One step comes after the other. Steve Moundou-Missi knows that. He’s been doing it, and thinking about it too. Another step. This one comes down the sideline in Spokane, Wash. Moundou-Missi is sparking a rally in the Harvard men’s basketball team’s biggest game ever—how else but step by step?
Steps, those are what brought Moundou-Missi to America from his home country of Cameroon. Finding a prep school, convincing his skeptical parents, filing for a visa, step after step. Lifting his first weight, becoming fluent in English, fitting in at Montverde Academy. Some steps were painful, others arduous.
Moundou-Missi reminded himself of where the steps could take him; thinking about the rewards helped motivate him. Thinking, he does a lot of that, too.
More steps. Moundou-Missi rarely dribbles, but there he is, racing up the court. Then, there are no more steps.
No, now he is leaping.
Gone are the thoughtful strides, the contemplation of what to do next. Moundou-Missi says he has always preferred to sit back and observe, to figure out where things are going. Now, he is going—leaping for a thunderous dunk that will bring the Crimson to within four against Michigan State, 55-51, in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s a huge moment for Moundou-Missi, for the team, for the school.
But really, it’s just another step.
Moundou-Missi is a thinker. He always has been. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker could tell the forward was a little different as a recruit, when Moundou-Missi’s logic-driven approach made it hard for the coach to get a read on the high schooler’s preferences, even if Moundou-Missi tried to explain them.
If you are confident Harvard is the right place for me, Moundou-Missi told Amaker, then you should also be confident that I will end up playing for you because I’m going to make the logical choice.
Moundou-Missi’s future teammates caught on quickly, too. It was on his official visit that Moundou-Missi explained he would rather observe Harvard and its students than go out and explore.
He preferred to take it in, not jump in it.
“My teammates were like, ‘Who is this dude? He is kind of weird,’” Moundou-Missi remembered.
It did not take long for recently hired assistant coach Adam Cohen to notice the quirk either. Within weeks, he was begging the forward to “Just play,” telling him “You think too much.”
That’s exactly what Moundou-Missi has been thinking.
“I think too much,” Moundou-Missi said. “That’s the problem.”
The idea came to him last summer when he was playing with the Cameroonian national team.
He noticed the older players enjoying everything about the demanding practices, even the suicides.
Before, Moundou-Missi got through lifting sessions and late-night problem sets by thinking about how it would help him win an Ivy League title or pass a final. Now, he is just trying to enjoy the process.
His national team teammates taught him to live in the moment, and Moundou-Missi has had some good ones to live in since.
The junior scored 23 points against Bryant back in November and had 20 against Denver a week later. Sophomore Moundou-Missi never scored 20 points in a game. But Moundou-Missi says his best game came at Columbia on Valentine’s Day, a 22-point outburst that he credited to a lack of thought.
“Early in the game, I was struggling —and then I found a rhythm,” Moundou-Missi said. “It was one of the few games where I felt like I couldn’t miss.”
Moundou-Missi made his greatest strides this year at the free-throw line, where he exchanged contemplation of what might happen if he missed for confidence. That helped him go from a 70-percent shooter to 76-percent shooter, second on the team to co-captain Laurent Rivard.
When Moundou-Missi returns to Cameroon, even relatives strugge to recognize him as the 180-pound boy that left for America years ago. People think he’s joking when he says he goes to Harvard. Telling them that the quiet kid they knew is now the face of Crimson basketball probably does not help convince anyone.
After the 2013-2014 season ended, Moundou-Missi was voted a captain by his teammates.
He said it’s an honor, especially given how he struggled to fit in with his team in high school and even when he started at Harvard.
But, he added, taking more responsibility in the locker room as a senior—it’s really just another step.
—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacobFeldman4.