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Aboya is at political center

After taking Kevin Love's place for Bruins and hopefully leading them back to the Final Four, he wants to become president of Cameroon.

October 15, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Alfred Aboya, a UCLA senior, walks into a conference room carrying a backpack loaded with books on statistics, economics and multi-party political systems.

It's 2:15 on a Friday afternoon and he's tired. Not a physical weariness, but the mental fatigue that comes from stretching his imagination.

If there is a reality to the quaint way the NCAA refers to competitors during tournament play as "student-athletes" -- as in, "Please identify yourselves before asking the student-athlete a question" -- Aboya is that reality.

In three years at UCLA, Aboya earned an undergraduate degree. Now attending graduate school, he has grand ambitions.

He wants to be UCLA's starting center this season.

And sometime soon after that, to be president of his country, Cameroon, an impoverished Western Africa nation that, Aboya says, has a desire for democracy but hasn't yet learned how to make the sacrifices citizens must make to be a democracy.

Aboya has watched the current American political campaign with an educated eye. About the vice presidential debate, Aboya says, "Sarah Palin did a good job. Why did the Republicans keep her hidden away? They should just let her out to be herself and see what happens."

Beyond that, though, he turns diplomat. Asked which presidential candidate he favors, Aboya says, "I'm not a citizen. I can't vote."

But he doesn't duck a chance to analyze John McCain and Barack Obama.

"McCain, he shows by what he says that he has the experience to deal with the world," Aboya says. "That experience is important. Obama, he has the intellect, you can tell by how he talks. He's a smart man, but he doesn't have all the experience.

"If you could put McCain's experience and Obama's intellect together, it would be a really good candidate."

Aboya's goal from the time he came to UCLA with fellow Cameroonian star Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was to return to his country and be a leader.

When Mbah a Moute left school last summer after his junior year to become a second-round pick of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, Aboya dabbled with the idea of not playing basketball this season and concentrating only on graduate school. But as Aboya spent some time in Cameroon trying to help his national team qualify for the Olympics, he came to realize he wasn't ready to leave a life of setting picks and taking charges for one involved solely around academics.

Yet, on this afternoon, two weeks before practice is scheduled to begin, Aboya is more intense when talking about corruption in Cameroon than he is when talking about the possibility of the Bruins advancing to a fourth consecutive Final Four.

He says Cameroon, a nation of about 16 million people, is stuck in a cycle of need and greed.

"The biggest thing I would want to do," Aboya says, "is to get rid of the corruption. We are not a rich country, but we have the resources to be successful. Families can send kids to school and put food on the table, but when the kids get to schools kids learn the bad values more than the good values."

Because there is so much poverty, Aboya said teachers would rather make extra money on the side by tutoring or selling books. "Teachers don't want to just teach because in order to survive they tell parents the parents need to buy this or that and for kids going to school in those conditions, success is not the priority."

It is an attitude Aboya found everywhere he went around home last summer. "On paper, Cameroon is a democracy," he says. "But if you only look at election results there is one dominant party and Cameroon is not better off today because of that. People rise in the party and become corrupt and just think about themselves and not the country as a whole."

His experiences at a New Hampshire high school and at UCLA have taught Aboya that even if the U.S. isn't perfect, it does allow nearly everyone to think they could be.

The son of a retired train conductor and a secretary, Aboya says, "Without the education I've gotten in the United States, I wouldn't have had a chance."

Aboya's plan for when he goes back home is to start small. "It's a step-by-step process," he says. "You exercise leadership in your small community first and once you establish that, then you move up step by step in the neighborhood, and once you have that you move up and up and up until you can touch as many people as you can. Once you have that support, you can make reforms and big change."

If UCLA fans are worried that Aboya's attention has moved away from the goal every blue-and-gold wearing enthusiast lives for, they shouldn't worry.

"I would like to be the starting center on an NCAA championship team," Aboya says.

UCLA will hold basketball media day today at Pauley Pavilion and begin practice Friday. Coach Ben Howland says that Aboya is his starting center now, the replacement for All-American freshman Kevin Love.

Aboya most certainly will share the spot with freshmen J'Mison Morgan and Drew Gordon and he understands that the position that was considered a strength for the Bruins with Love will now be considered a potential weakness.

"I'm not Kevin Love," Aboya says. "I'm Alfred Aboya. I have a plan for how I play too."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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