like running and soccer, which is big in France, but my mother wanted me to focus more on school.”
So how then did he find himself a professional athlete? That story began when Boungou-Colo was 15 years old. “I was playing a lot of soccer with my friends and I was the tallest. My feet started to grow, so finding the right shoes was not easy,” Boungou-Colo said. “Some people came to me and said, ‘you are tall, come try to play with us.’ And basketball was a sport that I had played when I was young with my family, my uncle. But I had never played in a team. People came to me and said, ‘come, come.’ So I said, ‘why not?’ So I tried and I was not bad.”
Still, Boungou-Colo makes certain to quantify his ability in those years. “I was bad, but I was not that bad. So I started to play there. “
It turned out that he was a natural. Though his background in the game was lacking, Boungou-Colo’s abilities allowed him to climb the basketball ladder. “Not just my first year, but my first five years this was tough for me to keep going up levels. To keep trying to understand, because I didn’t know what the coach was talking about… With time, it came.”
Even with his God-given gifts, Boungou-Colo had to work hard at basketball. “It was time and focus,” he said. “You need to be focused. When you start to take something really serious, you need to put in all the effort. I’m intelligent, I think, so I can understand things. I tried to focus, memorize the plays, know where I need to be and all of that… It’s not just take a ball and shoot, like some people think. It’s a lot of things that coach asks you to do.”
Boungou-Colo only had a few years of basketball under his belt when ADA Blois Basket gave him his first professional contract. One might think that when a teenager signs a pro contract he is lucky, but as Boungou-Colo noted, luck won’t get you very far. “There is luck everywhere. But I had talent too and I worked hard. [My progress] was fast, but it’s not that easy because at 18 or 19 I signed [a pro contract], but I didn’t really get minutes. So I had to keep working for playing time and to improve my game.”
That never-ending work ethic has landed Boungou-Colo among the best players in France. His progress saw him spent two season with Orleans and two more with Hyeres-Toulon before joining Le Mans Sarthe Basket in 2011, where he made his Eurocup debut. Boungou-Colo decided to leave Le Mans that season and joined Limoges, which was still in France’s second division. It was a choice he would not regret. Boungou-Colo helped Limoges win its league and gain promotion to the top division. He has been chosen to the French League All-Star Game in each of the three seasons since and marked his greatest highlight last season by helping Limoges to the title.
All of his success has contributed to a love of the game in his homeland. “In Congo, there is a lot of basketball,” Boungou-Colo said. “Even now people watch games in France, so I am happy about that.”
Boungou-Colo is hopeful more Congolese are able follow in his footsteps and he makes sure to give them tips along the way. “My advice for young sportsmen in Congo is first you need to believe. Believe in yourself first. And you need to work. To have a chance to be a professional or to achieve your dream, it’s with a lot of up and downs. So you have to believe and work.“
The road from Brazzaville to Limoges is not short, can be lonely, and to get there and to become successful requires many things, including talent luck, belief and hard work – though not necessarily in that order. Nobel Boungou-Colo was blessed with some and motivated enough to get the rest. The final result is a terrific basketball player, who is looking forward to shining on Eurocup courts on a weekly basis.