Paul Biligha made his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague debut with AX Armani Exchange Milan at the age of 29 on the opening night of the 2019-20 season in Munich, Germany. It was the culmination of many years of hard work that began in Cameroon and continued in Italy’s lower divisions.
Biligha was born in Perugia, Italy, but his parents are from Cameroon and they came to Italy to study at the prestigious university in the capital of Umbria. It was there that Biligha remained for the first eight years of his life before his family decided to return to their native country.
"Two more things impressed me at that time and they are still with me. First the green and red you see from the plane arriving there; the green of the forests and the red of the roads. Every time I go back I love to see it."
"I have clear memories of my arrival in Cameroon," Biligha said recently. "First of all the school: in Italy, I went to a private school run by nuns in a beautiful building with walls made of stone, while in Cameroon I went to a public school where everything was made of wood and dust was everywhere. Two more things impressed me at that time and they are still with me. First the green and red you see from the plane arriving there; the green of the forests and the red of the roads. Every time I go back I love to see it. The second thing was a very negative impression; the dirt in the street and that it was normal to live with it."
It happens often that kids adapt easily to a new life and so did Biligha with his only real difficulty being the language. "My sister, who is four years older than me, helped me a lot with the language, she was already able to speak French well and she helped me overcome the initial problems."
Biligha quickly developed new friendships and he’s still in contact with many of them. "Thanks to today's technology, we can exchange photos, videos and news on life in Cameroon. I want to stay updated on what happens there," he said. "Many of those friends witnessed Biligha's first foray into sports on a football pitch. "I played as a wing; they didn’t want me to be the goalkeeper because I flexed my legs too quickly. That's an advantage I have today playing basketball."
He did not pursue basketball seriously until Alain Zedong, a coach with Cameroon's national teams, saw Biligha playing 3x3 on a dusty court. "He told me to come to a practice and see if I liked it. From that moment I started to have interest in all basketball," Biligha recalled. "I was 12 and at the beginning, I practiced alone, but after a year I started playing with a team. At that time I had no idea how to play five on five. In Africa, they first work with you on the basics and when you reach a good skill level, you can play five on five. We normally played outside and only a few times on a covered court, which was a hangar with a roof. Only when I went back to Italy did I play in a real gym.
"This man [Coach Zedong] transmitted into me the passion for basketball and I keep with me his defensive teachings and his suggestions on how to behave in life. He always told me my defensive position had to be a direct line connecting me, the ball and my opponent and I still follow his teachings. He suggested that basketball has to be something that helps me in my life to reach my goals and always told me to put my studies before sports."
"I started the game and we started a six-game winning streak with me getting a lot of playing time. This was the moment I understood I can have a good basketball career."
At 16, Biligha came to a turning point in his life. He decided to go back to Italy. "I understood I had two ways to leave Cameroon to play basketball: to go to the U.S. and play high school and then college or to Italy. The main problem was the language; I wasn’t ready in English and this meant losing time, starting college probably at age 20 and finishing at 25 or 26. This is the reason why I decided to go back to Italy. I thought I knew Italian, but when I got back, I realized it was not good enough. I left when I was in elementary school and now I as at Liceo and I needed to study hard for months to be ready."
After spending time in the youth categories in Florence and later in Casalpusterlengo followed by a few years in Italy's lower divisions, in 2012-13 Biligha came to Avellino where finally he understood that basketball could be an opportunity. "At mid-season, Coach Cesare Pancotto arrived. We were experiencing problems and after practice, he said to me, on Sunday you’ll get minutes. I started the game and we started a six-game winning streak with me getting a lot of playing time. This was the moment I understood I can have a good basketball career."
His African roots and experience are always with him, even now as a member of the Italian national team player and Italian powerhouse AX Armani Exchange Milan. He still misses the world he left behind.
"My roots are very important to me and the fact I lived there makes this experience a crucial part of me. The main lesson I learned from those days is that nothing is given to you. To see the poverty and the huge difference in life there is there between it and prosperity, you understand that everything that happens in your life depends on external factors that you cannot control. The only thing you can do is give your best every day. There is one thing I miss a lot from Cameroon: the simplicity of life!"