This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Therese Kabeya will tell the story.

It is not easy. The memories of almost two decades past are still vivid, still painful. But in broken English, one by one, the words come out.

Hers is a story of a mother’s love, her faith in God and a promise to her children that better days would lie ahead. It’s a story of sacrifice – not of car pools or laundry or choosing between a career and being a mom, although she knew those things, too. Her sacrifices were matters of life or death.

“I remember that night… when I told them I had to leave. ‘I have to go,’ I told them, ‘to prepare your future,’” Therese says.

Emmanuel, Therese’s youngest son, was just four years old at the time. He didn’t comprehend the weight of the situation. His older brothers, Jean-Michael (8) and Stephane (12), did.

“My two older boys were very sad,” says Therese.

What she told them that night was almost unthinkable. The things she said prompted more questions than answers, and even those answers came with no guarantees. There was a plan, and it had a positive outcome, but its execution was tricky at best. If it worked, it would only be because it was God’s plan – not hers. That is what she always believed. Always.

She was leaving. Not just for the moment, a trip to store or a quick overnight stay, although that’s what young Emmanuel believed. “He thought, maybe, I was going to come back,” says Therese.

But she was leaving for good.

She had no other choice. She was a single mother, widowed just three years before. She told her sons the most difficult thing she could ever tell them.

“It was very hard,” she says softly. “The situation was so bad back home at that time. There was no hope.”

The “situation” was a war-torn Africa in 2000. Between 1998 and 2008, the Congo, where Therese and her sons lived, endured more casualties than World War II. To say “bullets were flying” was fact, not phrase.

Education was important to Therese, who had studied to be a nurse in Canada before moving back to Africa and starting a family. But amidst the war, schools there were often closed. Sometimes the boys would go to school one day a week, maybe two, maybe three. Or maybe not at all.

“That’s when I thought it was better for me to get out of here with my children – so they can have better,” Therese says. “I wanted them to have a safe environment and go to school. So, I decided to come to the United States.”

But she couldn’t bring her children, not initially. There was a matter of paperwork – it wasn’t easy for one person to seek asylum much less an entire family. And once she got to America, it would take time before she could actually care for her sons. She could stay with her sister who lived in Texas, but she had to find employment and save money. She had to take care of herself before she could adequately raise three growing boys. She had to learn a new language – her fourth.

She left, armed only with prayer and a deep-seeded faith in God’s plan, whatever that might be.

The boys stayed with their paternal grandparents in Kinshasa and then later with a relative of their father in Zambia. From Dallas, Texas, Therese would call her sons daily for a year and a half.

“I remember one day when I called them, oh, I was crying,” she recalls. “[Emmannuel] thought I was home. I was talking on the phone, but he thought I was home. He said, ‘Mom, where are you?’ He thought I was home. I said, “No, I am not home.” That day was quite hard.

“I don’t like to talk about that moment. It was too hard.”


Young Emmanuel was bouncing – darting, jumping, dribbling, shooting – all over the gym. It was quite a sight, considering he didn’t even have a ball. He was pretending to play, and his mom could watch him perform for hours on end.

Not far away, his older brothers were actually playing basketball. There was a comfort in this setting. The sound of gunshots had been replaced by the bouncing of balls and the squeaking of sneakers. There was no real danger. And basketball games were most often played inside of a school – schools that were open when they should be, schools that could teach Therese Kabeya’s sons what they needed to learn. Dallas, not the Congo, was home.

This, Therese thought, was what God had intended.

Still though, life was not easy. She was a single mother, living in a new and scary place – although nothing could be scarier than life in the family’s previous home – and raising three very active boys. She worked at night – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – and made sure the boys went to school and had food to eat when she wasn’t at work. Others helped, especially Stephane, but every day was a challenge.

“I talked to them every night or when we had dinner together,” says Therese. “We always prayed together, shared the Bible together, spent time together. I always tell them that God is first in everything you do. Put God first in everything. Look upon Him. He’s the one who blesses us. Even coming here – that was Him.

“I just reminded them why we came here. I told them to be focused on what they’re doing, like in school. That was the main thing – school. That’s why we came here. You have to focus on school and study.”

But Emmanuel was too young to truly “study.” He loved two things – basketball and his mom. When his brothers would play with their AAU team, he would tag along to watch. When they shot hoops on the court behind their apartment building, he was right there with them. When his mom would go to work at night, he’d walk her out. And if she didn’t come home on time the next morning, he would panic and wake up his brothers, insisting that they make sure she was okay.

“Make sure y’all call mom,” he would tell them.

“Where were you?” he’d ask when she got home.

“He was a lovely boy,” says Therese. “He was very loving. He was very, very close to me.

“He cares about people.”

And basketball. It was his gift.

At the gym, his brothers’ coaches couldn’t help but notice the little boy playing without the ball. And when they saw him play with one, they decided to help form a team for Emmanuel’s age group; he was just seven years old.

Therese recalls that first game: “The first time he played, he scored 16 points. He scored eight times. The coach asked him, ‘Emmanuel, how many points did you have today?’ He said, ‘I had eight points.’ And the coach started laughing; she said, ‘No, you had 16 – every basket counts as two points.’ He was so funny.”

His love of the game was born. He played all the time. In school, when the teacher asked him to write an essay, he wrote about playing in the NBA. He told his mom that’s what he was going to do.

And even though, because of her work schedule, Therese could rarely make it to his games – that wouldn’t come until high school – basketball and his mom were always linked.

“He was in fifth grade; all the time, he was saying – and I raised the boys by myself and he saw how I was working so hard – he was saying, ‘Mom, one day, I’m going to make the NBA and I want to take care of you.’ He was saying that all the time. All the time.”


The last time Emmanuel Mudiay got in trouble was not quite two years ago.

He wanted to go somewhere – “a lake to go swimming with a friend or something,” he says – but his mother told him not to go. He went anyway. While he was there, he injured himself, nothing major, just some bruised ribs.

“She told me not to go and I paid the consequences,” he says.

Both Emmanuel and Therese remember it well. Their accounts of the day – the last time Emmanuel got a good scolding from his mom – are in perfect sync, even if they’re not telling the story together. They laugh about it now.

He was told not to go because he was about to go on a major trip – to China. There was much to do and there was no sense in fooling around before the biggest step in his basketball career. Emmanuel was going to China to help his mother. She was going, too – to help him.

His story is well documented. By the time the little boy who played hoops without a ball and against his own shadow made it to high school, he was widely considered the best basketball recruit in the country. But when the opportunity to play college basketball came around, he declined. Why play for free when he could begin fulfilling the promise he’d made to his mother? The Chinese Basketball Association wanted to pay him – $1.2 million! – and this was the first step in delivering on his promise. He didn’t want his mom to work those night shifts any longer.

“We all – not just me, but my brothers – we all kind of made that decision,” says Emmanuel. “You know, let’s try everything in our power to make sure she doesn’t have to work.”

In China, with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, Emmanuel was loved. They called him “The Baby of the CBA” because he was the youngest import player to ever play there – and he was good. Late in the season, after returning from a severely sprained ankle, Emmanuel led his team to a playoff victory; Tiger fans dubbed him “The Savior.”

His mother says basketball was important, but not as valuable as the experience.

“He grew up here in America, so going to China was a new experience,” Therese says. “Everything was different. Especially for food – that was the hard part. I was cooking all the time at home, every day. That was good I was with him because that was the hard part.

“I was encouraging him all the time. In life, you have to get out of your comfort and see what is out there. Because if you just stay at the same place, you never learn. Somewhere else, somebody else, lives differently than I live. You learn. It’s a plus in your life.”

But China was just one stop along the way, all part of the bigger plan his mom had prayed for from the beginning. Her faith in God’s plan was justified.

“The strength I have came from God,” she says. “Myself, I am amazed. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘How did I do that?’ It was just God.”

Her two older boys were college graduates and her youngest would go on to become the seventh pick of the 2015 NBA draft.

“Besides God,” says Emmanuel, “she’s the whole reason I made it to this point.”


When Emmanuel’s newest team, the Denver Nuggets, are on a long homestand, Therese will come to stay with him. She cooks. She cleans. She still offers advice and tells him when he’s out of line.

“I’m always the mom,” she says. “I’m always going to be the mom. No matter what.

“For the world, he’s a man now. For me, he’s still my baby.”

Therese’s baby played well in his first season in the NBA. When the league announces its All-Rookie Team in May, most expect that Emmanuel will hold a spot on the roster. But basketball, as he had predicted at a very young age, has become a means to an end, a way to care for and thank his mother.

“I don’t want it to end right here,” he says. “Now that she’s happy, I want it to be a generational thing, where [nobody] has to struggle like we did.”

At just 20 years old, with plenty of basketball in front of him, Emmanuel Mudiay sets his sights on reciprocating a promise his mother once made to him.

That better days will forever lie ahead.